Will lack of Kiwi opposition kill off the Lions?
Will lack of Kiwi opposition kill off the Lions?SHARE
It is a question that will only be answered when they host the Hurricanes at Ellis Park on Saturday – a replay of last year's Final.
It will be the Lions' first New Zealand opposition of the protracted season that started back in mid-February.
Last year the Stormers suffered in the quarterfinals because of a lack of New Zealand opposition.
Despite winning 10 of their 15 matches, the same as this year, and topping the Africa One conference, the Stormers lost 21-60 to a dominant Chiefs team at Newlands in 2016.
Twelve months on and the same teams met at Newlands again, the Chiefs winning only 17-11.
And Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said the more competitive nature of the game can be directly related to the fact the Stormers played in the New Zealand half the draw and not against Australian teams as last year.
"They [the Stormers] have played five Kiwis [New Zealand teams] this year and were well aware of the intensity required," Rennie told a media briefing at Newlands at the weekend.
"Last year [in the quarterfinal at Newlands] we just shocked them," he said, adding: "They had not played any Kiwi sides and the intensity and pace at which we played [took them by surprise].
"We were very accurate last year [in the 2016 quarterfinal].
"[This year] they are a lot fitter. They have a far better understanding of the game they want to play and how to defend against Kiwi sides."
However, the questions is: 'How will the Lions' lack of New Zealand opposition affect them in the semifinal?'
The Lions, who played in the Aussie side of the draw this year, won 14 of their 15 matches – the same as New Zealand's top team, the Crusaders – but topped the standings because collected more bonus points.
Rennie still rates the Lions a good prospect of advancing to a second successive Final.
"The Hurricanes have to travel over here [to South Africa]," the Chiefs coach said.
"I can imagine the Hurricanes were sitting in Sydney cheering for the Sharks [whom the Lions beat 23-21 to advance to the semifinal].
"They will on plane to Johannesburg and it is tough to win there [at Ellis Park].
"If they [the Hurricanes] do win, they will have to travel all they way to New Zealand to play [in the Final].
"The road becomes a little bit tougher for them."
Rennie said he "rates" the Lions.
"They beat us in Hamilton last year," he said, adding: "They made a Final.
"To be honest, if that Final had been in Johannesburg they maybe would have won it.
"They are right up there.
"If they [the Lions] win and we win, we will have to come back to Johannesburg.
"We will be happy with whatever happens, as long as we win."
Lions captain Jaco Kriel felt his team will heed the wake-up call the Sharks gave them in the quarterfinal at Ellis Park this past Saturday.
"It was definitely not easy, but that's the way you learn," Kriel told a media briefing at Ellis Pak.
"When you have to work hard for things as it builds your character.
"We have a lot of hard work to do, with the Hurricanes coming up."
Lions coach Johan Ackermann also felt that his team will benefit more from a close game, than if they had run away with it in the quarterfinal.
"One thing is for certain, they [the Hurricanes] are going to be in our faces the whole time," Ackermann said.
"The Sharks were like that as well, so perhaps we had a bit of a rehearsal."
The Lions have once again kept ticket prices lower than the norm in South Africa – with tickets priced at ZAR80, ZAR120, ZAR275 and ZAR380.
By Jan de Koning
* Additional reporting by Josh Isaacson