Faf key to Lions renaissance

In-form Lions scrumhalf Faf de Klerk can do more damage to the Vodacom Bulls' play-off hopes at Loftus on Saturday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.

It was De Klerk's quick thinking that resulted in the match-winning try for Armand van der Merwe when these sides met at Ellis Park earlier this month. That result – the Lions' second consecutive win over the Bulls – gave a real belief that the Lions are no pretenders this season. They're the real deal.

They followed up that result with victories over the Sharks and Cheetahs, either side of bye. A win at Loftus on Saturday will lift them above their trans-Jukskei rivals, and move them to within touching distance of the play-offs.

It would be a massive achievement for Johan Ackermann and his group of outcasts. De Klerk, deemed surplus to requirements at the Bulls, has thrived at the Lions, where his attacking approach has been encouraged.

His service has been crisp, his decision-making clear, and outside him Elton Jantjies has benefited. Jantjies, a form of ridicule during last season's Super Rugby, has rediscovered his best form, and will pose a constant threat to the Bulls on Saturday.

Neither side has been especially prolific in the try-scoring stakes this year, but the Lions hinted at what they're capable of during their bonus-point victory over the Cheetahs. If they can maintain their discipline and rediscover the defensive solidity they've shown for much of the season, they'll push the Bulls all the way.

The Bulls showed great resolve to fight their way back into the match at Newlands, and might've made off with victory were it not for Duane Vermeulen's indomitable frame. However, question marks will be asked of their first-half performance, especially in the scrums.

The unfortunate accident to Dean Greyling means Trevor Nyakane will start at loosehead prop, with Adriaan Strauss and Marcel van der Merwe completing what seems, on paper at least, to be the Bulls' best combination.

Victor Matfield's return in the second row and as captain cannot be discounted. The Springbok veteran missed the Bulls' last two defeats to the Lions through injury, and his calming influence will be in high demand on Saturday.

In other changes, Jan Serfontein comes in for Burger Odendaal at inside centre, Arno Botha starts at No 8 in place of Pierre Spies and Lappies Labuschagne gets the nod ahead of Deon Stegmann.

Meanwhile the Lions have also made changes to their front row, where Robbie Coetzee and Julian Redelinghuys are promoted from the bench.

However, they will be without the services of the influential Lionel Mapoe, who misses the match with a knee injury. Howard Mnisi will take his place, with Harold Vorster shifting to outside centre and Marnitz Boshoff coming in at fullback.

There is little doubt the Lions have closed the gap between the two sides in recent seasons, but they are still yet to sample Super Rugby success at Loftus. It will take a monumental effort if they are to end that barren run.

They will need to match the Bulls up front and at the set pieces, while their accuracy and speed to the breakdown could hand them the edge. The Bulls, through the boot of Handré Pollard, will look to take advantage of any indiscretions.

However, above all, the Lions will need to capitalise on the limited opportunities that come their way, and turn them into points. Loftus may never have been a happy hunting ground for the Lions, but this pride are cut from a different cloth.

Overall: Bulls 10, Lions 2, Draws 1
At Loftus: Bulls 6, Lions 0

– After previously being winless in 11 games against the Bulls (lost 10, drawn one) the Lions have won the last two contests between these rivals.
– The last eight encounters between the Bulls and Lions have seen at least 40 points scored per game and an average of 50.
– The Bulls have lost just two of their last 24 home games in the regular season, with their back-to-back home defeats at the start of the season the only blemishes on that record (won 21, drawn one).
– The Lions have won five Super Rugby matches in a row for the first time, though each of these wins came by margins of five or less.
– The Lions have scored the fewest first-half tries (five) in 2015 and less than half as many as the Bulls (12).

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Bulls Handré Pollard (128) Francois Hougaard (5) Jesse Kriel (917) Deon Stegmann (114)
Lions Elton Jantjies (85) Warwick Tecklenburg, Ruan Combrinck (3) Lionel Mapoe (404) Warren Whiteley (148)

Bulls – 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Subs: 16 Callie Visagie, 16 Morné Mellett, 17 Andrew Beerwinkel, 18 Grant Hattingh, 19 Pierre Spies, 20 Tian Schoeman, 21 Burger Odendaal, 22 Jurgen Visser.

Lions – 15 Marnitz Boshoff, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Harold Vorster, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Andries Coetzee, 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 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17.Corné Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 MB Lusaseni, 20 Robert Kruger, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Alwyn Hollenbach, 23 Courtnall Skosan.

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