Super Rugby Match Preview
Saturday 17th February, 2018
Lions vs Sharks
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kickoff: 17h15 Local Time, 15h15 GMT
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Referees: AJ Jacobs, Cwengile Jadezweni
TMO: Marius Jonker
Last year the Sharks’ two final fixtures of the Super Rugby season were against the Lions. In the last of the regular season fixtures they hosted the Lions in Durban, and a week later they made the trip up to Ellis Park to face the Lions again, this time in a Super Rugby Quarterfinal. The Sharks lost both encounters. On the 15th July, they lost 27 – 10, and then on 22nd July a much closer 23 – 21 loss followed.
In a strange quirk of the fixture list fundis employed by SANZAAR, these two teams will meet again in their first fixture of the 2018 season. Once again, the venue is Ellis Park, or whatever they have agreed to call the place this year.
About there, the similarities between last year and this year end.
Both sides have a number of crucial changes in personnel. Both sides have had a good off-season to patch-up and repair, and then prepare, although a number of players from both outfits spent their holidays earning some extra yen over in Japan, or some sterling in England in the case of the Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
At the end of last year, the Lions sorely missed the leadership of their iconic captain, Warren Whiteley. His calmness under pressure and his ability to focus his men on the job at hand have been a critical part of the Lion’s success in the last number of years, and his influence was visibly missing towards the end of last season.
This time, however, Whiteley is back! The groin injury that sidelined him for nine months is a thing of the past and he is fit and raring to go.
On the Sharks side, their forward effort in the quarterfinal was led by the resurgence of their two Springbok props. The Beast Tendai Mtawarira was starting to play some of the best rugby of his life, and Coenie Oosthuizen had suddenly found form in the tighthead berth, really stepping up to be counted.
This time round, Oosthuizen is out with a long-term injury, and the Beast will start off the bench.
If we look at the two teams selected by their respective coaches, there are a number of surprises.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the Lions’ preference for Harold Vorster as the starting 12 instead of a fit-again Rohan Janse van Rensburg. They are also missing Jaco Kriel, their star flanker, with Cyle Brink starting alongside Kwagga Smith and Warren Whiteley.
The back division is something of a mixture. Regulars are seen in Ross Cronje, Elton Jantjies, Lionel Mapoe at 13, and Andries Coetzee at the back. The outside backs are Sylvian Mahuza and Aphiwe Dyantyi – both somewhat unknown to Super Rugby followers.
The pack is loaded with all the usual suspects. Jacques van Rooyen and Ruan Dreyer will prop the scrum, with Malcolm Marx between them, while Franco Mostert and Andries Ferreira will lock the second row.
Their bench also has some well-known faces, the likes of Robbie Coetzee, Dylan Smith, Manus Schoeman, Howard Mnisi and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, amongst others.
The Lions look pretty familiar, a settled side.
The Sharks too, look familiar. Yet there are a couple of surprises. Curwin Bosch is listed to start off the bench, with Lwazi Mvovu preferred at fullback, while Robert du Preez (Jnr) competes his move from the Cape to start at 10 for his father’s outfit. Wing Makazole Mapimpi will be making his Super debut for the Sharks after a good showing in the warm-ups.
Ruan Botha leads the team from the 2nd row, while Philip van der Walt and Andre Esterhuizen are both named to start, following their Japanese club commitments during the off-season. Lukhanyo Am has been picked at outside centre, with Esterhuizen inside him.
The Sharks have a number of Springboks on the bench in the form of Tendai Mtawarira, Dan du Preez, Michael Claassens and Curwin Bosch.
I admit to being just a little surprised at Du Preez’s selection of Mtawarira, Dan du Preez, Claassens, Van Wyk, and Bosch on the bench. These were all regular starters in 2017 and represent some pretty solid performers. I am not sure that the likes of Sbu Nkosi, Andre Esterhuizen, and even Makazole Mapimpi, are better than those on the bench.
Mapimpi is certainly a flyer, but he is unproven at the top level, his previous experiences with the Border Bulldogs, the Kings, and then the Cheetahs did not expose him to the structured play and disciplined approach of the bigger guns. He was playing the opportunistic game favoured by the minnows who are forced to feed off crumbs. We will need to see whether he fits into the Sharks game plans.
I truly hope he makes it, he is a great finisher, but he still has to be measured for his blazer.
I am also unconvinced by Thomas du Toit as a tighthead prop. He is certainly a great prospect as a loosehead, but in the 3 jersey I have some doubts. I am also concerned about his pace around the field. In 2017 he was often the last to arrive at the breakdown where his enormous physical strength would make so much difference if he got there earlier. He is still learning and has the potential to be great, but is very much still a work-in-progress.
A thought: The Lions are known as one of the best finishing sides in Super Rugby. They score more tries in the last half an hour of a rugby match than anyone else in the competition. Perhaps that is why Du Preez is holding back some of his own heavy artillery? Not so much as impact players, rather to provide the nous and calmness when the trench fighting gets a little desperate
The Sharks built their 2017 game plan around a dominant pack of forwards. They played to midfield pods of forwards and tried to scrum and drive their way to victory. Looking at the Lions pack, I am wondering whether they might have a bit of a problem this time around. The Lions are first-phase specialists, scoring more than half their 2017 tries from scrum or lineout. They are equally adept at playing the midfield game, or switching to the wide support game. The Lions’ pack will not easily be dominated by the Sharks forwards, and if the men from Durban are looking at the same tactics as last year, they may just be on the road to a hiding.
The Lions are solid in the scrum, and their lineout is a weapon of some potency. They love to maul the ball, with Malcolm Marx providing the grunt in the last yards of every maul. They are difficult to stop. Can the Sharks stop them? Legally?
And then there is the breakdown. Kwagga Smith and Malcolm Marx versus Daniel, Vermeulen, and van der Walt. No contest, I would suggest. The Sharks will need to flood the breakdown at every opportunity if they want to prevent those Lions’ poachers from stealing balls, and that is potentially counter-productive. Committing numbers to the breakdown exposes the midfield and outer fringes. If the Lions turn it over and go wide, there is trouble.
Yet the Sharks know what they are facing. They have some astute thinkers in their squad and in their coach. They will know the Lions’ strengths and weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is the inability of their flyhalf to play off the back foot. If they can put pressure on Jantjies, they could swing the advantage their way. But if they give him front-foot ball, they will spend a lot of time tackling….
In that first of the last two games of 2017 the Sharks made the tactical mistakes I am talking about here. They tried to slow the Lions’ ball stealers, they tried to slow the game to the pace of their forward pods, and the Lions simply stepped up the pace and took the game away from them.
The Sharks learned some lessons and applied them in that quarterfinal, and it was a different story altogether. (Some suggest that they should have won the play-off, but that would have been a travesty of rugby justice, the Lions were the better side all year, but the Sharks came close!)
And if they apply those lessons again on Saturday…. The Sharks do have a chance!
Lest we forget, the Lions will be doing their own tactical planning, game analysis, and preparations. They have also learned from playing the Sharks in the past.
This will be a typical South African derby. Brutal, confrontational, physical, desperate at times. The collisions up front will be taxing, and there is likely to be some aggro involved.
The weather is unlikely to have any great effect on the game, there is no rain forecast, with temperatures hovering around 25℃ with a very light breeze from the south.
Pre-Season warm-ups are never an indication of what happens when the real rubber meets the road, so I ignore them in my thinking. They are just that, a warm-up against something other than tackle-bags.
I would suggest that the key to this game will be fitness. Here the Lions have a tradition of trying to be fitter than anyone else when the season kicks off. They also have the advantage of playing at the lung-burning altitude of Ellis Park.
I think the Lions squad is just too well balanced, too experienced, and has too much in the tank for the Sharks. The high-paced game the Lions favour will probably take its toll on the Sharks as the effects of altitude kick in. The Lions, by around 12 points.
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