13 points clear of their nearest South African rival, the Lions will be eager to continue their fine season on Saturday when they face the Bulls.
The Sharks are currently the closest challenger to the Lions in Africa 2 while the Bulls are 31 points adrift of their hosts going into this weekend.
Form suggests a foregone conclusion in Johannesburg and with the Lions arriving back on the comforts of home soil after becoming the first South African team to win three straight matches on tour in Australia, their tails will be up as they look to cement their spot at the top.
Despite not having imposing centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg over recent rounds, his replacement, Harold Vorster, has been excellent in the midfield. Indeed it’s the unsung heroes such as Vorster, Kwagga Smith and Andries Coetzee which make this Lions team such a strong outfit.
What will give the Lions further hope of making it 11 wins from 12 in 2017 is that they’ve won three of their last four games against the Bulls, after going winless in all of their previous 11 games against them (D1, L10). They’re also undefeated in their last 13 South African derbies (W12, D1), including wins in their last 11, though the Bulls were the last team to beat them in such a game back in Round 12, 2015.
The Bulls, who have suffered seven defeats in their 10 matches, have also lost their last two away games against South African sides; the last time they lost more such games on the trot was a five-match drought which began in 2013 and included the entirety of the 2014 season.
Despite their disappointing campaign thus far though, head coach Nollis Marais is backing his side to rise to the occasion at Ellis Park.
“Look, they’re our form team, no doubt. We have had epic battles with them and this is a big derby match, so the guys will be up for it,” he said, with Bulls captain and number eight, Hanro Liebenberg, revealing his charges are excited about the match as they look to impress.
“We have a chance to compare ourselves against the leading South African team in the competition. That is a nice challenge,” Liebenberg said. “The fact it is a Gauteng derby also makes it a nice one for the fans. We owe them a good show and where better to do that than Johannesburg.”
The last time the teams met: The Lions dominated the Bulls in Pretoria in Round 14 of last season, winning 56-20 in an impressive victory. Tries were scored by Rohan Janse van Rensburg (2), Lionel Mapoe, Julian Redelinghuys, Jaco Kriel, Courtnall Skosan and Faf de Klerk while Marnitz Boshoff kicked 21 points off the tee. Jesse Kriel, Adriaan Strauss and Deon Stegmann scored the Bulls’ tries in a disappointing result.
Team news: The Lions coaches have made three changes for the Bulls encounter this weekend, with a new front-row trio of Jacques van Rooyen, Malcolm Marx and Ruan Dreyer in the starting line-up. The rest of the Lions’ starting XV is unchanged although there are alterations to the bench, with Cyle Brink wearing the number 20 jersey. Faf de Klerk is the other change to their bench as he takes the place of Dillon Smit.
Bulls head coach Nollis Marais has named Tuks wing Sibahle Maxwane in his side. Marais hands the 21-year-old his team and tournament debut, whilst also making four changes to his backline. Maxwane replaces the injured Jamba Ulengo, while Jan Serfontein and Francois Brummer will earn starts and Jesse Kriel will play at full-back. Kriel comes in for Warrick Gelant, who moves to the bench to take over from Serfontein who moves into Kriel’s place at centre. Brummer takes over from Tian Schoeman. In the pack, Lood de Jager replaces the suspended RG Snyman.
Form: Since their Round 3 defeat to the Jaguares, the Lions have put together a run of eight wins which has seen them take a stranglehold of Africa 2. Currently they’re 13 points ahead of the Sharks and 20 ahead of Africa 1 pace-setters the Stormers. Their win at the Brumbies last week was celebrated like a knockout success as they knew how important it was to stay firmly in the South African Group driving seat.
For the Bulls it’s been a different story. They are second in Africa 1, 11 points adrift of the Stormers, so it’s imperative they win this clash in Johannesburg. On average this season they’ve scored two tries per game but conceded four, with seven losses from their ten games.
2016: Lions won 56-20 in Pretoria
2015: Bulls won 35-33 in Pretoria
2015: Lions won 22-15 in Johannesburg
2014: Lions won 32-21 in Johannesburg
2014: Bulls won 25-17 in Pretoria
2012: Bulls won 37-20 in Pretoria
2012: Bulls won 32-18 in Johannesburg
2011: Bulls won 30-23 in Pretoria
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Sylvian Mahuza, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Ruan Ackermann, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Jacques Nel, 23 Anthony Volmink
Bulls: 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Jade Stighling, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Sibahle Maxwane, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Hanro Liebenberg (c), 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Ruan Steenkamp, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Lizo Gqoboka
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Pierre Schoeman, 18 Conraad van Vuuren, 19 Abongile Nonkontwana, 20 Nic de Jager, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Tony Jantjies, 23 Warrick Gelant
Date: Saturday, May 20
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 17:15 local (15:15 GMT)
Referee: Quinton Immelman
Assistant Referees: AJ Jacobs, Pro Legoete
TMO: Marius Jonker