Lions play a ‘real pos­i­tive game of footy’

It promises to be a high-qual­ity af­fair with plenty of ac­tion

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - JAC­QUES VAN DER WESTHUYZEN AND REUTERS

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.

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