The Lions will be keen to continue their dominance over the Sharks when the sides meet in their season opener in Johannesburg on Saturday.
The home team will be brimming with confidence ahead of this encounter as they have won the last six fixtures between these two sides with the Sharks last winning in 2015.
The Lions are at the beginning of a new era, however, as they have lost the services of their coach Johan Ackermann, who left at the end of the 2017 Super campaign, to take over the reins at Premiership side Gloucester.
However, they have retained the services of most of their 2017 squad with experienced players like captain Warren Whiteley, Franco Mostert and South Africa’s Player of the Year, Malcolm Marx expected to the lead the charge up front while seasoned half-back duo Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies will be the chief playmakers in their backline.
They have lost the services of players like Faf de Klerk, Ruan Ackermann and Akker van der Merwe though, but there is enough depth in their ranks to negate those players’ departures.
Jantjies is set to line up for his 100th Super Rugby appearance. The Lions pivot has scored 67 points in his last six games against the Sharks.
Their opponents, meanwhile, have been boosted by the recruitment of Van der Merwe as well as exciting backline players like Robert du Preez Junior and try-scoring machine Makazole Mapimpi.
Also keep an eye on Philip van der Walt, who made 170 tackles in Super Rugby 2017, more than any other player, missing just six further attempts.
The Sharks will be desperate to end their losing streak against their hosts as they dominated this fixture before the Lions recent winning streak. The Johannesburg-based side picked up just two wins in their 13 prior meetings with the Sharks winning 10 and there was one draw.
The last time the teams met: The Lions claimed a hard-fought 23-21 victory when these sides met in last year’s quarter-final in Johannesburg. As the scoreline suggests, this was a closely contested battle and the Lions only sealed their win in the 78th minute when Ruan Combrinck slotted a penalty from 58 metres out. It looked like the Sharks would advance to the semi-finals after tries from Kobus van Wyk and Dan du Preez, along with the boot of Curwin Bosch, put them 21-20 in front with two minutes left on the clock at Ellis Park. But up stepped Combrinck to nail the long-range kick for his side, whose try scorers were Franco Mostert, Jaco Kriel and Lionel Mapoe.
Players to watch: The Lions are renowned for their enterprising style of play with backline players like Jantjies, Cronje, Lionel Mapoe and Andries Coetzee all impressive on attack. However, keep an eye out for openside flanker Kwagga Smith, who recently returned from a spell with the Springbok Sevens side. Smith is superb with ball in hand, has a brilliant skill-set, possesses plenty of pace and also defends well. He will be vital to the Lions’ cause especially considering that they will be without injured Bok tearaway Jaco Kriel for the tournament’s early rounds.
If the Sharks want to end their losing streak against their hosts, new fly-half Robert du Preez will have to hit the ground running after joining the Durban-based franchise from the Stormers. Du Preez’s playmaking skills will have to be at their best as he possesses potent attackers on his outside while he will also be expected to keep the scoreboard ticking over with accurate goalkicking.
Team news: The return of inspirational captain and number eight Warren Whiteley is a shot in the arm for the Lions. Whiteley is finally back after a groin injury that was misdiagnosed, resulting in him being sidelined for nine months instead of the original two and missing most of last season. The biggest surprise is the inclusion of Harold Vorster at inside centre ahead of Rohan Janse van Rensburg. Meanwhile, Sylvian Mahuza and Aphiwe Dyantyi line up on the wings with Courtnall Skosan only set to return in June. Jacques van Rooyen, meanwhile, will earn his 50th cap for the Johannesburg outfit when he starts at loosehead prop.
Sharks boss Robert du Preez has blended youth and experience in his starting line-up. Du Preez has selected his son, Robert du Preez Junior, at fly-half while Lwazi Mvovo is a surprise selection at full-back ahead of Curwin Bosch. The younger Du Preez and wing Makazole Mapimpi will be making their competitive debuts for the Durban-based franchise, having both featured prominently in the warm-ups. Ruan Botha leads the team from the second row, while Philip van der Walt (flanker) and Andre Esterhuizen (centre) are named to start following their Japanese club commitments during the off-season.
Form: The Lions finished off the 2017 season as the tournament’s runners-up after suffering a 25-17 defeat to the Crusaders in last year’s final in Johannesburg. They only played one warm-up match this year but did well and claimed a convincing 66-22 victory over the Bulls in Johannesburg at the end of January.
The Sharks bowed out in that dramatic quarter-final clash against the Lions last year. The men from Durban kicked off their pre-season campaign on a low note and were beaten 31-14 by the Bulls in Polokwane late in January before heading to Hong Kong where they claimed an emphatic 31-14 triumph over Racing 92.
Prediction: With this being a South African derby, there should be plenty of brutal collisions especially amongst the forwards. The Lions will have the edge, however due to their fast-paced style of play and homeground advantage. Lions to win by six points!
2017: Lions won 23-21 in Johannesburg
2017: Lions won 27-10 in Durban
2017: Lions won 34-29 in Johannesburg
2016: Lions won 37-10 in Johannesburg
2016: Lions won 24-9 in Durban
2015: Lions won 23-21 in Johannesburg
2015: Sharks won 29-12 in Durban
2014: Sharks won 25-12 in Johannesburg
2014: Sharks won 37-23 in Durban
2012: Lions won 38-28 in Johannesburg
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Sylvian Mahuza, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Jacobie Adriaanse, 19 Marvin Orie, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Hacjivah Dayimani, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Rohan Janse van Rensburg
Sharks: 15 Lwazi Mvovo, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Cameron Wright, 8 Keegan Daniel, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 6 Philip van der Walt, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Ruan Botha (c), 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Juan Schoeman
Replacements: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 John-Hubert Meyer, 18 Tendai Mtawarira, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Daniel du Preez, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Curwin Bosch, 23 Kobus van Wyk
Date: Saturday, February 17
Venue: Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 17:15 local (15:15 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant referees: AJ Jacobs, Cwengile Jadezweni
TMO: Marius Jonker