Lions v Bulls: get ready for a thriller

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While both outfits struggled in the early stages of the competition - the Lions losing three in a row and the Bulls twice in succession - the teams of Johan Ackermann and Frans Ludeke turned things around in March and are now among the form teams in Super Rugby, setting the stage for what should be one of the games of the competition.

The Lions are just back from their best Australasian tour where they won three times to get back in the race for the playoff spots; the Bulls have gone four games unbeaten.

And, if recent results between these two sides are anything to go by, the Lions will start as favourites on their much-loved Ellis Park turf.

In their last four meetings the home team has won every time.

In Super Rugby last year the Bulls won 25-17 at Loftus Versfeld just for the Lions to hit back at Ellis Park at the end of May, triumphing 32-21 - the Lions’ only win in the competition against their Gauteng neighbours in their last 10 meetings.

In the Currie Cup, the Bulls won 36-26 at home, but the Lions won 41-13 when they hosted their neighbours.

So, if the trend continues the Lions should come out on top Saturday... and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.

Ackermann’s team have been a revelation in the last month, their defence helping to register wins against the Blues, Rebels and Reds. They’ve also played without fear and will be desperate to finally win in front of their own fans.

Their biggest obstacle will be themselves. Will they be able to maintain the intensity and focus after the high of winning in Australasia? Will they buckle under the pressure of expectation and the need to pick up four points at home?

Lions skipper Warren Whiteley says his team will have no excuses Saturday. “It makes no difference who our opponents are on Saturday... being at home gives us an automatic boost,” he said. “We’ll be able to draw energy from the crowd and the surroundings which we’re familiar with... so there are no excuses for us to not put in a good performance.”

Confidence will, indeed, be high in the Lions camp, but so, too, the Bulls. After a rocky start to their campaign, Ludeke’s men have come good and will be seeking their fifth straight victory. Like the Lions, they’ll be cock-a-hoop after their victory over the Crusaders last weekend, a win that suggests Ludeke’s men have finally woken up.

But injuries have robbed the Bulls of some of their biggest stars in recent weeks and they’ll travel to Joburg minus Victor Matfield, Jan Serfontein, Lappies Labuschagne, Arno Botha and Handré Pollard.

Ackermann says it makes no difference who’s in and who’s out of the Bulls team. “Their structures remain solid... I rate Grant Hattingh highly and Burger Odendaal was exceptional last week.

That is true, but the Bulls just don’t look as formidable without those injured men and the man coming in for Pollard, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, will be under huge pressure to deliver the goods as Pollard has done in recent weeks.

The Lions know a win against one of the so-called big guns could pave the way for a special second half of the campaign. There’s a lot riding on this game... the question is who will handle the pressure moments the best?

The key battles in Saturday’s Gauteng derby

Elton Jantjies v Jacques-Louis Potgieter

After starting the season on the bench, the Lions No 10 has again made the flyhalf position his own. Jantjies is valued for his distribution skills and his ability to attack the gain-line and if he’s on top of his game in this regard Saturday his team will come close to making it four wins in five matches.

Defensively he’s also very sound and he’ll need to be Saturday with the Bulls’ big inside backs sure to target his channel. Of course, the goal-kicking will be crucial and Jantjies will be hoping he’s right on target.

Potgieter comes into the side because Handré Pollard is injured - and what a game it is for him to be starting for the first time this season. One of the journeymen of SA rugby, Potgieter does not always get the credit he deserves, but he’s a trusty operator who can be a match-winner as well.

He backs himself as an attacking playmaker, while his tactical kicking is also top-notch, as is his goal-kicking. His performance will depend largely on how effectively his pack functions, but he’s sure to be one of the men the Lions target for special attention.

Robbie Coetzee v Adriaan Strauss

The Lions hooker was one of the standout performers for his side last year and is trying hard to reach those same lofty heights. Growing by the game, Coetzee has become an integral member of the pack, a player who makes plenty of turn-overs and tackles, but it’ll be his lineout throwing that will be most crucial for his team Saturday. Get it right and the Lions will be competitive, get it wrong and it could be a long evening for them.

Strauss was slow to get out of the blocks after joining the Bulls in the off-season, but he’s come good in recent weeks, playing the kind of rugby that made him one of the best.

A man who others follow, Strauss is the key player in the tight-five now that Victor Matfield is sidelined. He’ll have to hit the mark in the lineouts, but also display strong ball-carrying skills in the loose if the Bulls are to get on top of their neighbours.

Results since 2006

Played 11: Lions won 1,

Bulls won 10

Lions points scored: 191

Bulls points scored: 344

Lions tries scored: 20

Bulls tries scored: 37

Average score: 31-17 to the Bulls

Teams:

Lions: Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Anthony Volmink, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Warren Whiteley (capt), Warwick Tecklenburg, Derick Minnie, Franco Mostert, Andries Ferreira, Ruan Dreyer, Robbie Coetzee, Jacques van Rooyen. Replacements: Armand van der Merwe, Corné Fourie, Julian Redelinghuys, Robert Kruger, Jaco Kriel, Faf de Klerk, Marnitz Boshoff, Howard Mnisi.

Bulls: Jesse Kriel, Francois Hougaard, JJ Engelbrecht, Burger Odendaal, Bjorn Basson, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Rudy Paige, Pierre Spies (capt), Hanro Liebenberg, Deon Stegmann, Grant Hattingh, Jacques du Plessis, Trevor Nyakane, Adriaan Strauss, Dean Greyling. Replacements: Callie Visagie, Morné Mellett, Marcel van der Merwe, Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, Roelof Smit, Piet van Zyl, Tian Schoeman, Jurgen Visser.

Kickoff: 5pm. TV: Live on SS1.

Saturday Star

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