The Lions will need to keep a close watch on Lima Sopoaga when they host the Highlanders at Ellis Park on Saturday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
The narrow defeat to the Vodacom Bulls last weekend means the Lions need to win at least three of their remaining matches if they're to qualify for the play-offs, starting with Saturday's match against the Highlanders.
It places Johan Ackermann's side in a difficult position. They need to chase the victory, but in doing so will allow the Highlanders' strike-runners into the match.
For much of the season they have managed to find a good balance between defence and attack. Between the boot and the ball in hand. They will need to do so again or risk going the way of the Sharks and Stormers before them.
The Highlanders fed off the Sharks' wayward kicks and dropped balls to record their largest victory in over 10 years last weekend. While the tries were spread all around, it was Sopoaga who was the architect of destruction at flyhalf.
The Sharks failed to put him any under pressure, where their poor kick chase and laboured defensive line allowed him the time to influence proceedings. The Lions cannot afford to provide him with such time and space.
The Highlanders back three have shown time and again this season just how dangerous they are on the counter. Marnitz Boshoff and Ross Cronjé – restored as the halfback pairing – will need to kick accurately, either finding grass or putting the ball into the stands.
The Lions showed against the Bulls last weekend that their scrum remains one of the best in the competition. It can be used not only as an attacking platform, but also in a bid to put the Highlanders' halfbacks under pressure.
The Highlanders come into the match with a settled starting XV and in the thick of the play-off places. They may have lost five of their last six in South Africa, but the sole victory during that time came last year in Durban where they toppled an in-form Sharks side.
Last year's meeting between these two ended in controversial circumstances, with the Lions falling just short in Dunedin. There seemed to be an early charge on Elton Jantjies' deciding conversion attempt, but he was denied another opportunity and the Lions lost 24-23.
It was a match that typified the Lions' fighting spirit, as they fought their way back into the match having trailed 23-0 at the break. The Highlanders have been susceptible to second-half pressure already this season, almost blowing a comfortable buffer against the Blues.
The Lions have trailed at half-time in seven of their last eight outings but went on to win six of these games. If they can stay in touch with the Highlanders early on, they should be able to reel them in down the home stretch.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Lions 4, Highlanders 4
At Ellis Park: Lions 3, Highlanders 0
STATS AND FACTS
– The Lions have trailed at half-time in seven of their last eight outings but went on to win six of these games.
– The Highlanders have never beaten the Lions twice in a row but did win the last encounter between these sides by a single point in a match that was 364 days prior to this one.
– The Highlanders’ 48-15 defeat of the Sharks marked their largest Super Rugby victory in over 10 years and their seventh largest overall.
– The Highlanders have lost five of their last six games in South Africa.
– Opponents of the Lions have spent the least time in possession per game this season (14 minutes, 19 seconds). Only the Cheetahs (13 minutes, 19 seconds) have spent less time in possession than the Highlanders (13 minutes, 41 seconds).
– The Lions have scored the fewest number of tries when starting out with the ball inside the opposition 22m (four), 10 fewer than the Highlanders (14).
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Lions||Elton Jantjies (103)||Faf de Klerk, Ruan Combrinck, Warwick Tecklenburg (3)||Andries Coetzee (475)||Warren Whiteley (159)|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (95)||Waisake Naholo (8)||Waisake Naholo (849)||Elliot Dixon (101)|
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Harold Vorster, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Ruaan Lerm, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Elliott Dixon, 20 John Hardie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images