Elton Jantjies's goal-kicking could prove the difference in a closely contested semi-final between the Lions and Highlanders at Ellis Park on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Four teams remain in the Super Rugby tournament. Only one, however, is likely to be free of a debilitating travel schedule in the lead-up to the final.
The smart money is on the Hurricanes beating the Chiefs in Wellington this Saturday. This result would hand the Hurricanes a considerable advantage in the decider, as their opponents – either the Lions or the Highlanders – will have to travel all the way from Johannesburg to Wellington.
Of course, the Highlanders' fitness levels will be put to the test this week in Johannesburg. Not only will they need to overcome the effects of travel fatigue, but of altitude as well.
It says something for the quality of this Highlanders side that nobody is writing them off just yet. They boast several key All Blacks players who showed their class in the franchise's inaugural title win in 2015. The likes of Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga and Ben Smith have all won at Ellis Park with the All Blacks before. The challenge of playing against the Lions in this cauldron shouldn't be too daunting.
The Lions should show the Highlanders respect in what should be a closely contested match. The visitors have the best scrum in the competition. They boast the best defence as well as a brutally effective kick-chase strategy.
The Lions possess the sharpest attack in the tournament. However, attack is unlikely to prevail in this sort of contest.
The Lions were handed a tactical lesson in their defeat to the Highlanders earlier this season. They had 71% of the possession but still lost 34-15 to a more clinical and pragmatic team. The Lions would be foolish to employ the same strategy this weekend and expect a different result.
The Lions loose forwards – without captain Warren Whiteley – will have to win the battle in the trenches. They have to win the collisions and ensure that the Highlanders' chief tactical kickers, namely Aaron Smith and Sopoaga, don't have sufficient space to accurately implement the kick-chase plan.
If the Highlanders halfbacks are allowed to launch contestable kicks, then Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne will be difficult to beat in the air. The Lions back three of Courtnall Skosan, Ruan Combrinck and Andries Coetzee could be in for a tough afternoon in that scenario.
Jaco Kriel's captaincy will be under scrutiny. Whiteley made a big call to kick a penalty to touch at the end of the first half last week. The gamble paid off, as the Lions won the lineout, set the maul, and scored against a backpedaling Crusaders defence.
This Saturday, the Highlanders' defence will be harder to breach. The Lions may be better off shooting for goal after they have won a kickable penalty. And it's in this department where Jantjies will have a result-shaping role to play.
Jantjies comes into this match with a 2016 Super Rugby goal-kicking record of 72%. The Springbok flyhalf kicked six out of eight from the tee in the quarter-final (several of those from difficult angles), and also contributed a drop goal. The Lions need Jantjies to produce an accurate kicking performance in a semi-final against the Highlanders that could be decided by two or three points.
By contrast, Sopoaga may be wanting for confidence at present. While his 2016 Super Rugby record is almost identical to that of Jantjies (73%), he missed three shots on goal against the Brumbies last week. The wet conditions made goal-kicking difficult in Canberra, but in the end, the Highlanders were fortunate that those missed kicks didn't cost them the game.
The Lions started well against the Crusaders last week, and went to the break with a commanding 22-10 lead. Some fans might believe that a similar start against the Highlanders will be enough to propel the Lions into the final. The hosts may be far enough ahead by the 50th or 60th minute for coach Johan Ackermann to empty his bench and cotton-wool many of his first-choice players for the decider.
Ackermann, however, is unlikely to buy into that fantasy. He has already gambled once this season by selecting a second-string side for the tour to Buenos Aires. He won't be taking any chances in this, the Lions' first-ever Super Rugby semi-final.
The Lions will need to fight for the win right until the final whistle. The Highlanders are renowned for their late fightbacks as well as their ability to score two or three tries in the space of five minutes.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Highlanders 5, Lions 4
In Johannesburg: Lions 4, Highlanders 0
STATS AND FACTS
– The Lions have won eight of their 10 home games this season. However, both of their defeats have come at the hands of New Zealand teams.
– The Highlanders have won their last three away games, only once before have they won four on the trot (2005).
– The Highlanders have won five of their last seven games against South African opposition, scoring 34-plus points in each of their wins.
– The Lions have scored 26 tries after winning possession from a lineout, the most of any of the four remaining teams and behind only the Brumbies (28) overall.
– Waiseke Naholo has scored 11 tries in his last 10 games, and has scored three tries in four games against South African opposition in his Super Rugby career.
– Malakai Fekitoa has made a competition-high 31 offloads this season.
– The Lions have been the top attacking side in the competition, averaging more points, tries, defenders beaten and metres per game.
– The Highlanders have made the most tackles (125) and conceded the fewest points and tries.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Lions||Elton Jantjies (165)||Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Lionel Mapoe, Courtnall Skosan (9)||Ruan Combrinck (1,115)||Franco Mostert (135)|
|Crusaders||Lima Sopoaga (171)||Matt Faddes (9)||Ben Smith (1,009)||Tom Franklin (127)|
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 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Steph de Witt, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Te Aihe Toma, 23 Marty Banks.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keefe (New Zealand), AJ Jacobs (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images