Super Rugby Match Preview
Saturday, 10th March 2018
Lions vs Blues
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kickoff: 17h15 Local Time, 15h15 GMT, 17h15 SA Time
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Assistant referees: AJ Jacobs (South Africa), Jaco Pretorius (South Africa)
TMO: Willie Vos (South Africa)
The Lions have their first opportunity to test their 2018 form against a New Zealand outfit as the Blues arrive in Johannesburg on Saturday.
With three wins from three games under their belt, having beaten the Sharks, the Jaguares, and the Bulls, the Lions seem ready for another tilt at the title in 2018.
The Blues arrive at Ellis Park after two straight defeats, and plenty of questions being asked about their ability to step up a level and become competitive in the New Zealand environment. Some have suggested that they have a psychological problem, seeing themselves as the perennial underdog and loser, others have spoken about their inability to take good rugby decisions out on the field.
I am less bloody-minded about the Blues than some of their compatriots in the New Zealand media. This is a team that is loaded with talent just waiting for the moment to spark and explode into action. Perhaps they have an issue with an underperforming pack of forwards, but they do have some exciting backs!
The Lions have won four out of their last six games against New Zealand teams and also have a three in a row record against the Blues.
The Blues flight to Johannesburg via Sydney was delayed by 24 hours due to engineering problems with their plane, which would have interfered with their match preparation.
The Lions have an unchanged starting line-up for their game against the Blues at Ellis Park on Saturday.
The news that Jaco Kriel is likely to miss most, if not all of the rest of the Super Rugby season is alleviated somewhat by the success trying of Franco Mostert as blindside flank. He did well enough against the Bulls for the Lions to continue to select him in the same position this week, adding to their lineout options as well as their presence over the ball on the ground.
There are three changes on the bench, with Kwagga Smith, Ashlon Davids and Hacjivah Dayimani coming in to replace Marnus Schoeman, Marco Janse van Vuuren and Madosh Tambwe respectively.
The Blues have some good news and some bad news. The good news first, Sonny Bill Williams and Jerome Kaino return to the side, with SBW having been side-lined by a leg injury and Kaino starting after coming off the bench against the Chiefs.
The bad news is that they have lost the services of Augustine Pulu, their captain and scrumhalf, for six weeks. Sam Nock replaces him as the starting scrumhalf while James Parsons takes over as captain.
Rieko Ioane moves in to centre from the wing to partner SBW, giving Melani Nanai a start out wide, while Kaino starts at flank alongside Antonio Kiri Kiri.
Stephen Perofeta starts on the bench as he continues his recovery from a hand injury.
Much has been said about the Blues inability to finish off games. They are competitive for anything up to the 60 minute mark, and then seem to implode and throw a game away. Last week they had the lead at half-time against the Chiefs, and then lost it 27 – 21.
I listened to the New Zealand commentators on their Breakdown programme, and they all seemed to have different reasons for the Blues finishing problems. Their previous coach, John Kirwan, was adamant that it was simply a couple of poor decisions and a bit of bad luck. Mostly bad luck. (But then, he was singly the most unsuccessful coach in the Blues entire history…) Others spoke of the psychological pressures in a team that have become used to losing, and the pressure leads to an inability to take the mental step up to win a game.
I think the root of their problem is a pack of forwards that are not really up to the Super Rugby standards set by some of the bigger sides. The Blues have a couple of really good players, as individuals, but they do not gel as a unit. I would be hesitant to suggest why..
The Lions are a settled side, with established patterns and plays, experienced units, and the confidence that comes with winning and winning again.
They have a formidable pack of forwards, with a couple of real international class players amongst them. They have a quick and confident back division that is prepared to try anything.
Most importantly, they play as a team, for each other and with a common goal in mind. That makes then especially dangerous.
If we look at form in 2018, the Blues lost two nail-biting New Zealand derbies. Going down 41-34 to the Highlanders, and then blowing it against the Chiefs 27-21. They were not disgraced by either showing, they just did not seem capable of finishing the game when they had the edge!
The Lions started the season well, beating the Sharks 26-19 in a ring rusty season opener, then winning a comfortable 47-27 game against the Jaguares, before changing game plans and out-thinking and then outclassing the Bulls 49-35. That last score-line made more respectable by two late Bulls tries when the Lions had already started to head for the change-rooms.
This Blues backline is loaded with skill, and some great finishers, none more so than Rieko Ioane. However, he is playing out of position at 13, which might limit his scoring opportunities somewhat. Sonny Bill Williams is always a handful as he ties up defenders, giving his outside runners room to move. The Lions defence will be severely tested by this Blues side, especially on the counter-attack.
A dominant pack of forwards, home advantage, well-seasoned troops, and just a touch too many opportunist runners will see the Lions win by 12.
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Sylvian Mahuza, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Franco Mostert, 6 Cyle Brink, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Jacobus Adriaanse, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Hacjivah Dayimani, 22 Ashlon Davids, 23 Harold Vorster
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Sam Nock, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Antonio Kiri Kiri, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Alex Hodgman
Replacements: 16 Ross Wright, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Mike Tamoaieta, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Jimmy Tupou, 21 Murphy Taramai, 22 Jonathan Ruru, 23 Stephen Perofeta