Lions play a ‘real positive game of footy’
It promises to be a high-quality affair with plenty of action
ANOTHER quality 80-minute performance and the Lions will be in with a real chance of winning this year’s Super Rugby title.
That’s the message coach Johan Ackermann will deliver to his players ahead of today’s highly-anticipated semi-final with the Highlanders at Ellis Park.
And whether the final is at home or away, in Wellington – depending on who wins between the Hurricanes and Chiefs this morning – matters little right now; all the Lions want is a shot at the title. But to have that chance they need to first get past the defending champions this afternoon.
It’s a match-up that’s full of questions about both teams: Do the Lions have it in them to beat another New Zealand team after downing the Crusaders a week ago? How will they go without Warren Whiteley? Will they have forgotten their horror show last performance against the Highlanders in round three?
But regarding the visitors, the following: How will their crazy travelling of the last month affect them? Will they have enough energy in the legs to last the 80 minutes at altitude?
One thing is certain though, these are two teams who are at the top of their games and full of potential match-winners. It promises to be a high-quality affair, with plenty of action.
The Lions will continue to play with the confidence they’ve shown all year, they’ll back their systems, their defensive lines and their attacking flair and they’ll probably be fresher than the Highlanders, the decision by Ackermann to rest his frontline players for the trip to Argentina two weeks ago is surely set to give them the edge in the final 20 minutes.
That is when this clash is likely to be won and lost ... as it was with the Lions against the Crusaders a week ago.
But, altitude and the Highlanders’ hectic travel schedule of the last month – which has seen them go from Dunedin to Port Elizabeth to Buenos Aires to Dunedin to Canberra to Sydney to Joburg – will only be a factor if the game’s not already “dead” by the last 20 minutes.
The Lions will want to make sure they get off to a good start like they did a week ago and also not allow the visitors to dictate matters like they did when the teams last met in Dunedin in March. They’re two teams with similar styles, both having workman-like packs with players who keep going and going, while the back divisions are full of running and flair.
Where the Highlanders edge their hosts is in the kicking department, Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga and Ben Smith are outstanding tactical kickers and it’s something their opposite numbers will want to get right today as well.
One of the major reasons behind the Lions’ win last weekend was their game management – they got their decision-making of when to kick and when to run spot on – and against the Highlanders they’ll need to again be on the mark.
We’ve seen more than once this season the team that kicks more over 80 minutes most often comes out on top and the Lions won’t want to play too much rugby, espe- cially in their own half and in the early stages.
With Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies leading the way, the Lions need to be smart and make the right calls.
There’s no doubt Ackermann’s men are good enough to beat the Highlanders ... they’ve got the players and the game to do that, but do they have the mental strength to lift themselves up after the energy they put into the Crusaders match?
That is the question, but then, they also know they are 80 good minutes away from a Super Rugby final. And that should be motivation enough.
The game could well be decided by fine margins as it pits the competition’s best attack against its most dominant defence, according to Opta statistics.
The Lions average more points, tries, defenders beaten and metres per game of any team in Super Rugby this season, while their New Zea- land opponents have conceded the fewest points and tries on average, while making the most tackles.
Highlanders scrumhalf Aaron Smith believes part of the Lions’ success is due to their playing like New Zealanders.
“They play a real positive game of footy,” he said.
“One thing you have to respect about the Lions is they play their footy for the full 80 (minutes). I’ve seen a lot of footage of them just quick- tapping in the 76th minute, they don’t stop until the whistle goes.”
The Highlanders must do without Tongan prop Siua Halanukonuka, who was injured in their 15- 9 quarter-final win over the Brumbies, as well as flank Shane Christie ( neck) and hooker Liam Coltman (toe).
Coach Jamie Joseph has brought James Lentjes in for Christie, while lock Alex Ainley replaces Luke Whitelock, who moves to No 8.
The reigning champion Highlanders have never beaten the Lions at Ellis Park in four previous visits, their last a 28- 23 defeat in 2015.
The teams have clashed in New Zealand already this season with the Dunedin- based side winning 34-15 in March.
MOVE, MNISI MOVE: Howard Mnisi goes through his paces at training earlier this week.