The Lions host the defending champions, the Highlanders, in what promises to be a thrilling Super Rugby semi-final in Johannesburg on Saturday.
This game is the most important fixture for a vast majority of the Lions players as it presents the Johannesburg-based outfit with an opportunity to contest their first-ever Super Rugby Final.
Being in the semi-finals – and the only South African side left in the competition – is already a fantastic achievement for Johan Ackermann’s charges, especially considering that they hit rock bottom in 2012 when they were relegated from the competition after finishing last in the standings.
Both these sides have impressed throughout the season and deserve to be amongst the last four teams in the competition. Each side has won 12 matches so far this season, including last weekend’s quarter-final fixtures although playing at altitude on their home turf makes the Lions marginal favourites.
The Lions have lit up this season’s tournament with their expansive game and are, unsurprisingly, topping several attacking statistics. They are the competition’s joint top try-scorers (76) with the Chiefs, have beaten the most defenders (434) and gained more metres (8589) than any other team this year.
The home side will gain confidence from the fact that they have won the last three clashes between these sides in Johannesburg, with the Highlanders’ last victory at Ellis Park registered in 2005.
They suffered a setback, however, when their inspirational captain Warren Whiteley was ruled out of this fixture due to injury. Whiteley will be greatly missed, especially with his leadership skills, but in Jaco Kriel they have an able replacement who is not unfamiliar with the captaincy role.
There will be several interesting match-ups across the park, especially amongst the backs, with both sides possessing brilliant playmakers as well as clinical finishers.
The half-back duel between the Lions’ Springbok combination of Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies, and the Highlanders’ All Black duo, Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga should be one of the highlights of this match as all the aforementioned players head in to this clash in superb form.
Although they have managed to entertain their fans again, on their way to the play-offs, the Highlanders are a well-rounded team who aren’t just focused on attacking.
Jamie Joseph’s troops have done particularly well in defence and only the Sharks have conceded fewer points than them during the league phase of the competition and, along with the Stormers, they have conceded the least tries (28).
The champions are also the side that his kicked the most out of hand and they have made the most tackles in this year’s competition (1990).
The last time these teams met: The Highlanders were dominant when these teams faced off in Dunedin in Round Three, eventually claiming a deserved 34-15 win. Matt Faddes led the way with tries, either side of the interval, for the champions with their other five-pointers scored by Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa in the second half. Lima Sopoaga contributed 14 points after kicking four conversions, a penalty and a drop goal. For the Lions, Rohan Janse Van Rensburg and Ruan Ackermann scored late tries and Elton Jantjies slotted a penalty and a conversion.
Players to watch: For the Lions, 20-year-old back-row Ruan Ackermann has big boots to fill as he comes in to the run-on side as regular captain Warren Whiteley’s replacement at number eight. Ackermann has come on in leaps and bounds this season and been impressive as an impact player off the bench. He will have to deliver the best performance of his fledgling career if the Lions want to win this clash.
Another young player who has done well for the Lions is 21-year-old inside centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg, who played a pivotal role in last weekend’s triumph against the Crusaders. Janse van Rensburg is a powerful runner who is difficult to stop when in full flight but he also has some deft touches in his armoury and has the ability to create space for his outside backs with his playmaking ability.
Although the Highlanders have a brilliant back-line with potent attackers in Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa and Matt Faddes in their ranks, so much will depend on the performances of their halfbacks, Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga. Both have shown, on numerous occasions this season, that their playmaking skills are superb. Smith’s kicking and passing game is second to none and Sopoaga’s game-management has been outstanding throughout the season. If they are at their best, the Highlanders usually finish victorious and their supporters will want just that this weekend.
Team news: Openside flanker Jaco Kriel will lead the Lions in the absence of first-choice skipper Warren Whiteley, who has failed to recover from a calf injury sustained in last weekend’s quarter-final win over the Crusaders.Whiteley’s absence means that Ruan Ackermann will start at number eight in the only alteration to Lions head coach Johan Ackermann’s starting line-up. Meanwhile, Dillon Smit and Steph de Witt have been included on the replacements bench as scrum-half and back-row cover respectively.
Highlanders head coach Jamie Jospeh has made minimal changes after last weekend’s triumph over the Brumbies in Canberra. In the forwards, Joseph brings in James Lentjes for Shane Christie at openside flank and lock Alex Ainley replaces Luke Whitelock who moves to number eight. The starting backline from the quarter-final win against the Brumbies remains intact. The Highlanders will employ a six/two split on the bench, with hooker Greg Pleasants-Tate, prop Ross Geldenhuys and lock Joe Wheeler added to the squad. In the backs, the versatile Marty Banks makes his return from injury to take his place among the replacements.
Form: A second-string Lions team delivered a competitive performance before losing their last league match to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires before their first-choice line up claimed a deserved victory over the Crusaders in last weekend’s quarter-final. Prior to the loss against the Jaguares, the Lions registered convincing wins over the Sharks and Kings.
The Highlanders had to work hard in their quarter-final before beating the Brumbies narrowly in Canberra. Prior to that they finished off the regular season in style with solid victories, in their last three fixtures, against the Kings, Jaguares and Chiefs.
Prediction: With so much at stake, this is a difficult one to predict. But the game is being played at altitude, persuading us to go with the home side. But it should go down to the wire. Lions to win by three points!