Whiteley must lift Lions

The Lions need to bounce back against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein if they are to have any hopes of reaching the play-offs, writes BRENTON CHELIN.

Things didn't go to plan against the Brumbies last weekend. Victory would've lifted the Lions to the top of the South African conference and boosted their hopes of making the play-offs for the first time since 2001. Instead they enter Saturday's match in third place on the conference log and eighth overall, needing perfection from here on out.

They were far from perfect against the Australians at Ellis Park. Passes went to ground, lineouts failed to find jumpers and they lacked their usual accuracy and intensity at the breakdown. The 30-20 scoreline flattered them, and it was not a performance we've come to expect from this Lions side. Perhaps the occasion got the better of them or maybe the season's exploits have started to catch up to them.

While their defensive resilience has been lauded throughout the season, defending for such long periods must be draining, both physically and mentally. Captain Warren Whiteley has led from the front and he will need to do so again on Saturday against an inconsistent, but dangerous Cheetahs side.

Saturday's match will see a final farewell for Naka Drotské in Bloemfontein. While his reign will come to an end at Newlands next weekend, Saturday's meeting will be his final home match. The Cheetahs will want to send him off with a victory.

If they are to do so, they will need to improve considerably on last weekend's shambolic showing against the Highlanders. They showed some ticker in the second half to prevent a complete blowout, but defensively they were shown up once again.

When these two sides met a couple weeks back, it was the Lions who edged an entertaining affair. On that occasion, the Lions were almost made to pay for their brash approach as they went in search of a bonus-point victory.

Whiteley must learn from those shortcomings and ensure the match is safe before going in search of tries. The Cheetahs showed in the second half of their match against the Highlanders that any complacency will be punished.

Coach Johan Ackermann has made several changes to his starting XV in a bid to freshen things up. Warwick Tecklenburg's inclusion will bring some added energy to the loose forwards, while the centre pairing of Howard Mnisi and Lionel Mapoe has a promising look about it.

The Cheetahs will welcome back the dynamic duo of Cornal Hendricks and Raymond Rhule, while captain Francois Uys returns to the starting lineup after being forced to withdraw due to illness last week.

The Lions have generally had the upper hand in meetings with their former franchise partners, but the Cheetahs showed against the Stormers that no South African derby is a given.

The Lions will need to capitalise on their opportunities and force the Cheetahs to chase the game. Win and they'll go into their final two matches – against the Waratahs and the Stormers – with it all to play for.

Overall: Cheetahs 4, Lions 8
In Bloemfontein: Cheetahs 2, Lions 4

– The Cheetahs have held a half-time lead in four of their last five games against the Lions but won just one of these matches.
– Having previously lost 17 out of 18 away games, the Lions have won three of their last five on the road.
– Seven of the Lions’ last eight games have been settled by five points or fewer (won six, lost two).
– The Lions have the best tackle success rate this season (88%) while the Cheetahs have broken fewer tackles per game than any other team (12.7).
– The Cheetahs can boast the hooker with the most successful lineout throws (Torsten van Jaarsveld, 117/135) while Stephan Coetzee’s throw success rate of 94% is the best of any hooker (minimum 10 throws).

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Cheetahs Joe Pietersen (90) Francois Venter (5) Francois Venter (399) Boom Prinsloo (132)
Lions Elton Jantjies (118) Harold Vorster, Ruan Combrink, Warwick Tecklenburg, Faf de Klerk, Jaco Kriel (3) Andries Coetzee (655) Warren Whiteley (184)

Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Michael van der Spuy, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Willie Britz, 7 Boom Prinsloo, 6 Carel Greeff, 5 Francois Uys (c), 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Maks van Dyk, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Danie Mienie
Subs: 16 Stephan Coetzee, 17 BG Uys, 18 Ewald van der Westhuizen, 19 Steven Sykes, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Coenie van Wyk, 23 Ryno Benjamin.

Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Martin Muller, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Schalk van der Merwe, 18 Julian Redelinghuys, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Robert Kruger, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Jaco van der Walt, 23 Harold Vorster.

Referee: Jaco van Heerden
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper, Lourens van der Merwe
TMO: Marius Jonker

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Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix