It was always going to happen, wasn’t it?
After a rather surprising four wins in six games, the Lions haven’t won again in this year’s Super Rugby competition and could even find themselves propping up the log by the end of this weekend.
If Johan Ackermann’s men fail to win in Dunedin tomorrow morning and the Cheetahs beat the Force, while the Stormers beat the Bulls and the Reds beat the Crusaders, they’ll be down in 15th place at the bottom of the standings.
Now, it’s not likely all these matches will produce those results but the bottom line is that the Lions are now struggling to finish inside the top 10 and could very well end the competition at the bottom. After this weekend’s match, against the high-flying Highlanders, they still have to face the Waratahs and Western Force – two teams who have plenty to play for with play-off places very much in their sights.
Having suffered a fourth straight defeat last weekend – a big hiding by the Chiefs – the Lions have a mountain to climb to get anything from their tour.
Their away record is terrible – they’ve won just once away from Ellis Park in their past 14 matches, against the Cheetahs in round one in February – and being such a young and inexperienced side, the next three matches will test Ackermann’s men both physically and mentally.
The only good news for the tourists is that they actually have a fairly respectable record against the men from Otago. Of the past five meetings between the teams, the Lions have won three, including a 26-22 victory in Dunedin in their last meeting in 2011. They didn’t face each other in 2012 and the Lions didn’t play in the competition last year.
However, the Highlanders are playing with plenty of confidence at the moment, having won three of their past four matches, including shocking the Sharks in Durban a fortnight ago. Also, they pushed the Stormers close in Cape Town last weekend, in the end going down 29-28.
While the Lions are now playing for pride, the Highlanders are playing for a spot in the play-offs.
They’re eighth overall, but on the same number of points (26) as their fellow Kiwi conference sides, the Hurricanes and Crusaders, and just four behind New Zealand’s top team, the Chiefs.
If there’s anything going for Ackermann and Co ahead of the match, it’s that their opponents may be a bit tired after their two-match tour of South Africa and their long haul back to New Zealand.
As expected, Ackermann has made a few key changes to his side for the match.
The coach had promised his players that everyone would get an opportunity on tour and he’s stuck to his word, handing starts to Anthony Volmink and MB Lusaseni.
Marnitz Boshoff is also back at No10. Corné Fourie, Rudi Mathee and Warwick Tecklenburg could also feature off the bench.
Lions: Chrysander Botha; Courtnall Skosan, Lionel Mapoe, Stefan Watermeyer, Anthony Volmink; Marnitz Boshoff, Faf de Klerk; Warren Whiteley (capt), Derick Minnie, Jaco Kriel; Martin Muller, MB Lusaseni; Julian Redelinghuys, Robbie Coetzee, Schalk van der Merwe. Replacements: Armand van der Merwe, Corné Fourie, Jacques van Rooyen, Rudi Mathee, Warwick Tecklenburg, Ross Cronjé, Elton Jantjies, JW Jonker.
Highlanders: Ben Smith (capt); Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Phil Burleigh, Jason Emery, Hayden Parker, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu, Shane Christie, Elliot Dixon, Joe Wheeler, Josh Bekhuis, Ma’afu Fia, Ged Robinson, Chris King. Replacements: Liam Coltman/Brayden Mitchell, Matias Diaz, Kane Hames, Tom Franklin, TJ Ioane, Fumiaki Tanaka, Trent Renata, Gareth Evans - The Star