The Lions will have to negate the influence of the Highlanders' halfbacks if they are to beat the reigning champs in Dunedin this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Lions can beat the Highlanders. They proved as much in Johannesburg last year, when they fought back from a 17-point half-time deficit to win 28-23.
The Lions have started their 2016 campaign well. They did enough to secure the bonus point against the Sunwolves in round one. Their scrum and running game were outstanding in the stunning victory against the Chiefs in round two.
This week, however, the Lions will come up against a strong tactical side. Last year, the Highlanders boasted the strongest kicking game. Their defence was excellent, and they were the best side in terms of using turnover ball to create – and convert – counter-attacking opportunities.
In 2016, the Highlanders forwards have failed to live up to their own high standards. If they fire this Saturday, a dangerous back division that includes Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith will have the chance to translate pressure into points.
The Lions should be looking to limit the space of that trio. If they continue to get the upper hand at the scrum, and if they continue to make ground through their loose forwards, then Smith, Fekitoa and Smith will not be a factor.
The visitors will aim to control the tempo of the game. They will want a lively, ball-in-hand contest.
By contrast, the Highlanders will want to force the Lions into a more tactical battle. A fight in the trenches. Box kick after box kick. Contests in the air. The Highlanders will want to squeeze the Lions until they crack.
Johan Ackermann has made several changes to the side that beat the Chiefs. A couple are injury-enforced, while the rest are tactical.
Ackermann has been forced to pick a new midfield combination due to the injuries to Lionel Mapoe and Harold Vorster. He has opted for a new starting front row.
This match is the last of a three-game overseas tour. The challenge for the Lions is to maintain their intensity and accuracy for 80 minutes, a big ask for the final clash of a tour.
The Lions did enough to claim the result in Hamilton last week, but may struggle to outlast the Highlanders this Saturday.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Lions 5, Highlanders 4
In New Zealand: Highlanders 4, Lions 1
STATS AND FACTS
– The Lions have won five of their last eight matches against the Highlanders, though at no point in the last six matches between these sides has either team won back-to-back games.
– The Highlanders have won their last six matches on home soil, their longest such streak since they won 13 consecutive home matches from 2000 to 2002.
– Having dispensed of the last two New Zealand teams they've faced, the Lions will now be hunting three straight wins against Kiwi opponents for the first time since 1996-97.
– The Lions are undefeated in their last four matches away from home, double the length of any other such streak in their history.
– The Highlanders haven’t lost a home match against a South African side since a 36-19 loss to the Cheetahs in 2013.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (18)||Ben Smith (2)||Ben Smith (125)||Shane Christie (25)|
|Lions||Elton Jantjies (22)||Courtnall Skosan (2)||Ruan Combrinck (201)||Warren Whiteley (24)|
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Luke Whitelock, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Elliot Dixon, 20 Shane Christie, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery.
Lions – 15 Jaco van der Walt, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenberg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Julian Redelinghuys, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Ruan Ackermann, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Jacques Nel, 23 Andries Coetzee.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images