The Lions and Hurricanes face off in the Super Rugby semi-finals in Johannesburg on Saturday in a repeat of last year’s final.
On that occasion, the Hurricanes won 20-3 in wet Wellington weather to lift the trophy as the Lions walked away empty-handed. Earlier in 2016, the Hurricanes also won but that time by a more significant margin, 50-17.
Saturday will be the first time the Lions have faced New Zealand opposition in this year’s competition, something that one of their former greats Joel Stransky believes is a matter of grave concern as he feels they have been relatively untested this season.
However, this time around they are the home side and won’t be playing in wet New Zealand but in the early afternoon on the dry Highveld which will suit their preferred running game.
They are a more complete side this season and have the added motivation of wanting to give coach Johan Ackermann a fitting farewell by lifting their maiden Super Rugby trophy as Ackermann leaves at the end of the Super Rugby campaign to take over the reins at English side Gloucester.
Should they win, they will become just the second South African team in Super Rugby history to appear in back-to-back finals after the Bulls did so in 2009 and 2010.
Unfortunately for the South African side, they are missing their talisman and captain Warren Whiteley just as the New Zealand outfit are welcoming back their captain Dane Coles to the fold, who will make his 100th Super Rugby appearance.
The Hurricanes have won the last eight meetings between the sides and won four of their last five games in South Africa. However, this is the first Finals game they will play in South Africa.
The ‘Canes are benefited by having former Sharks coach John Plumtree as their assistant coach, who brings with him an in-depth knowledge of South African rugby.
The defending champions have broken the record for most tries in a Super Rugby season, their tally of 93 well above the Lions’ tally of 81 from last season. And they are are likely to add to that number.
They also boast Super Rugby’s two top try-scorers in centre pairing Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso who have scored 14 apiece.
It all makes for an intriguing encounter as the Hurricanes (39) and Lions (38) average the most points scored per game of any teams in the competition so far this season, while each also has conceded a league-low 18 points per game.
The last time the teams met: It was the 2016 Super Rugby final played in wet Wellington. The Lions struggled to adapt to the conditions. Man-of-the-match Beauden Barrett scored 15 points including a try and Corey Jane chipped in with a try.
Players to watch: Watch out for king of the lineout, Lions lock Franco Mostert. Mostert has stolen 14 lineouts so far this season, six more than any other player and 11 more than Hurricanes’ best Vae Fifita and Brad Shields (3 each).
For the Hurricanes, it is reigning World Rugby player of the year Beauden Barrett. The man has an appetite for the big occasion. In last year’s final, he scored 15 of the game’s 23 points. With his younger brother taking all the plaudits in recent weeks, he has a point to prove. Also keep an eye out for that trademark cross-kick of his.
Team news: The Lions have named an unchanged side for their Super Rugby game against the Hurricanes as they look for a win to seal a home final. On the back of a nervy 23-21 victory over the Sharks, the Lions will need a much-improved performance if they are to see off the Hurricanes. Harold Vorster remains at 12 as Rohan Janse van Rensburg continues to wait for a start, with Jaco Kriel again captaining in the absence of the injured Warren Whiteley. He is alongside Kwagga Smith and Ruan Ackermann. Up front Ruan Dreyer and Jacques van Rooyen continue as props either side of Malcolm Marx.
Meanwhile, Dane Coles will start at hooker and captain the Hurricanes. The Wellington hooker’s return is one of two changes to the starting side with the competition’s leading try scorer Vince Aso reclaiming his place at centre in a reshuffled backline. Coles will become the eleventh player to achieve 100 caps for the Hurricanes after Andrew Hore, Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Rodney So’oialo, Jeremy Thrush, Neemia Tialata, Tana Umaga, Victor Vito and Julian Savea. “It will be a massive honour to join those players in reaching a milestone that I never thought I would achieve,” he said. “I love pulling on the yellow and black jersey and representing the Hurricanes region and I’ve treasured every opportunity.” Coles, who made his Hurricanes debut against the Waratahs in Wellington in 2009, replaces Ricky Riccitelli in an otherwise unchanged forward pack. The return of Aso from the groin injury that kept him out of the quarter-final sees wing Julian Savea move to the reserves at the expense of veteran Cory Jane. Aso replaces Jordie Barrett at centre with the latter moving back to full-back in place of Nehe Milner-Skudder. Milner-Skudder shifts to the right wing with Wes Goosen switching sides to start in the 11 jersey previously held by Savea.
Form: The Lions have won their last 13 games on the bounce, the longest winning streak ever by a South African team, eclipsing the 12-game streak set by the Bulls across 2009 and 2010.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have won 13 of their 16 games this season. They made a massive statement beating the Crusaders two weeks ago, the only side to do so in this year’s competition. And last weekend they beat the Brumbies 35-16 with little fuss.
Prediction: The Hurricanes will put on a masterclass in attacking rugby here, showing the Lions just how it’s done. Hurricanes by 20.
2016: Hurricanes won 20-3 in Wellington
2016: Hurricanes won 50-17 in Johannesburg
2015: Hurricanes won 22-8 in Johannesburg
2012: Hurricanes won 30-28 in Johannesburg
2011: Hurricanes won 38-27 in Wellington
2010: Hurricanes won 33-18 in Wellington
2009: Hurricanes won 38-32 in Johannesburg
2008: Hurricanes won 38-12 in Wellington
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 vd Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Wes Goosen, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Ben May
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Reed Prinsep, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Julian Savea
Date: Saturday, July 29
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kick-Off: 14:30 local (12:30 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Marius van der Westhuizen, Rasta Rasivhenge
TMO: Marius Jonker