The Lions will need to hold their own against an imposing Waratahs pack if they're to keep their play-off hopes alive at Ellis Park on Saturday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
They don't come much bigger than Saturday's clash at Ellis Park. Win, and the Lions will head into their final match against the Stormers with their play-off dreams still flickering. Lose, and that flame will be extinguished, handing the Waratahs the edge in the race for that coveted second spot on the overall log. The ramifications will be felt down in Cape Town.
The task becomes a tougher one when glancing across the Lions' previous record against the men from Sydney. They have not beaten the Waratahs since 1997 and have lost the last seven meetings by an average score of 39-15.
After a slow start to the season, the Waratahs have worked their way into form. They come into the match on the back of a bonus-point victory over the Crusaders – a match in which they dominated the seven-time champions up front.
While much was made of the Waratahs' sparkling back play on their way to the 2014 Vodacom Super Rugby title, their forwards were the unsung heroes of that triumph. Australian sides have often been considered to have a soft underbelly. This Tahs side is a different beast, and they showed that against the Crusaders.
Wycliff Palu, Jacques Potgieter and Will Skelton have given them an aggressive physical edge, while the industrious Michael Hooper complements them perfectly on defence and with ball in hand.
Their set-piece play is also some of the most consistent in the competition, leading to a tournament high 19 tries from first-phase ball. The Waratahs have threats across the park, but it's up front where the Lions will have to match them.
Johan Ackermann's side struggled in this regard against the Brumbies. Their failure to win the collisions forced them to shift the ball wide too early and the Brumbies picked them off with ease at the breakdown.
The Lions need to earn the right to go wide by making the hard yards through the middle. The Waratahs are one of the best defenders of the driving maul, often forcing crucial turnovers in this area of the game.
The Lions were out-kicked and outplayed by the Brumbies a fortnight ago. They need to show they've taken those lessons on board and adjust accordingly.
They will be handed a boost with the news that Tolu Latu and Skelton will miss the match through suspension after the Waratahs failed in their bid to get their bans overturned. This means the inexperienced hooker Hugh Roach will make his first Super Rugby start, while the uncapped David Porecki appears on the bench.
Meanwhile, the Lions have made four changes of their own. Ackermann has overhauled his front row, with Schalk van der Merwe, Akker van der Merwe and Julian Redelinghuys handed starting roles. The only other change comes in midfield, where Harold Vorster returns at inside centre.
The Lions have shown themselves capable against the better sides in this year's tournament, but they'll need to take it up a level if they're to topple the defending champions.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Waratahs 7, Lions 1
At Ellis Park: Waratahs 3, Lions 1
STATS AND FACTS
– The Lions’ solitary win against the Tahs was in 1997 (lost seven), since then they have conceded an average of 39 points per game and scored just 15 themselves.
– Since 2012, the Brumbies (twice) are the only Australian side to win in South Africa against the Lions (won three).
– The Waratahs have averaged 22 defenders beaten per game this season, the second most in Super Rugby, however the Lions have the best tackle success in 2015 (88%).
– The Tahs have scored more first-phase tries than any other team this season (19) while the Lions have scored a joint-high nine tries after seven-plus phases.
– These two sides boast three of the top six tacklers in Super Rugby – Warren Whiteley (204/211), Warwick Tecklenburg (153/159) and Michael Hooper (144/165).
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Lions||Elton Jantjies (138)||Faf de Klerk, Jaco Kriel (4)||Andries Coetzee (750)||Warren Whiteley (200)|
|Waratahs||Bernard Foley (139)||Taqele Naiyaravaro (7)||Israel Folau (1263)||Michael Hooper (143)|
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Martin Muller, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Armand van der Merwe, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Subs: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, 23 Stokkies Hanekom.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Stephan Hoiles, 5 Dave Dennis (c), 4 Mitchell Chapman, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Hugh Roach, 1 Benn Robinson.
Subs: 16 David Porecki, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Jacques Potgieter, 20 Dean Mumm, 21 Pat McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Matt Carraro.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa), Lesego Legoete (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff
Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images