Elton Jantjies will play an important attacking role for the Lions against the Sunwolves in Tokyo on Saturday.
With Marnitz Boshoff having been left at home for the Lions’ tour of Japan and New Zealand, Jantjies has been given the chance to make the No 10 jersey his own this season.
The 25-year-old rejoined the Lions at the end of January, having completed his second season with the NTT Shining Arcs, and his experience of Japanese club rugby should come in handy. Jantjies has warned the Lions about the ‘different challenge’ the Sunwolves will pose, with and without the ball, saying ‘they have a lot of line speed on defence – mostly channel defence’.
The Lions, though, will go into this match as heavy favourites. Not too much should be read into their pre-season defeats to the Bulls (28-24) and Jaguares (49-28), or the fact that the Sunwolves put 52 points past a Top League XV.
The Lions won nine of their 16 Super Rugby matches last year to finish second in the South African conference, before winning all 12 of their Currie Cup games to lift the trophy. They are heading into their third year as a group under coach Johan Ackermann and are expected to make the Super Rugby play-offs (which now include quarter-finals) for the first time since the Cats reached the semi-finals in 2001. Only the tournament draw – they face the five New Zealand teams during the conference phase and none of the Australian sides – could trip them up, which is why getting the full five log points against weaker opposition like the Sunwolves is vital.
Japan’s new Super Rugby franchise has only played together as a team once, and the Lions will pose a far greater threat than that Top League XV. The emotion of the occasion may fire the Sunwolves up for the first part of the game, but when that subsides the Lions will take control with Jantjies pulling the strings.
The flyhalf’s ability to take the ball flat and his good distribution skills are perfectly suited to his side’s attacking game, his defence has improved a lot and he remains one of the world’s best goal-kickers.
With Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie both out with long-term injuries, Jantjies has a golden opportunity to impress the new Bok coach and add to his tally of two Test caps, both of which came in 2012.
The Sunwolves, meanwhile, will rely heavily on their Test players this season, particularly 33-year-old flyhalf Tusi Pisi, who has 28 caps for Samoa and played 17 matches for the Hurricanes in 2012 and 2013.
HEAD TO HEAD
This is the teams’ first meeting
STATS AND FACTS
– The Lions have won eight of their last 11 Super Rugby matches and are undefeated in their last three (won two, drawn one), though seven of those eight victories came by margins of five points or fewer.
– With wins in their last two matches outside South Africa, the Lions will be aiming for three straight victories away from home for the first time in Super Rugby history.
– The Lions conceded only two tries when the opposition went through more than seven phases of play last season, the fewest of any team.
– The 2015 Super Rugby season saw South African teams travel abroad on 20 occasions, of which they won only seven. Of those seven wins, the Lions accounted for three.
– The Lions starved their opposition of possession more than any other team in the 2015 Super Rugby season, allowing their opponents an average of only 14 minutes and 20 seconds in control.
Sunwolves – 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Akihito Yamada, 13 Harumichi Tatekawa, 12 Yu Tamura, 11 Yasutaka Sasakura, 10 Tusi Pisi, 9 Atsushi Hiwasa, 8 Edward Quirk, 7 Andrew Durutalo, 6 Liaki Moli, 5 Hitoshi Ono, 4 Timothy Vond, 3 Shinnosuke Kakinaga, 2 Shota Horie (c), 1 Keith Inagaki.
Subs: 16 Masataka Mikami, 17 Takeshi Kizu, 18 Koki Yamamoto, 19 Shinya Makabe, 20 Yoshiya Hosoda, 21 Kaito Shigeno, 22 Derek Carpenter, 23 Hajime Yamashata.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrink, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Ruan Dreyer.
Subs: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Ruan Ackermann, 21 Jaco van der Walt, 22 Harold Vorster, 23 Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Shuhei Kubo (Japan), Aki Aso (Japan)
TMO: Takashi Hareda (Japan)