Jaco Kriel will have to be at his best if the Lions are to get anything out of their match against the Hurricanes in Joburg on Friday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
The Lions were the surprise package of the 2014 Vodacom Super Rugby season, where no one gave them much chance of finishing with anything but the wooden spoon. They surpassed those expectations, handsomely, but now they must kick on.
Their Currie Cup campaign suggested their Super Rugby showing was no flash in the pan, with Kriel playing a pivotal role in their run to the final. A game-breaker in the most natural sense, Kriel's partnership with Warren Whiteley and Derick Minnie in the Lions' back row must be one of the form combinations coming into the new season.
Kriel has progressed from being a menace at the breakdown to a regular ball-pilferer, while losing none of his explosive attacking abilities. If he can transform his Currie Cup form into Super Rugby, he'll be a key player for the Lions this season.
An opening match against the Hurricanes doesn't come much tougher, with home advantage their saving grace. The Lions have lost five straight against the Canes, although their home record – both in 2014 and against the New Zealanders – suggests they're in with a chance.
The Lions were the best scrummaging side in last year's competition, and will need their dominant front row to lay a platform for their attacking loose trio to exploit. If they can gain the ascendancy up front, they'll go a long way to repeating the results of 2012 and 2014 in winning their opening fixture.
Coach Johan Ackermann has stuck closely to the side that performed so admirably during the Currie Cup, with 20-year-old Malcolm Marx the surprise inclusion. He will make his first Super Rugby start after featuring twice from the bench last season.
The Hurricanes will start the season with new coaches at the helm, as Chris Boyd and John Plumtree look to improve on last year's seventh-placed finish. They enjoyed mixed results in the warm-up matches – running in six tries to defeat the Crusaders, before coming up short against the Blues.
Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea, Conrad Smith, Dan Coles and Ben Franks all missed those matches, but will return to the fold at Ellis Park. One notable absentee is that of Jeremy Thrush, who was ruled out of the tour earlier this week with a calf injury. Ma'a Nonu also misses out, as he'll be attending the birth of his child.
With both sides favouring an expansive approach, the match should be an entertaining spectacle. If the Lions can stay with the Hurricanes out the blocks, their bench and the thin Highveld air could combine to get them across the line against the fading Canes.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Lions 3, Hurricanes 12
In Johannesburg: Lions 3, Hurricanes 4
KRIEL'S STATS THAT MATTER
16 – The number of turnovers he won in the 2014 Super Rugby tournament (Rank 9)
11 – The number of clean breaks he made (Rank 19)
120 – The number of tackles he made (Rank 33)
Source: Vodacom Rugby Stats App
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Derick Minnie, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Martin Muller, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Warwick Tecklenburg, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Stokkies Hanekom.
Hurricanes – 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Rey Le-Lo, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dan Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Subs: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Reggie Goodes, 18 Chris Eves, 19 Callum Gibbins, 20 Victor Vito, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 James Marshall, 23 Matt Proctor.
Photo: Louis Botha/Gallo Images