THE HUNT IS ON

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

Since April 30 last year when they lost 50-17 to the Hur­ri­canes at Emi­rates Air­line Park, the Lions have not lost in Super Rugby on home soil in 13 matches. Among the teams they have beaten in front of their own fans in this time are the Cru­saders and High­landers, in the quar­ters and semis last sea­son re­spec­tively, the Waratahs and Bulls and the Sharks, twice. Their av­er­age score in those 13 wins is 48-19. Only one team has scored more five-point­ers than the Lions this sea­son – the Hur­ri­canes, who are the de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons. They’ve dot­ted down 89 times; the Lions have scored 81 tries. The Sharks, their op­po­nents, to­mor­row, have scored a pal­try 38. And what makes the Lions so tough to de­fend against is that so many of their play­ers find their way to the try­line: among them Court­nal Skosan who has scored nine, Mal­colm Marx eight, and Kwagga Smith and Jaco Kriel seven. Just ask Robert du Preez. He was the scrumhalf for the Bulls team that lost the Cur­rie Cup fi­nal to Natal in 1990, against all odds. Now he is the coach of the Sharks and he is stir­ring the fire in the bel­lies of his play­ers to prove ev­ery­body wrong. Sharks teams have a his­tory of pulling off up­sets in the Cur­rie Cup. They have also pulled off sur­prise away wins in Super Rugby in re­cent years to earn them a fi­nal in Hamil­ton. They have no pres­sure on them what­so­ever and will go for broke. Why he did not play last week against the Lions, only coach Du Preez will know. He was on the bench with Garth April pre­ferred to him at 10 and Lwazi Mvovo at 15. Fun­nily enough, the top points The Lions though, sur­pris­ingly, are not only an at­tack-minded team who like to run at their op­po­nents from all parts of the field, in­clud­ing from be­hind their own try­line; they’re also now a pretty deadly de­fen­sive unit, too. In their 15 reg­u­lar sea­son matches last year – when they fin­ished sec­ond over­all – they let in 42 tries; this sea­son they’ve con­ceded only 27, for the best de­fen­sive record in the com­pe­ti­tion. The Sharks can sim­ply not match the Lions when it comes to play­ers with X-fac­tor and the abil­ity to turn a game on its head. There are match­win­ners and dan­ger men scat­tered across the Lions team; from Marx to Franco Mostert, to Kriel and Smith up front; to El­ton Jan­tjies and Harold Vorster, Lionel Mapoe, Skosan, Ruan Com­brinck, An­dries Coet­zee and then on the bench Lourens Eras­mus, Faf de Klerk, Ro­han Janse van Rens­burg and Syl­vian Mahuza. scor­ers in Super Rugby this year are South Africans: El­ton Jan­jies is No 1 (170 points), then Bosch (140) and Lionel Cronje (123). The 20-yearold Bosch is a match win­ner. He has the BMT to land those long-range, cru­cial kicks and create those vi­tal tries. The com­po­si­tion of the re­spec­tive loose trios could not be more con­trast­ing. The Lions have livewires in Jaco Kriel and Kwagga Smith. The Sharks have bul­lie boys in the Du Preez twins and Philip van der Walt. The plan is for that trio to im­pose their mus­cu­lar­ity and pre­vent the Lions half backs from get­ting into their stride. But they can only do that if the Sharks tight five pull fin­ger, which brings us to the next point. In the first half of the match in Dur­ban last week be­tween the sides, Thomas du Toit, Chili­boy Rale­pelle and Coe­nie Oosthuizen gained the up­per hand and won scrum penal­ties for their side. It was a dif­fer­ent story in the sec­ond half They never used it as an ex­cuse, but the fact the Lions gave up top spot last year – and the chance to play all their knock­out games at home – by gam­bling, and los­ing, with a weak­ened team against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires in their fi­nal pool game, hurt like hell. They never stood a chance hav­ing to go to Welling­ton to play the fi­nal against the Canes. This time they’ve got top spot, and a real and proper shot at the ti­tle. Also, what a send-off it would be for coach Jo­han Ack­er­mann. when the Lions front row changed tac­tics. In an in­ter­view early this week, Du Toit, says the Sharks are wiser and are con­fi­dent that they can win the front row bat­tle, es­pe­cially with the ref­eree be­ing the same this week in Mar­ius van der Westhuizen. There is never any short­age of Sharks sup­port­ers at El­lis Park and they will be in their thou­sands. The great Sta­dium will be mostly red but the Sharks will not be short of sup­port. The Sharks play­ers have said that the open­ing quar­ter is all im­por­tant if they are to tame the Lions and they plan to come out of the blocks at a 100 miles an hour. If they can get early points and get their sup­port­ers be­hind them, they will get wind in their sails and have a chance of mak­ing a de­cent fist of this en­counter.

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