The Lions are expecting to face a confrontational Hurricanes side in Saturday’s semi-final at Ellis Park, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Last year, the Hurricanes turned out to be somewhat of an arch nemesis for the Lions, with the Kiwi side securing a resounding 50-17 win in April, while also comfortably overcoming the Johannesburg-based side in the final in Wellington.
Admittedly, a lot has changed since then, while there is little doubt that the Lions have enjoyed a far more impressive season this year, with Johan Ackermann’s men now on a record 13-match winning streak.
That run of results ultimately enabled the Lions to complete the conference stage as the leading overall team, while the Canes relied on a win over the Crusaders in the final regular-season game to ensure they held on to a fifth-place finish.
However, an argument could be made that the Canes have begun to find some form at the right time, with that win over the previously undefeated Crusaders having been followed up with a relatively comfortable quarter-final victory over the Brumbies in Canberra.
A big factor is that the Lions’ last-gasp win over the Sharks has now meant the Canes are completing a long-haul journey to South Africa, where they will have to contend with playing at altitude in front of what should be a sell-out crowd at Ellis Park.
It should all make for a fascinating contest, with the Lions also needing to shift gear as they prepare to face their first New Zealand opponents in 2017.
Last year, there were clear signs that the Lions’ regular-season encounters against Kiwi opposition ensured they were suitably battle-ready by the time the playoffs came around, with the eventual runners-up clinching wins over the Crusaders and Highlanders in the lead-up to the final.
Although the Lions have enjoyed an easier run-in to this stage of the competition, coach Johan Ackermann suggested they were quite aware what to expect from the Hurricanes.
‘The Hurricanes are a team that play in your face, and that’s what the Sharks were very good at [this past Saturday], so it was like a trial for us,’ he said after the quarter-final.
‘They [the Hurricanes] like to put teams under pressure and they did that to us last year, so hopefully we’ll handle that pressure better this time.’
Ackermann has insisted the Lions won’t deviate from the game plan that they unfailingly stuck to over the past couple of years, but he did intimate that there may be a bit more pragmatism to their play.
‘Maybe we won’t run as much as we did a year ago, but rather kick better tactically. We must also remember it’s a year later and the teams have changed since we last met here. We’ll do our homework and then prepare accordingly.’
Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Photosport