Improve the defence
Johan Ackermann’s men have let in 18 tries in their five games, six of those coming in last weekend’s match against the Crusaders. It’s the main reason why the Lions came unstuck last week because they scored four tries themselves, so they’ll be expecting a much better showing this weekend.
If Ackermann and Co are to be taken as serious contenders they’re simply going to have to sharpen up in the tackle department. They’re the leading try-scoring team in South Africa, with 19, but their expansive, attack-orientated game will have to be complemented by an equally impressive defensive system if they’re to win tight games. Fortunately for them, the Sharks are not the most lethal attacking side, having scored just 12 tries, so they’re not likely to be as threatening as the Crusaders were. But the Lions will still have to tackle strongly and perhaps that's why why Ackermann has brought in Rohan Janse van Rensburg into the centres (in place of Howard Mnisi); he’s powerful on attack and also a sound defender.
Boss the breakdown
There are several loose-forwards who’ve stood out in these early rounds of the competition, but standing in front of the queue is probably Marcell Coetzee. Having been overlooked for the World Cup by Heyneke Meyer, Coetzee has come out fighting this year and his battle with Jaco Kriel of the Lions should be one of the highlights of the match tomorrow.
With Kriel leading the way in the battle of the breakdowns, the Lions, as a collective, will have to protect the ball a lot better than they did a week ago and try to starve the Sharks of possession.
In what are likely to be humid conditions, hanging onto the ball won’t always be easy, so the team that masters the greasiness best will likely dominate the possession stats. Quick ruck ball for the Lions will allow them to play the pressure game and put the Sharks on the back foot.
There was a feeling by some after the loss to the Crusaders that the Lions didn’t play smart rugby; that they tried to run too many balls rather than play clinically and for territory. It’s not the way of this Lions side, but perhaps they would have been better off if they’d slowed things down a bit and tried to pin the Crusaders in their own 22m area. In the conditions they’ll be in this weekend, Ackermann will maybe tell Elton Jantjies, Andries Coetzee and Ross Cronje to put boot to ball a bit more often. Cronje’s selection, after recovering from a facial injury and ahead of Faf de Klerk, indicates the Lions may not be as daring in Durban as they are at home. But, if they do kick more tomorrow they’re going to have to be smart about it and not simply give away possession.
Having already toured to Japan and New Zealand, a win for the Lions this weekend will put them in the pound seats in their conference as their closest rival to win the group and guarantee a play-off spot, the Sharks, head to New Zealand on Sunday. There they play the Blues, Highlanders and Chiefs - while the Lions are in South Africa for matches against the Stormers (home), Kings (away) and Hurricanes (home), a far easier three-week fixture list than that facing Gary Gold’s men. The Lions will go into tomorrow’s match knowing a victory will put them on top of the Africa Conference 2, even before the Sharks have landed in New Zealand - and that must surely serve as a big motivating factor for them.
The Lions more than stood their ground against the Crusaders a week ago, but they also spent large chunks of the match on the back foot, and chasing the game, and that’s something they won’t want against a very well-organised, if at times predictable and boring, Sharks team.
Lions STARTING XV: Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Courtnall Skosan, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Warren Whiteley (c), Warwick Tecklenburg, Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert, Andries Coetzee, Julian Redelinghuys, Malcolm Marx, Dylan Smith. Replacements: Armand van der Merwe, Corne Fourie, Ruan Dreyer, Ruan Ackermann, Cyle Brink, Faf de Klerk, Howard Mnisi, Jaco van der Walt
SHARKS STARTING XV: Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Andre Esterhuizen, Lwazi Mvovo, Joe Pietersen, Cobus Reinach, Daniel du Preez, Jean-Luc du Preez, Marcell Coetzee, Stephan Lewies, Etienne Oosthuizen, Coenie Oosthuizen, Franco Marais, Tendai Mtawarira (c); Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Juan Schoeman, Lourens Adriaanse, Hyron Andrews, Keegan Daniel, Michael Claassens, Garth April, Odwa Ndungane
Kick-off tomorrow is 5.05pm - The Star
Original source: Lions must play smart rugby