The Waratahs will look to prevent the Lions from reaching the Super Rugby final for the third successive year when the teams go head-to-head at Ellis Park on Saturday.
Swys de Bruin’s men may have struggled to recapture the performances of the previous two campaigns, but they did just enough to finish top of the South African Conference and then elevated their game in the Qualifiers.
Mario Ledesma’s Jaguares had enjoyed an impressive year, reaching the play-offs for the first time since their inception in 2016, but the Argentines failed to match the South Africans’ physicality.
With Warren Whiteley and Malcolm Marx back to full fitness, De Bruin has a powerful forward eight at his disposal and the ‘Tahs will need to do a better job of negating that threat.
In Tom Robertson and Sekope Kepu, they have props better equipped to handle the qualities of Ruan Dreyer and Jacques van Rooyen, while the back-row of Ned Hanigan, Will Miller and Michael Wells performed excellently in the second-half against the Highlanders.
Although the absence of captain Michael Hooper is a blow, Miller – particularly at the breakdown – has been a nuisance for the opposition and he will need to display that scavenging ability again.
The Lions are rightfully favourites, however, and despite some of the issues that have encompassed the franchise this season, they were much improved in their quarter-final encounter.
De Bruin’s charges have also benefited from the format by having a home semi-final, even though they finished the season with fewer points than the Hurricanes and Chiefs.
Their opponents will also enjoy the fact that they have avoided having to face either the Crusaders or ‘Canes in the last four, but you get the sense that both are playing for second in the competition.
The Johannesburg-based side appear the best equipped to reach the final and should ultimately prevail at Ellis Park on Saturday, but you cannot discount a team that contains the potency of Israel Folau, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale behind the scrum.
The last time the teams met: Daryl Gibson’s men produced an appalling performance earlier this year as they succumbed 29-0 to the Lions in Sydney. They struggled for continuity and made a plethora of mistakes as the South Africans kept them scoreless at Allianz Stadium. In contrast, the visitors were excellent and opened the scoring when Madosh Tambwe touched down before Kwagga Smith took them 12-0 ahead. Harold Vorster and Marnus Schoeman added further tries while Elton Jantjies kicked three conversions and a penalty to complete a dominant victory.
Team news: Lions head coach Swys de Bruin has made one change to his XV for the Super Rugby semi-final in Johannesburg.
Despite reports coming out of the camp earlier in the week suggesting that flanker Cyle Brink would be fit to face the Australian franchise, he has been replaced in the team by Lourens Erasmus.
Brink suffered a stinger against the Jaguares and was replaced at the interval by Marnus Schoeman, but has not recovered in time to take on the Tahs.
Schoeman remains on the bench, however, with Erasmus, who usually plays in the second-row, chosen ahead of the flanker.
Elsewhere, the hosts are unchanged, although back-rower Hacjivah Dayimani is among the replacements because of Erasmus’ elevation to the first team.
For the Waratahs, the selection of hooker Tolu Latu is the only change to their line-up for Saturday.
Latu will make his first start of the season, replacing Damien Fitzpatrick, who will be on the bench. Head coach Daryl Gibson said the inclusion of the front-rower was a reflection of the type of game the Lions were likely to play.
“This match will be a very physical encounter, particularly with the breakdown and scrum being key battlegrounds. These are areas where Tolu excels. We are expecting a real set-piece battle so we need to be good in this area to compete with the Lions’ scrum and lineout,” Gibson said.
“I can’t see the Lions changing what has worked for them all season. We learnt a great deal from the last time we played them when they won easily, and when their strengths led them to victory. We have again focused on our defence this week as we see that as key to victory.”
2018: Lions won 29-00 in Sydney
2017: Lions won 55-36 in Johannesburg
2015: Lions won 27-22 in Johannesburg
2014: Waratahs won 41-13 in Sydney
2011: Waratahs won 29-12 in Sydney
2010: Waratahs won 73-12 in Sydney
2009: Waratahs won 38-33 in Johannesburg
2008: Waratahs won 26-03 in Sydney
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Lourens Erasmus, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Corne Fourie, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Hacjivah Dayimani, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Courtnall Skosan, 23 Howard Mnisi
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley (c), 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Will Miller, 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Cam Clark
Date: Saturday, July 28
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 15:05 local (14:05 BST, 13:05 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)