Our rugby scribe takes a look at Saturday’s second Super Rugby semi-final being contested between the Lions and Highlanders.
South Africa’s last chance at Super Rugby glory rests in the hands of Johan Ackermann’s exciting young Lions squad. Joburg’s pride have been a revelation this season producing a brand of rugby that the whole country has been crying out for.
The Lions and their electrifying style of play will face a massive acid test this weekend with the defending champions coming to town.
Will Johan Ackermann’s charges advance to their first ever Super Rugby final or will Jamie Joseph’s men secure a back to back final appearance?
Lions v Highlanders | Saturday 30 July | Emirates Airline Park | 15:00
To Win (80 Mins)
Lions 7/10 | Draw 20/1 | Highlanders 23/20
Lions (-2.5) 9/10 | Highlanders (+2.5) 9/10
Lions 6/10 | Highlanders 12/10
I waxed lyrical about the Lions in last week’s quarter-final preview and they backed my words up with a comprehensive 42-25 victory over the most successful team in the history of the tournament.
The Lions' 17 point victory was built on a lightening fast start that saw them take a 15 point lead inside the opening ten minutes. A stunning solo effort from Springbok hopeful Courtnall Skosan, who jinked past Luke Romano on his way to a 50-meter run in, saw the Lions open the scoring. Things got even better for the hosts when impressive young inside centre, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, barged his way over from close range for the Lions second try of the game.
A further penalty from Elton Jantjies saw the Lions extend their lead before Crusaders' pivot, Richie Mo’unga, hit back with a three-pointer for the Crusaders. Mo’unga’s penalty preceded a backs to the wall defensive effort from the Lions that saw Malcolm Marx and Franco Mostert make more tackles in the space of ten minutes than Naas Botha made in his entire career.
Despite putting in one of the most spirited defensive displays I have ever seen, the Lions line was eventually breached by Crusaders’ centre Ryan Crotty who crossed for a five-pointer six minutes before the half-time whistle.
The Lions managed to hit back however with a powerful scrum seeing them awarded a penalty. With barely any time remaining in the first stanza, returning skipper Warren Whiteley made the bravest decision a South African Super Rugby franchise captain has made this season. Instead of asking Elton Jantjies to have a shot at goal, the former Sharks man instructed his pivot to kick for touch. A brilliant lineout maul saw Malcolm Marx cross over for the Lions' third try of the half.
The opening segment of the second stanza saw the Crusaders pile on the pressure but the Lions resolute defensive line held firm. A Richie Mo’unga penalty was soon cancelled out by a marvellous snap drop goal from Elton Jantjies.
A mix up from an Israel Dagg up and under that saw substitute nine, Mitchell Drummond, run in for a five-pointer, briefly brought the Crusaders back into the game.
The Lions took the game away from the Crusaders moments after that, however, with a superb pass from substitute Howard Mnisi putting Lionel Mapoe into space. The outside centre then sucked in two defenders brilliantly before releasing the flying Ruan Combrinck, who went in under the poles virtually unchallenged.
The Lions will be looking for a similarly quick start this week so as to force the Highlanders to chase the game. They will also look to target the Highlanders' scrum which took a real battering from the Brumbies out in Canberra.
The one aspect of the game that the Lions will want to improve on is their kicking clearance kicking. While both Elton Jantjies and Faf de Klerk put in solid shifts last week, some of their kicking out of hand was a bit suspect. They’ll need to up this against the Highlanders as Ben Smith is a masterful counter attacker who’s capable of cutting his way through any defence in world rugby.
In terms of team news for this one, Johan Ackermann has yet to announce his squad at the time of writing but he’s likely to field the same starting XV that took to the field last week. There is some concern over Warren Whiteley, who has apparently picked up a calf injury. If the lanky number eight is unable to take to the field on Saturday, his spot will be taken by impressive young gun, Ruan Ackermann.
While the Lions cantered to a Super Rugby quarter-final victory, the Highlanders were forced to scrap for theirs, in some of the worst conditions a Super Rugby game has ever been played in.
With a torrential downpour hitting the GIO Stadium, the Highlanders were forced to reign in their counter-attacking play and instead look to play the territorial game. Lima Sopaga played a starring role, kicking brilliantly out of hand and turning the Brumbies' forward pack on numerous occasions.
The turning point in the game came 37 minutes into the first half. Having trailed for the majority of the first stanza, the Highlanders managed to cross the whitewash for a five-pointer. Lima Sopaga knocked over the conversion which saw Jamie Joseph’s men go into the break four points to the good.
The Highlanders looked the better team during the first 20 minutes of the second half and were rewarded with another try which was created by Sopaga who intercepted a loose Brumbies pass and then offloaded to Matt Faddes. The Highlanders centre was brought down in the opposition 22 but quick recycling of possession, from the subsequent ruck, allowed Liam Squires to cross the line for his side’s second try of the game.
The match swung towards the Brumbies from here on in with Steven Larkham’s men piling mountains of pressure on their opposition. Christiaan Lealiifano brought the hosts within a converted try of victory with a three-pointer.
The Brumbies almost capitalised on Lealiifano bringing them back into the game when substitute winger, Lausii Taliauli muscled over from close range. The try looked good and even Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph’s said he thought Taliauli had crossed over on first viewing. TMO George Ayoub ruled that the winger hadn’t grounded the ball, however.
The Brumbies were then awarded a slew of penalties; each time opting to go for a scrum. The Highlanders' front row were well and truly under the cosh and it seemed only a matter of time before referee Angus Gardner would award a penalty try. For some strange reason, Gardner opted not to award a one and the Highlanders managed to hold out for six-point victory.
The Highlanders’ front row forwards will have to up their games’ this weekend as the Lions demonstrated just how dominant they can be at scrum time against the Crusaders.
While the forwards will have to lay a more solid set piece foundation for the backs to operate off, the key to victory could well be Aaron Smith.
The All Black scrum half’s ability to up the tempo of a game with attacks around the fringe and quick taps will be key to breaking down a resolute Lions defence. His box kicking will also play a huge role as he is generally the man who the Highlanders exit through when they are deep inside their won half.
The Stats That Matter
This will be the first time the Lions make an appearance in the semi-finals of the tournament, although, they were involved in two semi-finals when the union was merged with Free State and played under the Cats moniker.
This will be the Highlanders fifth appearance in the semi-finals and they are yet to host a semi-final playing all of their games away from home. They lost to the Blues in 1998, beat the Stormers in 1999, lost to the Crusaders in 2000 and 2002, and beat the Waratahs by 12 points last year.
The Highlanders have done a massive amount of travel over the past month or so having flown from New Zealand to South Africa, then to Argentina, then back to New Zealand, then across the Tasman to Australia, and now back to South Africa.
There are a few Highlanders players who have enjoyed some rest of this period but the majority of them have been on this logistic nightmare of a tour while the core of the Lions squad haven’t even picked up a passport in 141 days.
That’s right, the Lions haven’t left South Africa in 20 weeks and one day, 3384 hours, 203,040 minutes, or 11,82400 seconds!
Last Five Head To Head Results
2016 Highlanders 34-15 Lions (Highlanders Home)
2015 Lions 28-23 Highlanders (Lions Home)
2014 Highlanders 23-22 Lions (Highlanders Home)
2011 Highlanders 22-26 Lions (Highlanders Home)
2010 Highlanders 39-29 Lions (Highlanders Home)
Verdict: Lions (-2.5) 9/10
I think the travel factor will play a huge role in this one. Don’t get me wrong, the Highlanders aren’t a bunch of prima donnas who get overly bothered about how many air miles they clock up. But at some point, the body starts to take a toll. I fancy the Lions to take advantage of the Highlanders fatigue in the final 20 minutes and run out comfortable victors.