There should be plenty of thrilling action when the Cheetahs and Lions face off in their South African derby in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
As last year’s runners-up and South Africa’s top team, there will be plenty of pressure on the Lions this year and although the Cheetahs were also rans in 2016’s Super Rugby, they will be brimming with confidence after winning the Currie Cup.
Under the guidance of head coach Franco Smith, the Cheetahs swept all before them in South Africa’s domestic competition and they will be determined to make the step up to Super Rugby level.
That is of course easier said than done but Smith is quietly confident that his charges will do well.
“I am satisfied with where we are after the pre-season,” he said.
“Everyone trained really hard and we are as well prepared as we can be. The majority of the players have played Super Rugby and know what the intensity will be like.”
The Lions were like a breathe of fresh air on the South African landscape in 2016 and although there’s presure on them to win Super Rugby this year, head coach Johan Ackermann is focusing on their opener against the Cheetahs.
“You have to stay in the moment and not many teams are able to go through Super Rugby‚ especially with this format‚” Ackermann.
“There have been examples of teams who started badly yet went on to win the tournament.
“The Hurricanes were the example last year that shows you can turn it around if you win plenty of matches on the trot.
“Some teams know how to get momentum and keep it. We were fortunate that we had a good finish.
“We’re not going to target games. We’ll just look at matches on a weekly basis and we’ll do what has been serving us well in the past three years.”
The last time the teams met: The Lions eased to an easy 39-22 victory during a Round Four clash in Johannesburg last year. The hosts dominated from the outset and raced into a 24-3 lead at half-time. Although the Cheetahs gave a better account of themselves in the second half, it wasn’t enough and the Lions eventually outscored them by five tries to three. Elton Jantjies scored one of those tries and finished with a 17-point haul as he also added two penalties and three conversions.
Players to watch: With Lionel Mapoe switching to the wing, Howard Mnisi gets a chance to stake his claim for a permanent role in the Lions midfield alongside Rohan Janse van Rensburg. Mnisi is a talented player who has impressed in the past with some deft touches on attack. He has battled defensively, however, and will have to show considerable improvement in this department if he wants to cement his place in the run-on side.
Just like last season, the Cheetahs will kick off their campaign with Fred Zeilinga wearing the number 10 jersey. He will be hoping to make a positive impact as he did not do that in 2016 and eventually lost his starting spot to Niel Marais, who is on the bench for this encounter. Zeilinga will be expected to unleash his dangerous outside backs and also to keep the scoreboard ticking with accurate goalkicking.
Team news: Cheetahs boss Franco Smith has opted for Raymond Rhule, Sergeal Petersen and Clayton Blommetjies as his back three while up front Torsten van Jaarsveld will lead the XV, with Uzair Cassiem, Oupa Mohojo and Paul Schoeman the starting back row and Justin Basson and Reniel Hugo pack down in the second row. Elsewhere, Clinton Swart has big boots to fill as he replaces injured captain Francois Venter at outside centre and he is joined in midfield by Nico Lee, with Fred Zeilinga at fly-half.
The Lions have eight Springboks in their run-on side. Regular centre Lionel Mapoe shifts to the wing – where he replaces the injured Ruan Combrinck – with Howard Mnisi starting at inside centre and he lines up in midfield alongside Ruan Janse van Rensburg. Coach Johan Ackermann’s son Ruan Ackermann starts at seven in the place of the retired Warwick Tecklenburg in the loose trio, joined by Springboks Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel. In the front-row, with Julian Redelinghuys still injured, Ruan Dreyer will take his place in the three jersey while he binds up with Malcolm Marx and Jacques van Rooyen. On the bench, replacement prop Johannes Jonker will make his debut if he takes the field and Blitzbokke star Kwagga Smith could add some pace to the Lions attack off the bench.
Form: The Lions kicked off their pre-season programme in style when they claimed a 49-19 win against a makeshift SupaBarbarians team at Ellis Park at the start of the month. They then headed to Newlands where they lost 57-40 to the Stormers. The Cheetahs lost 43-7 to the Stormers in their first warm-up game of the season in Harare before suffering a 35-7 defeat to the Sharks in their next friendly in Umlazi.
2016: Lions won 39-22 in Johannesburg
2015: Lions won 40-17 in Bloemfontein
2015: Lions won 34-29 in Johannesburg
2014: Lions won 60-25 in Johannesburg
2014: Lions won 21-20 in Bloemfontein
2012: Cheetahs won 26-5 in Welkom
2012: Lions won 27-25 in Johannesburg
2011: Lions won 25-20 in Bloemfontein
Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Nico Lee, 12 Clinton Swart, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Paul Schoeman, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Uzair Cassiem, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Justin Basson, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld (c), 1 Charles Marais
Replacements: 16 Elandre Huggett, 17 Danie Mienie, 18 Ox Nche, 19 Francois Uys, 20 Niell Jordaan, 21 Zee Mkhabela, 22 Niel Marais, 23 Ryno Benjamin
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Lionel Mapoe, 13 Howard Mnisi, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Ruan Ackermann, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Akker vd Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Harold Vorster, 23 Jaco van der Walt
Date: Saturday, 25 February
Venue: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Kick-off: 15:05 local (13:05 GMT)
Referee: Quinton Immelman (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa), Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)