The Lions should expect another aerial bombardment when they host the Highlanders in the semi-final at Ellis Park on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Last week, the Lions outclassed the Crusaders. They outkicked and out-tackled the New Zealanders to win the territorial battle and control the tempo of the game. They put five tries and 42 points past a renowned Crusaders defence.
The Lions' move towards a more complete game plan bodes well for the coming semi-final. They are playing finals rugby.
They've beaten the Crusaders, a team that played the most balanced brand of rugby during the conference stage. However, they will face a different beast in the Highlanders.
While the men from Dunedin have scored some brilliant tries this season, their strategy has been rooted in a brutally effective kick-chase. They have three of the best tactical kickers in Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga and Ben Smith, as well as some of the best chasers and contesters in Patrick Osborne, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith himself.
The Highlanders handed the Lions a tactical lesson when they hosted the Johannesburg-based side in March. Again, one needs to look past the fact that the winning side racked up four tries and 34 points.
The Highlanders put the Lions under immense pressure at the breakdown. They launched many a contestable kick, and regained possession more often than not. They turned Lions' errors into tries and points.
According to SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats, the Lions had 71% of the possession in that fixture. They made more than twice as many carries than the Highlanders, but scored half as many tries.
The Highlanders prefer to play without the ball. They made 151 tackles to the Lions' 59 in that game against the Lions in Dunedin. They kicked 18 times even though they had 29% of the possession.
They won 72% of the territory. Nearly half of the contest took place in the area between the 50m and Lions' 22m lines. While the Lions had more of the ball, they were under pressure for most of the game.
To date, the Highlanders have made more tackles (1,990) and kicks from hand (440) than any other team. Sopoaga and Aaron Smith rank third and fourth respectively for kicks from hand. The Highlanders have caught the most kicks (297), a stat that highlights their ability to win the aerial contest.
The Lions should expect an aerial bombardment at Ellis Park this Saturday. Their wingers and fullback must prepare for a series of high balls, and for big men such as Osborne and Naholo to compete aggressively in the air.
The Lions' chances of winning and advancing to the final may depend on their ability to diffuse those bombs.
Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images