Elton must guide Lions

Accurate game management from Elton Jantjies will be key to the Lions' cause in Saturday’s quarter-final against the Crusaders at Ellis Park, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

When the Crusaders came to Johannesburg earlier this season, both like-minded sides displayed their willingness to keep ball in hand, but the Kiwi side ultimately fed off the Lions’ errors and were lethal on the counter-attack.

Ultimately, the Lions failed to display the necessary tactical guile against a well-rounded Crusaders side, and the seven-time champs came away with a 43-37 victory.

On Saturday, we will see what the Lions have learned from that encounter. While the Johannesburg-based side certainly shouldn’t move away from what has worked so well for them this season, and coach Johan Ackermann has said as much, there also has to be an acknowledgement that playoff rugby requires an element of pragmatism.

This is certainly where Jantjies will have an important role to play as the Lions’ flyhalf general. During the Springboks’ Test series against Ireland in June, Allister Coetzee repeatedly spoke of the need for Jantjies to display astute game management and take control of proceedings.

He was asked to add accurate kicking and decision-making to his natural running instincts, and there were certainly some encouraging signs of this in the third Test, particularly when he completed a perfectly executed cross-kick to create a try for winger JP Pietersen.

On Saturday, Jantjies certainly shouldn’t have any fear to take the ball to the line and test the defence of young opposite number Richie Mo’unga, but he also needs to choose his moments, and look for the opportunity to win territory or kick into space when it opens up.

As a whole, and to borrow some cricket parlance, the Lions need to ensure that they aren’t sucked into trying to hit sixes too soon against the Crusaders.

The Saders are a side well versed in playoff rugby, and have the efficiency to punish and pressure opponents either through their dynamic attack or abrasive defence.

As illustrated by SARugbymag.co.za’s Opta-powered stats, the Crusaders have ranked in the top five in key attacking categories such as points scored, tries, try assists, metres, clean breaks, offloads and passes. Their set pieces and defence have also been strong points, while they’ve executed an efficient kicking game (ranked fifth for kicks from hand).

The Crusaders have been bolstered by the return of stalwarts Andy Ellis and Sam Whitelock this week, and it will change the complexion of the Saders side that suffered a disappointing 35-10 defeat to the Hurricanes last weekend. Having said that, they will miss the presence of bruising winger Nemani Nadolo.

The Lions are now back to full strength after resting all of their first-choice players for their final conference clash, and they will be hoping that this calculated risk reaps rewards, while they've also been boosted by the availability of inspirational captain Warren Whiteley.

Big-name players such as Jantjies, Faf de Klerk, Ruan Combrinck, Jaco Kriel and Franco Mostert need to hit the ground running and display the sort of energy and enthusiasm that a week’s rest aimed to augment.

There is no doubt that the Lions have the class to overcome the Crusaders, but they also need to embrace an intelligent brand of rugby that sees them play in the right areas of the field before driving home their advantage during the second half, when altitude can be an ally.

Overall: Crusaders 8, Lions 2
In Johannesburg: Crusaders 4, Lions 2

– The Crusaders have won their last seven games against the Lions, scoring 28 points or more on all but one occasion.
– The Lions have won their last four games on home soil. A fifth straight win would be their longest home winning streak in a single Super Rugby season.
– The Crusaders have won 19 of their last 23 games against South African opposition, including victories in each of their last four playoff games against them.
– The Lions have won an average of 8.7 turnovers per game so far in Super Rugby this season, the most of any team and 1.2 per game more than the Crusaders.
– Only one player this season (Matt Faddes) has made more clean breaks (29) than Crusaders duo Nemani Nadolo (28) and Johnny McNicholl (27).
Source: Opta

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Lions Elton Jantjies (148) Lionel Mapoe (9) Ruan Combrinck (1,058) Franco Mostert (123)
Crusaders Richie Mo'unga (169) Johnny McNicholl (7) Johnny McNicholl (862) Matt Todd (158)

Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnal Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylon Smith.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Ruan Ackermann, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt/Sylvian Mahuza.

Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 David Havili, 11 Jone Macilai, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett. Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Jimmy Tupou, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Ben Volavola, 23 Kieron Fonotia.

Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

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Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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Craig Lewis