Fresh from a Heritage Round win over the now struggling Reds at the SCG, the Tahs move straight into the ANZAC round right next door at Allianz after a six-day turnaround. Meanwhile, the Lions come off the bye to start their major travel leg of the season. It’s the top team from each of their respective conferences, but at this time of year, sometimes such a standing can only flatter to deceive.
It’s a fascinating match-up. The 2016 and 2017 finalists, and the form team of Africa in recent times, against the Waratahs, coming off a dreadful 2017 but quietly finding some shape and purpose as 2018 unfolds. Most non-believers had the ponies and George Lucas’s boys as the favourites for Australian conference dominance, with the Tahs not really entering consideration as finals participants. It could still go that way, but I don’t think many tipped the Tahs to be conference leaders at this time of the year.
The formline is further clouded by the draw. Apart from an unsuccessful lightning raid across the southern Atlantic, the Lions haven’t left the confines of the republic. Their only other away match was a trip around the corner for the local derby against the Bulls, which they won. So they’ve played six of their eight home matches already. They’ve also played two Kiwi teams, at home, and lost both. The Crusaders loss is probably acceptable, but losing at home to the Blues? And it only gets harder from here, with a four-match swing through ANZACland to take on the Tahs, Reds, Canes and Highlanders. If ever there was a season-defining road trip – this is it.
Meanwhile, the Tahs have already logged their season’s frequent flyer quota, with the around the world tour done, Tokyo successfully dispatched and an away win in Canberra, a rare feat in itself. They have another five matches at home including this one, BUT, and it’s a HUGE but, they are yet to meet a Kiwi team. After the Lions, they face four Kiwi sides in a row, albeit easing into it with the Blues at home, as things stand Australia’s best chance of breaking the duck against Kiwi sides should no-one do it in the interim. So, like the Lions, the next few matches are season-defining.
WHY SHOULD I BOTHER?
If two teams at critical inflexion points for each is not enough, then give yourself an uppercut. If seeing the top team from two of the three conferences doesn’t whet your appetite, then change your diet. This really could be a belter, with both teams developing a style of rugby that belies their nationalities and is arguably the closest to a New Zealand style that each of their respective conferences has to offer. Overlay that with a new coach for the Lions, and a changed coaching line-up at the Tahs, with the Simon Cron effect becoming more obvious with each match. Something for the casual fan, something for the purists and something for the pundits.
The Lions tend to mix up their selections, and this week is no different. Changes in the front row (Van Rooyen in, Smith to the bench), Mostert playing out of position in the backrow (Ferreira into lock, Brink not in the squad), and a bench that has only three players from the previous match’s bench, including a rookie 9. Meanwhile, the Tahs have merely tweaked, with Miller to the bench, which shifts Hanigan to 6 and Staniforth in at lock. The backs remain the same, but with a 6:2 bench, Cam Clark drops out of the match day 23.
The Tahs are still creating their identity, but they’re looking a lot like the Hurricanes – lots of attacking opportunities, which can sometimes lead to turnovers, and a high number of missed tackles (although the trend is improving here), yet a good enough defence for only one loss so far. The scrum struggled early in the season but has improved significantly. That seems to be as a result of lots of hard work at training but also having Sekope back, and, surprisingly, Rob Simmons. Their return marked a distinct improvement in the Tahs’ scrum, but the Lions will put this to the test, although with Mostert, along with Retallick, the form locks of the competition, playing out of position in the back row, the Lions scrum may lose some potency. However, expect the driving maul to be a weapon and Marx to be looking for more pies off the back of it. The Lions will no doubt try to brutalise the Tahs up front, cause chaos at the breakdown and then let their slippery backs run, along with some nuances from Elton from time to time. However, the Lions also leak tries, having conceded more than the Tahs have scored, so the Tahs’ counter-attack, along with Taqele’s go forward, could wreak havoc.
The Tahs are at home, settled and with only a small change to their team. The Lions are away, coming off the bye, at the start of a long road trip, still no Warren Whiteley, and with team changes. It’s a critical point in the season for each team, yet despite the Lions being last year’s finalists, the Tahs should take this in a high-scoring match decided by a small margin. Which would make a wonderful double, as the Waratah women should win the Super W final being played as the curtain-raiser. Should be a good day to be in sky blue!
1 Tom Robertson 2 Damien Fitzpatrick 3 Sekope Kepu 4 Tom Staniforth 5 Rob Simmons 6 Ned Hanigan 7 Michael Hooper © 8 Michael Wells 9 Jake Gordon 10 Bernard Foley (VC) 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro 12 Kurtley Beale 13 Curtis Rona 14 Alex Newsome 15 Bryce Hegarty
BENCH: 16 Hugh Roach 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes 18 Paddy Ryan 19 Nick Palmer 20 Jed Holloway 21 Will Miller 22 Nick Phipps 23 Lalakai Foketi
HEAD COACH: Daryl Gibson
1 Jacques Van Rooyen 2 Malcolm Marx 3 Ruan Dreyer 4 Andries Ferreira 5 Marvin Orie 6 Albertus “Kwagga” Smith 7 Franco Mostert © 8 Hacjivah Dayimani 9 Dillon Smit 10 Elton Jantjies 11 Madosh Tambwe 12 Harold Vorster 13 Lionel Mapoe 14 Ruan Combrinck 15 Andries Coetzee
BENCH: 16 Robbie Coetzee 17 Dylan Smith 18 Jacobie Adriaanse 19 Lourens Erasmus 20 Marnus Schoeman 21 Nic Groom 22 Rohan Janse Van Rensburg 23 Sylvian Mahuza
HEAD COACH: Swys de Bruin
Date: Friday 20th April 2018
Venue: Allianz Stadium Sydney
Kick-off: 19:45 local (AEDT)
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant Referees: Damon Murphy (AR1) Graham Cooper (AR2)
TMO: George Ayoub