THE HUNT IS ON
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.