Preview: Lions v Highlanders

Thu, 28 Jul 2016 22:55

SUPER RUGBY SEMIFINAL: There will be no margin for error at Ellis Park on Saturday, especially for the hosts - who will appear in their first Super Rugby semifinal in the professional era.

The Highlanders may have the additional burden of an absurdly month-long (50,000 kilometres) world trip to overcome. But the defending champions have the experience of having been in the play-offs.

And they won on the road, when they beat the Hurricanes in the Final in Wellington last year.

There is no doubt they will be able to tap into their memory banks on how to 'dig deep' when the pressure is on.

The Lions, without regular captain Warren Whiteley, will need to manage their nervous energy and avoid getting caught up in the excitement of the occasion.

Lions coach Johan Ackermann played down the fact that his team is play-off 'rookies' and said they will treat it as 'just another match'.

"I don't know if it's just my feeling or the players as well, but there's a calmness and nothing is different," Ackermann told a media briefing at the team's base in Johannesburg.

"It feels like any other game honestly. It may start on Saturday - the hype and the nerves - but the whole week was quite relaxed, everything is calm and no butterflies yet.

"The players were ready to go from Monday. We sent out the routine on Sunday evening and there's no doubts in the team. The routine is a copy of week one. It's exactly the same, we haven't changed anything so it's very simple.

"To try and change it now to train less or do more is not going to help in my view."

The biggest threat to the Lions is the Highlanders' playmakers - Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga and Ben Smith.

Ackermann said his team is expecting an assortment of aerial 'attacks' to rain down on his team.

"The Highlanders' kicking game is up there with the best," the Lions mentor said, adding: "Aaron and Ben Smith, as well as Lima Sopoaga are three of the players that can dominate with the kicking game.

"They also keep you guessing, so we have had to prepare for a lot of that.

"However, it is important that we do well when we get the ball and we look after what we can control."

Ackermann said the Lions will not adjust their approach to counter the Highlanders' kicking game.

"We must stick to our plan," he said, adding: "We've got a plan in place and we can alter that if we need, but we must just stick to that and our philosophy won't change.

"I still want the guys on the field to make decisions so they must make the decisions on the day and we not going to get drawn into a kicking game or a different way of playing."

The other key factor in this game will be the impact of the respected benches.

"The start will be important for both sides," Ackermann said, adding that a coach must "get that feel" of when to put on the replacements.

"Obviously they [replacements] have a separate role - to either close the game out or lift the intensity if you are behind - and try and get you over the line.

"It's a feeling that you get on the day. You don't plan for it before the time, so I do believe those two factors will have an influence."

The one advantage the Lions may have is that the match is played at altitude, which could come into play given the Highlanders' travelling schedule.

"Hopefully the altitude will be in our favour and then there's the crowd, that's where we can really get the guys fired up."

The Highlanders, obviously, did their utmost to play down the travel and altitude factors.

Captain Ben Smit admitted it will be a challenge, especially after the way the Lions came back from trailing 3-20 at half-time in their league match last year 0 the Johannesburg-based outfit eventually winning 28-23.

"Obviously playing at altitude is quite tough and we probably got a lot out of playing here [Ellis Park] last year," Ben Smith said.

"Although we got off to a good start [in 2015], the Lions put a bit of acid on us [in the second half] and we didn't finish that game like we would have liked."

The Highlanders skipper also dismissed the travel factor - which has seen them circumvent the globe in the past months and collect over 50,000 air miles.

"I think we travel pretty well as a team and our [fitness] trainer is pretty good at finding new ways so that we can recover really well," the fullback said.

"I think that the team has had a good week so we've been able to get into the sleeping patterns and I reckon it's been a really good week so the travel is just part of it."

Players to watch:

For the Lions: No doubt Jaco Kriel's role as on-field captain will be vital, but the key players for the Lions will be the halfback combination of Elton Jantjies and Francois de Klerk. No.8 Ruan Ackermann has big shoes to fill, while the workrate of flank Warwick Tecklenburg and lock Franco Mostert is what has been giving the Lions an edge this season.

For the Highlanders: You start with the Smiths 0 Ben and Aaron - then you look at the raw power of Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne, along with the guile of flyhalf Lima Sopoaga. Luke Whitelock, back at No.8, is the Highlanders' workhorse. Elliot Dixon is another key player.

Head to head: There are always intriguing battles across the park, but the halfback combinations - Elton Jantjies and Francois de Klerk (Lions) against Lima Sopoaga and Aaron Smith (Highlanders) is what will give direction to the game. Set pieces are also vital, with the scrum the Lions' most potent weapon and the launch pad for so much of what is good about the team - ensuring Julian Redelinghuys, Malcolm Marx and Dylan Smith (Lions) will look for dominance over Josh Hohneck, Ash Dixon and Daniel Lienert-Brown (Highlanders).

Prediction: The last eight meetings between these sides has seen the winner alternate in each match, the Highlanders were 34-15 victors in the last encounter. The Lions have won eight of their 10 home games this season. However, both of their defeats on their own patch in 2016 have come at the hands of teams from New Zealand. The Highlanders have won their last three away games, only once before have they won four on the trot (2005). The Highlanders have won five of their last seven games against South African opposition, scoring 34+ points in each of their wins. The Lions have scored 26 tries after winning possession from a line-out, the most of any of the four remaining teams and behind only the Brumbies (28) overall. Waisake Naholo has scored 11 tries in his last 10 games, and has scored three tries in four games against South African opposition in his Super Rugby career. Malakai Fekitoa has made a competition high 31 offloads this season, the only team to prevent him from getting the ball away in the tackle in a game this season are the Brumbies (twice). Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Lionel Mapoe and Courtnall Skosan have all scored nine tries each for the Lions this season, the Chiefs are the only other side with more than one player to score that many tries (McKenzie and Tamanivalu). The Lions have been the top attacking side in the competition this year, averaging more points, tries, defenders beaten and metres per game of any team. The Highlanders meanwhile have been the busiest side in defence, averaging the most tackles (125) of any team in 2016 yet conceding the fewest points and tries. It is the play-offs and anything can happen. However, the Highlanders absurdly tough travelling schedule and the Lions' set piece play may give the home team the edge in the last quarter. The margin will most likely be less than 10 points.

By Jan de Koning

* Stats provided courtesy of Opta Sport

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