Lions can cope with 'play-off pressure'
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Jaco Kriel, still unbeaten as Lions captain, believes his team has enough 'experience' to cope with the pressure of a Super Rugby play-off.
The Lions host the defending champion Highlanders at Ellis Park on Saturday in their first-ever Super Rugby semifinal.
If the Lions win it will be the first time since 1995 (when Transvaal lost to Queensland in the Super 10 Final) that the Johannesburg-based franchise would reach the last two of Super Rugby.
Kriel, who was captain in the Lions' unbeaten Currie Cup run last year and also lead the side in the post-June league phase, was named to lead the side at Ellis Park on Saturday after regular skipper Warren Whiteley failed to recover from a calf injury he picked up against the Crusaders in the quarterfinal a week before
It was a calm and collective Kriel that addressed a media briefing, where he made it clear that the Lions have shown throughout the season that they understand how to deal with the pressure which comes with the play-off games.
Kriel said they will stick to what they have done all season, as they plot the downfall of the New Zealand visitors.
"It's still your normal preparations, that didn't change anything this week and I really believe that makes it so much easier for the players," Kriel said.
"I believe if they change the week and they change the preparations the players will be mentally different and with this group of players there's always excitement within the players, no matter which week it is or who you play. Yes, we are excited for the weekend, but as coach [Johan Ackermann] said everyone looks calm and collected, but very excited."
Kriel added that the Lions will be focused on taking the game to the Highlanders on Saturday and making sure that the team does not get caught up in the pressure which comes with such an important match.
"We can only do what we do best and play our game," he said, adding: "It's not going to help us to change anything now as we've been doing what we doing throughout the whole season and if we stick to our structures and we stick to what we do and we work really hard I believe that the result will look after itself.
"It's been a really amazing year for us and as coach said it's been a successful year for us so far, but as a group at the Lions we try not to put a lot of pressure on each other.
"We try to keep it calm and try to let every player express themselves in his own way, so we won't put pressure on each other."
Kriel said his experience of leading the Lions to Currie Cup glory in 2015 has provided him with the confidence and leadership skills which will benefit the team on Saturday.
"It definitely helped me as a leader and it was the idea of coach [Johan Ackermann] from the start just to give Warren [Whiteley] a bit of a break and give me the experience I got as a leader.
"I believe it really made a difference, because I'm calm now and I know what to expect.
"Even though all of us know that it's going to be a massive game this weekend, we still have to be calm and make the correct decisions. If you are not calm and collected, it's going to be a long day for you," said Kriel.
By Josh Isaacson