The Highlanders will have to overcome the effects of altitude and a punishing travel schedule as well as the challenges presented by the in-form Lions when the two meet at Ellis Park late Saturday night AEST.
Both sides won eleven matches during the regular season and of course recorded quarter final victories last week, but in vastly different manners. The Lions shot out to a 15-0 first-quarter lead against the Crusaders, weathered such comeback as was mounted, and came home with a wet sail to prevail 42-25 at home.
The Highlanders, meanwhile, ground out a 15-9 away win against the Brumbies in atrocious conditions, the result in some doubt until the final whistle (although it must be said a Brumbies win would have been undeserved).
The Highlanders only travelled as far as Sydney after their quarter final while they waited for their next destination to be determined. This cut their travel time to Jo’burg by around 20 hours but they still only arrived Tuesday local time and will have had just one full-on training session plus the captain’s run as preparation.
The only injury casualty from Canberra is prop Siosiva Halanukonuka. Flanker James Lentjes, locks Joe Wheeler and Alex Ainley, hooker Greg Pleasants-Tate and utility back Marty Banks come into the 23 with co-captain Shane Christie the major non-injury casualty.
The jury is still out on the Lions opting to rest almost their entire first-choice 23 in the final round, but coach Johan Ackermann is now 1/3 of the way to being hailed a genius for doing it, or a mug for giving up the advantage of a home Final. At the time of writing captain and No. 8 Warren Whitely (calf) and replacement halfback Ross Cronje (leg) were the only known injury concerns.
Tight forwards: the Highlanders scrum has struggled at times, moreso against teams who view the scrum as an opportunity to win a penalty rather than to restart play. The Lions usually prefer to “get it in, get it out and play some rugby” which should probably result in a fairly even contest.
The Lions have scored more tries off lineout ball than anyone bar the Brumbies but may struggle against a Highlanders unit that steals plenty of opposition ball while giving up little of their own. Moving Luke Whitelock from lock to No. 8 certainly suggests they see it as an opportunity.
10-12-13: Elton Jantjies, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Lionel Mapoe have been instrumental in most of what the Lions’ attack has achieved this year (most tries scored, defenders beaten and metres run) and were devastating in the quarter final.
Lima Sopoaga has been generally top-class and Matt Faddes is one of the finds of the season. Malakai Fekitoa, however, has too often looked anything but the incumbent All Blacks 13 (frequently being played at 12 possibly not helping) and will need to put in a much better shift this week than last.
Bench: the theory of there being a big drop in quality between the Lions’ starters and finishers (already on shaky ground due to them averaging more second- than first-half points) surely got laid to rest in the quarter final. Similarly the Highlanders don’t seem to suffer much when the subs come on, particularly in the forwards. Things may get a little loose in the last 20 but chances are it’ll be hard to see any difference intensity-wise.
Fatigue: there’s a fairly large body of evidence that playoff matches are won by the team that’s done the least travelling in the preceding few weeks. The Highlanders July schedule has been Dunedin to Port Elizabeth to Buenos Aires to Dunedin to Canberra to Jo’burg. The Lions finished with two home games then famously rested almost their entire first-choice 23 for their final away match. Most of them haven’t had to leave home in a month which must be an advantage, particularly at altitude.
Any thought of the Lions adopting a more conservative approach in the quarter final to the one that got them there lasted roughly two minutes. It’s hard to see why they’d change now so expect plenty of carries from Mostert and Kriel with Jantjies standing flat and throwing short passes to van Rensburg, Mapoe and others, occasionally going longer to keep the defence on their toes. Keeping the ball away from the Highlanders back three is an absolute must, any wayward kicks likely being returned with interest.
The Highlanders can be expected to take a similar approach but with two key differences. First, they’ll kick more than the Lions, mostly into the corners with a view to forcing turnovers (or penalties) but also for touch with a view to pressuring the Lions’ lineout and exit kicking. Second, they’ll look to involve their back three as much as possible so Sopoaga will likely be kicking short and flat as well as for territory, and wings Naholo and Osborne frequently used as second- or even first receiver from attacking set pieces. Also expect Ben Smith and Matt Faddes to swap places in attacking situations.
I’m reluctant to tip against them given they’re the reigning champions and seem to thrive in adversity, but I feel the Highlanders recent schedule means they won’t have enough left in the tank against what may well be the best South African Super Rugby team of the last five years. At sea level they might be able to pull it off but I don’t see them being able to at altitude.
Lions by 6.
15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse Van Rensburg, 11 Courtnal Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf De Klerk, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylon Smith. Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Steph de Witt, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt.
15 Ben Smith (C), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown. Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Te Aihe Toma, 23 Marty Banks
Match: Lions v Highlanders @ Emirates Airlines Stadium, Johannesburg
Date: Saturday 30 July 2016
Kick-Off: 15:00 local 11:00 AEST (Sunday) 01:00 NZ
Referee: Jaco Peyper
AR1: Ben O’Keeffe
AR2: AJ Jacobs
TMO: Shaun Veldsman
Stats by Opta Sports