Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen says they are really excited about what the midfield pair of Dan Kriel and debutant Burger Odendaal could bring against the Sharks on Friday.
The Lions will get their Super Rugby Unlocked campaign under way with a trip to Durban to face the Sharks, who were on top of the South African conference before the Covid-19 pandemic halted the regular Super Rugby season.
Plenty has changed since mid-March as the Lions brought in a host of new players during the lockdown in July.
Four of those new players – Burger Odendaal, Sibahle Maxwane, EW Viljoen and Jaco Visagie – are all set to make their first official starts for the Lions on Friday evening.
While many anticipated that Odendaal would be paired with the promising Wandisile Simelane, Van Rooyen has instead opted to partner the former Vodacom Bulls captain with Dan Kriel.
Speaking during the team announcement media conference on Tuesday, Van Rooyen explained that he felt the centre duo would complement each other very well.
‘We are really excited. We have them about 20 or 30 minutes against the Pumas together. They are going to bring something different for us,’ Van Rooyen said. ‘So we are trying them out this week together. They do know each other quite well from the Bulls days and they did play junior rugby together. We have a clear plan of what we want to do and we feel they can complement that.
‘We know what Wandi [Simelane] and what Manni [Rass] brings for us and that’s gold.’
Meanwhile, Viljoen – who joined the Lions after a stint with the Leicester Tigers – is also to make his first start, but will be playing in a slightly more unfamiliar position at fullback, where he played his schoolboy rugby for Grey College.
‘EW has played a lot of his junior and schoolboy rugby at 15 as well,’ Van Rooyen said. ‘He has got a great natural feel towards the ball. He gives as a good right-foot option from the back, is tall, good under the high ball. So, we are excited about what he can bring at 15. We have said from the beginning that he is versatile. We like having players that can play multiple positions. He definitely does that.’
In another interesting move, Willem Alberts is set to face his former side, but will start at lock instead of at flank, where Sharks fans are more used to seeing him play.
‘Willem only returned to training last week. He brings a good physicality for us,’ Van Rooyen said. ‘He has played at lock and we feel he can make a difference there. Just having him in the system is unbelievable. What he brings to the team room and team meetings as a guy off the field is immense for us. He is a great character to have around.
‘He understands what we want from him. He is very comfortable with what he can bring. Having him lean and in shape is exciting for us. I don’t think he is necessarily ready to play 80 minutes. We feel, especially with the Sharks pack and the way they play, that a bit of grunt can never hurt.’
It is predicted that Friday will have a good chance of evening rain in Durban, with a typically high humidity also anticipated, which could make playing free-flowing rugby more of a challenge.
‘I don’t like the term horses for courses. But I do think the way that Friday’s going to happen with the weather and the way we are going to play, this is the right starting XV for us,’ Van Rooyen added.
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