Expect the Lions' attack to exploit the Cheetahs' defensive weaknesses at Ellis Park on Saturday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann would have been delighted to return home from their three-match tour with nine log points and the scalps of the Sunwolves and Chiefs.
While their performance in Tokyo didn't satisfy Ackermann, the 26-13 win and the try-scoring bonus point certainly did. The coach would have been thrilled with the performance and the result a week later when the Lions won in Hamilton for the first time, 36-32. The visitors scored four tries by playing an expansive game normally associated with Kiwi teams, and while they conceded the same number, their defence held firm late in the game to secure victory.
It was always going to be a big ask to win back-to-back matches in New Zealand and the Lions finished their tour with a 34-15 loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin. They trailed just 10-3 at half-time before conceding three soft tries, but showed good character to hit back with two tries and finish the game held up over the champions' tryline.
The Lions are second on the Africa 2 log, four points behind the Sharks, but will play their remaining 12 matches in South Africa, while the Sharks still have to travel. Because the teams in Africa 2 play the New Zealand franchises (and not the Australian franchises like those teams in Africa 1), it's possible that only the Africa 2 conference winners will reach the playoffs, with the other African wildcards coming from the other conference.
That means the Lions simply have to beat the two weakest teams in the South African group, the Cheetahs and Kings, and pick up try-scoring bonus points along the way.
They have a very good chance of doing that on Saturday. The Cheetahs have lost two of their first three matches, to the Jaguares and Stormers in Bloemfontein, and had to fight their way back from 31-13 down to beat the Sunwolves 32-31 in Singapore.
The Cheetahs' defence let them down badly last season and while it's something they have worked on since Franco Smith's appointment as head coach, they have already conceded the second most tries in the South African group (10) and missed the most tackles in the tournament (80). And on Saturday they will be up against a Lions team that has beaten the most defenders (79) and made the second most running metres (1,575).
The Lions have averaged 45 points in their last three matches against the Cheetahs, and you'd expect them to get close to that mark again. However, they will also need to defend well in order to secure the bonus point for scoring three more tries than the opposition. They can't afford to take their foot off the gas when the game is won or they could lose the bonus point like the Bulls did against the Rebels two weeks ago.
The Lions dominated the Cheetahs' scrum during last year's Currie Cup, but the latter have improved in this area under scrum coach Daan Human. The Cheetahs pack more than held their own against the Jaguares and Stormers, and their first-choice front row helped change the game when they came off the bench against the Sunwolves. Charles Marais, Torsten van Jaarsveld and Maks van Dyk are back in the starting lineup for Saturday's match, as is Bok lock Lood de Jager, who was rested last weekend.
The Lions have made six changes, with props Dylan Smith and Julian Redelinghuys, hooker Malcolm Marx, flanker Ruan Ackermann, centre Lionel Mapoe and fullback Andries Coetzee all coming into the starting lineup.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Lions 9, Cheetahs 4
In Joburg: Lions 4, Cheetahs 2
STATS AND FACTS
– The Lions have won their last four matches against the Cheetahs and have scored 134 points in their last three encounters.
– After falling to the Highlanders in round three, the Lions will be looking to avoid back-to-back defeats for the first time since the corresponding round last season.
– The Cheetahs finished their 2015 season with an away win against the Bulls and will now be looking for consecutive away victories against South African opponents for the first time since round 15, 2013.
– The Lions have starved their opposition of possession allowing them an average of just 12 minutes and 15 seconds of time in possession, the least of any team.
– The Cheetahs have the lowest scrum success rate so far this season (76%), they also had the lowest rate last season (73%).
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Lions||Elton Jantjies (27)||Courtnall Skosan (2)||Ruan Combrinck (254)||Warren Whiteley (30)|
|Cheetahs||Daniel Marais (25)||Daniel Marais, Francois Venter (2)||Raymond Rhule (217)||William Small-Smith (28)|
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Ruan Ackermann, 6 Jaco Kriel, 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 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Lourens Daniel Erasmus, 20 Robert Kruger, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Jaco van der Walt, 23 Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 William Small-Smith, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Neil Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Maks van Dyk, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Charles Marais.
Subs: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Johan Coetzee, 19 Francois Uys, 20 Hilton Lobberts, 21 Boom Prinsloo, 22 Tian Meyer, 23 Fred Zeilinga.
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images