History and sports science are against them and the doom merchants are out in force, but the Lions players who travel to Christchurch have a wonderful opportunity to do something special that could define some of their individual careers.
Don’t get me wrong. If the aforementioned doom merchants were assembled in a military brigade, I could easily take on the role of staff-sergeant, in the sense that covering Vodacom Super Rugby for more than two decades has given rise to a strong cynicism towards a competition that can feature such travel-inspired imbalance in what should be the showpiece end of the season.
Back in May when everyone was raving about the European final in Bilboa, the point was made that there is often too much inevitability about the Super Rugby play-off phase. That is because of the travel that is sometimes involved, and this week is a case in point. There is a reason why no team has travelled from Africa to win a play-off game in New Zealand.
But let’s not get too deflected from the point by the realities that flying west to east is more debilitating for players than the journey in the opposite direction, and that this almost automatically implies that the quality of the showpiece game of the season will be affected etc etc…
Far from being cowed or negative about what they have to face, the Lions should be eagerly embracing a great opportunity to do what no other team has ever done before and, in the space of 80 minutes, completely change perceptions of some of their players.
This is not a year where the Lions won nearly all their games and were always in top-two territory on the overall log. They lost seven out of 16 games and were given a leg up by the competition format.
But if they win a final in Christchurch, no-one will remember what went before in 2018. Instead the result will be greeted by praise of the journey that the Lions have travelled, for it would be one that could surely never be eclipsed by another Super Rugby team.
The reference point here of course is to where the Lions were just a few years ago. It is easy to forget now, but the Lions were once Super Rugby’s whipping boys – in the season that Dick Muir was in charge they lost every game.
On the basis of the perennial last-placed finish, the Lions were excluded when the politicians decreed that the Southern Kings should have a place at a South African top table that had space for only five place-mats.
That was just five years ago. The Lions have played two finals since then and on Saturday they play a third. The only thing that is preventing them from being able to describe their rise as an epic achievement is the fact they haven’t won the competition yet.
Last year was their best chance. They played the decider against the Crusaders at Ellis Park, meaning at altitude. If you doubt the impact of altitude, take a look at the replay of Ned Hanigan’s first Waratahs try in the semi-final. The guy doesn’t celebrate, his face is creased in discomfort and you can almost feel the burn in his chest.
The advantage of playing at altitude is significant enough to perhaps detract from the achievement of winning a Super Rugby final at home. Winning in Christchurch would be a lot more significant, particularly for Elton Jantjies.
The Lions flyhalf has a reputation of being unreliable in the big moments, or perhaps being a bit suspect when it comes to BMT. In the really important games, he disappears and doesn’t make his presence felt as a general who directs the play. Or so it is said.
What will Jantjies do to that perception though if he plays a starring role in an epoch-making win for his team in a final in Christchurch? Certainly the line that he isn’t the pivot that can be relied on for an away win against the All Blacks will be out of the window, along with so much else.
There are other Lions players who can make a massive deposit into their career bank account by winning in Christchurch. Warren Whiteley will take on legendary status as a captain, while Ross Cronje, Ruan Combrinck, Andries Coetzee and others are possible Bok fringe players who, by winning, will become more difficult for Rassie Erasmus to ignore.
Perception is formed through time and across many matches. It is only rarely that a player gets an opportunity to change perceptions built up through many thousands of minutes with one 80-minute performance. That opportunity has come knocking for Jantjies and some of his teammates.
Playing in Christchurch is not drawing the short-straw, it is a chance to win the Lotto.