SEMI FINAL #2
The Lions host the defending champions, the Highlanders, in what promises to be a thrilling Super Rugby semi-final in Johannesburg on Saturday.
This game is the most important fixture for a vast majority of the Lions players as it presents the Johannesburg-based outfit with an opportunity to contest their first-ever Super Rugby Final.
Being in the semi-finals – and the only South African side left in the competition – is already a fantastic achievement for Johan Ackermann’s charges, especially considering that they hit rock bottom in 2012 when they were relegated from the competition after finishing last in the standings.
Both these sides have impressed throughout the season and deserve to be amongst the last four teams in the competition. Each side has won 12 matches so far this season, including last weekend’s quarter-final fixtures although playing at altitude on their home turf makes the Lions marginal favourites.
The Lions have lit up this season’s tournament with their expansive game and are, unsurprisingly, topping several attacking statistics. They are the competition’s joint top try-scorers (76) with the Chiefs, have beaten the most defenders (434) and gained more metres (8589) than any other team this year.
The home side will gain confidence from the fact that they have won the last three clashes between these sides in Johannesburg, with the Highlanders’ last victory at Ellis Park registered in 2005.
They suffered a setback, however, when their inspirational captain Warren Whiteley was ruled out of this fixture due to injury. Whiteley will be greatly missed, especially with his leadership skills, but in Jaco Kriel they have an able replacement who is not unfamiliar with the captaincy role.
There will be several interesting match-ups across the park, especially amongst the backs, with both sides possessing brilliant playmakers as well as clinical finishers.
The half-back duel between the Lions’ Springbok combination of Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies, and the Highlanders’ All Black duo, Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga should be one of the highlights of this match as all the aforementioned players head in to this clash in superb form.
Although they have managed to entertain their fans again, on their way to the play-offs, the Highlanders are a well-rounded team who aren’t just focused on attacking.
Jamie Joseph’s troops have done particularly well in defence and only the Sharks have conceded fewer points than them during the league phase of the competition and, along with the Stormers, they have conceded the least tries (28).
The champions are also the side that his kicked the most out of hand and they have made the most tackles in this year’s competition (1990).
The last time these teams met: The Highlanders were dominant when these teams faced off in Dunedin in Round Three, eventually claiming a deserved 34-15 win. Matt Faddes led the way with tries, either side of the interval, for the champions with their other five-pointers scored by Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa in the second half. Lima Sopoaga contributed 14 points after kicking four conversions, a penalty and a drop goal. For the Lions, Rohan Janse Van Rensburg and Ruan Ackermann scored late tries and Elton Jantjies slotted a penalty and a conversion.
Team news: Openside flanker Jaco Kriel will lead the Lions in the absence of first-choice skipper Warren Whiteley, who has failed to recover from a calf injury sustained in last weekend’s quarter-final win over the Crusaders.Whiteley’s absence means that Ruan Ackermann will start at number eight in the only alteration to Lions head coach Johan Ackermann’s starting line-up. Meanwhile, Dillon Smit and Steph de Witt have been included on the replacements bench as scrum-half and back-row cover respectively.
Highlanders head coach Jamie Jospeh has made minimal changes after last weekend’s triumph over the Brumbies in Canberra. In the forwards, Joseph brings in James Lentjes for Shane Christie at openside flank and lock Alex Ainley replaces Luke Whitelock who moves to number eight. The starting backline from the quarter-final win against the Brumbies remains intact. The Highlanders will employ a six/two split on the bench, with hooker Greg Pleasants-Tate, prop Ross Geldenhuys and lock Joe Wheeler added to the squad. In the backs, the versatile Marty Banks makes his return from injury to take his place among the replacements.
2016: Highlanders won 34-15 in Dunedin
2015: Lions won 28-23 in Johannesburg
2014: Highlanders won 23-22 in Dunedin
2011: Lions won 26-22 in Dunedin
2010: Highlanders won 39-29 in Dunedin
2009: Lions won 27-22 in Johannesburg
2008: Highlanders won 29-20 in Dunedin
2007: Lions won 11-6 in Johannesburg
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnal Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf De Klerk, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylon Smith
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Steph de Witt, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Te Aihe Toma, 23 Marty Banks
Date: Saturday, July 30
Venue: Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg
Kick Off: 15:00 local (13:00 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keefe, AJ Jacobs
TMO: Shaun Veldsman