Super Rugby action resumes this weekend when the Lions take on the Sunwolves at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Saturday.
The Lions are chasing top spot on the overall table in the competition and home ground advantage throughout the play-offs, and five points against the Sunwolves is a must. For this reason, they have named their strongest possible side for the clash.
Almost all of the Lions players featured either for the Springboks or SA ‘A’ side against France and the French Barbarians respectively. This means they will have kept up their match fitness during the international break.
The Lions have a seriously impressive home record. They have won their last 12 games on home turf. Only once in Super Rugby history has any South African team won more home games in a row, when the Bulls won 20 home games on the trot between 2008 and 2010.
However, they have yet to play against New Zealand opposition and one feels this is when the true test will come. They will be focusing on building momentum ahead of the play-offs where they are destined to finally face one or more of the Kiwi sides.
The Sunwolves have never won away from home in their Super Rugby history and one can’t see that changing this weekend. However, their last two games on the road have seen them fall by a margin of just seven points.
While they have improved from last season, they still fade badly towards the end of games exposing their lack of conditioning and stamina levels.
With many of their players featuring for Japan against Romania (once) and in a two-match series against Ireland, they may not have had the rest they needed from a tough Super Rugby season thus far.
The last time the teams met: The Lions secured a 26-13 bonus-point win as tries from Robbie Coetzee, Courtnall Skosan, Jaco Kriel and Lionel Mapoe proved too much for the Sunwolves who scored through a sole Shota Horie try.
Keep an eye on Kwagga Smith who should count himself unlucky for not being selected in the Springbok squad for the June series after a terrific season. Despite his diminutive stature, Smith fronts up in the physical confrontation more than sufficiently. He is an expert at stealing ball and possesses electrifying pace for a flank, which made him such an effective Sevens player.
Meanwhile, South African Willie Britz is undoubtedly the talisman for this Sunwolves team. Constantly barking encouragement to his players, Britz leads by example putting his body on the line each and every time. He is often the go-to man in the lineout and brings added value with his in-depth knowledge of South African opposition sides and their players.
Almost all of the Lions players who were on Springbok and SA ‘A’ duty during the international break return to side, with only captain Warren Whiteley sidelined with his torn pelvic ligament. Jaco Kriel will captain in Whiteley’s absence while Andries Coetzee, Courtnall Skosan, Lionel Mapoe, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Franco Mostert, Ruan Dreyer and Malcolm Marx all start. There is also a return on the right wing for Ruan Combrinck.
Sunwolves coach Filo Tiatia has made 12 changes to the side that played the Cheetahs at the end of May for the clash with the Lions. Yasutaka Sasakura replaces Kotaro Matsushima at full-back, Derek Carpenter moves from outside to inside centre while Harumichi Tatekawa drops out of the matchday 23 to be replaced by Ryohei Yamanaka who starts at inside centre. Teruya Goto takes the place of Shota Emi on the wing, Jumpei Ogura replaces Yu Tamura at fly-half while Keisuke Uchida starts at scrum-half at the expense of Fumiaki Tanaka. There are a number of changes amongst the forwards. The only remaining player is Sam Wykes at lock. Otherwise, Keita Inagaki, Yusuke Niwai, Takuma Asahara, Kotaro Yatabe, Malgene Ilaua, Shuhei Matsuhashi and Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco are replaced by Masataki Mikami, Atsushi Sakate, Yasuo Yamaji, Kotaro Yatabe, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Shokei Kin and Willie Britz who captains the side.
2016: Lions won 26-13 in Tokyo
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Kwagga Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 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 Sylvian Mahuza
Sunwolves: 15 Yasutaka Sasakura, 14 Takaaki Nakazuru, 13 Ryohei Yamanaka, 12 Derek Carpenter, 11 Teruya Goto, 10 Jumpei Ogura, 9 Keisuke Uchida, 8 Willie Britz (c), 7 Shokei Kin, 6 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 5 Kotaro Yatabe, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Yasuo Yamaji, 2 Atsushi Sakate, 1 Masataka Mikami
Replacements: 16 Takeshi Hino, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Uwe Helu, 20 Malgene Ilaua, 21 Kaito Shigeno, 22 Rikiya Matsuda, 23 Kotaro Matsushima
Date: Saturday, July 1
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 17:15 local (15.15 GMT)
Referee: Egon Seconds
Assistant Referees: Rasta Rasivhenge, Archie Sehlako
TMO: Shaun Veldsman