The high-flying Lions must retain a ruthless edge when they take on the Kings at Ellis Park on Friday night, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In a manner, Lions coach Johan Ackermann has revealed his hand by naming a full-strength and unchanged match 23 for their penultimate conference clash.
The Johannesburg-based side secured a home quarter-final with an impressive bonus-point win over the Sharks last Saturday, but they are determined not to let up just yet.
There is, after all, still plenty to play for as the Lions currently sit at the top of the Super Rugby pile and could earn the right to potentially host a semi-final and final if they end the conference stage with the most overall log points.
Ackermann has made no secret of the fact that he is determined to see his side secure a bonus-point win over the Kings before reassessing where they stand ahead of their final fixture against the Jaguares.
The Lions coach is fully aware that the trip to Buenos Aires is one that needs to be very carefully managed, with the likes of the Sharks and Bulls having spoken of the travel-weary effects of the trip from east to west and back again.
Ackermann knows that he needs to prioritise the wellbeing of his players who have carried a heavy workload ahead of the quarter-finals, and it’s quite possible that Boks such as Faf de Klerk, Elton Jantjies and Ruan Combrinck will be rested next week.
The Lions are just one point ahead of the Chiefs, and two ahead of the Crusaders, but both these sides would be expected to win their respective clashes over the Reds and Rebels this weekend.
It means the overall Super Rugby leader is only likely to be decided on the last weekend of conference action, but the Lions will want to head into that final Super Saturday with their noses in front of the chasing pack.
Already the Lions have grabbed a piece of history by securing their 10th Super Rugby win in a single season, and now they know that there is the prospect to secure the rights to host their playoff fixtures at the Ellis Park fortress.
Understandably, though, Ackermann has been drumming home the fact this week that the Lions cannot afford to slip into any sense of complacency, which is probably the biggest threat to their success this Friday.
Maintaining the necessary mental edge to get up for another encounter that everyone would expect them to win comfortably is a considerable challenge, and one that cannot be overlooked.
One should also not disregard the fact that the Kings have been competitive in a large number of their matches this season, and just last weekend, they were in the contest against the defending champion Highlanders until the final 15 minutes.
The Kings have made six changes to their starting lineup, and will face a mammoth task in terms of keeping pace with a high-intensity Lions side that will be looking to run riot in Johannesburg, but they are a side that knows how to scrap.
However, their only real hope lies in the potential for the Lions to somewhat subconsciously fail to fire on all cylinders in a match where they will be such overwhelming favourites.
More than anything, Friday’s encounter is going to be another big mental test for the Lions, and their ability to remain ruthless in their approach will provide another insight into the makeup of the unequivocal title contenders.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Lions 1, Kings 0
In Johannesburg: This will be the teams’ first meeting at Ellis Park
STATS AND FACTS
– This will be just the second time these sides meet in Super Rugby. The Lions defeated the Kings 45-10 in their first meeting, in April this year.
– The Kings are searching for their second away win in Super Rugby. They’ve lost each of their last 10 games, with those defeats coming by an average margin of 30 points.
– The Lions have won their last four Super Rugby games, and a fifth straight win would equal the team’s record-winning streak in the competition.
– The Lions have starved their opposition of possession so far this season, allowing their opponents only 13 minutes and 13 seconds with the ball in hand each game, the fewest of any team.
– Kings lock JC Astle has won 60 lineouts so far this season, including three last week, the fourth most of any player after 15 rounds in 2016.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Lions||Elton Jantjies (135)||Lionel Mapoe (9)||Ruan Combrinck (988)||Franco Mostert (111)|
|Kings||Louis Fouché (75)||Steven Sykes (4)||Shane Gates (404)||CJ Velleman (115)|
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.
Kings – 15 Malcolm Jaer, 14 Lukhanyo Am, 13 Stefan Watermeyer, 12 Shane Gates, 11 Wandile Mjekevu, 10 Louis Fouché, 9 James Hall, 8 Aidon Davis, 7 Stefan Willemse, 6 Andisa Ntsila, 5 John-Charles Astle, 4 Schalk Oelofse, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Edgar Marutlulle (c), 1 Sithembiso Sithole.
Subs: 16 Martin Bezuidenhout, 17 Schalk Ferreira, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Sintu Manjezi, 20 Jacques Engelbrecht, 21 Ntando Kebe, 22 Elgar Watts, 23 Jeremy Ward.
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa)
Assistant referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Ben Crouse (South Africa)
TMO: Johann Greeff (South Africa)
Jaguares vs Highlanders (to come)
Photo: Deryck Foster/BackpagePix