• Preview: Lions vs Sharks

    A clinical and composed approach from the Lions should see them secure a comfortable win over the Sharks at Ellis Park on Saturday to progress to a second successive home semi-final, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

    After their defeat to the Jaguares, the Lions players challenged coach Johan Ackermann to only shave his beard when they lost another match. Well, 12 matches later and Ackermann is still waiting to whip out the shaving cream.

    Yet there is no doubt that he will be quite happy to have a winter beard for at least a few more weeks, with the Lions now just three wins away from claiming a historic first-ever Super Rugby title.

    In fact, if they manage to claim what would be a 13th consecutive win on Saturday, it would be the longest-ever winning streak by a South African team.

    Any records or light-hearted bets will hardly matter to the Lions, though, with Saturday’s quarter-final requiring another lift in intensity and accuracy.

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    In their last four matches, the Lions have recorded a whopping 226 points, with last weekend’s 17-point win over the selfsame Sharks serving as the slimmest winning margin during this run.

    It’s allowed last year’s runners-up to build some handy momentum, but they will also know that a knockout fixture will present a number of different challenges and pressure situations.

    As it is, the Lions lacked their usual clinical edge on attack last Saturday, while a couple of soft errors meant they hardly ran away with the result in Durban.

    It should also provide the Sharks with a brief glimmer of hope knowing that they do have the ability to disrupt the Lions through physicality up front and on defence.

    At this stage of the competition, neither side is going to fundamentally alter their approach in a playoff match, and it’s this contrast in styles that should make for an engrossing encounter on Saturday.

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    This season, the Lions rank in the top two for points, tries, metres made, clean breaks and defenders beaten, while they are in the bottom five for kicks completed and tackles made.

    By contrast, the Sharks rank in the bottom half in terms of those attacking stats, but they have averaged as many as 23 kicks from hand per game (rank five), while making 117 tackles (rank 4).

    Expect the Sharks to come into this clash with a clear desire to pressure the Lions at scrum time and at the breakdowns – with these platforms serving as key attacking launchpads – while also looking to pin the hosts in their own half with some astute kicking. In this regard, Curwin Bosch will have an important role to play as he returns to flyhalf.

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    If the Sharks are to have any hope, they will not only have to protect the ball as if it were made of gold, but also ensure their defence is accurate and organised.

    For the Lions, it will simply be a case of sticking to a system that they have virtually perfected over the past couple of years. With the forwards laying a sound foundation, Elton Jantjies will look to run the show with a varied approach of taking the ball to the line, kicking into space or using the inside pass to good effect.

    Ultimately, an unchanged Lions side should have the composure to know that persistent pressure will eventually wear the Sharks down, while providing opportunities for them to strike on attack and build the sort of scoreboard pressure that should be telling in the end.

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    Stats and facts

    • The Lions have won the last five meetings between these teams, after earning just two wins and a draw from their 13 clashes prior to that. This will also be the first time these teams have met in the playoffs.
    • The Lions have won their last 12 games on the bounce; a 13th win would be the longest winning streak ever by a South African team, eclipsing the 12-game streak set by the Bulls across 2009 and 2010.
    • The Sharks have scored just 12 points in their last three playoff fixtures away from home, including a tally of zero when they travelled to Wellington in last season’s quarter-finals.
    • The Sharks have slotted 47 penalty goals this season, no other side landed more than 31.
    • Ruan Combrinck is set to line up for his 50th Super Rugby cap; he has scored five tries in his last four games for the Lions.

    Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Kwagga Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
    Subs: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.

    Sharks – 15 Lwazi Mvovo, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 S'busiso Nkosi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Philip van der Walt (c), 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Thomas du Toit.
    Subs: 16 Franco Marais/Stephan Coetzee, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Jean Droste, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Garth April, 23 Jeremy Ward.

    Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

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    Craig Lewis