They may be down in 14th and 15th position respectively, but there’s little doubt the Lions and Cheetahs will dish up a thrilling contest when the teams wrap up their Super Rugby campaigns at Ellis Park tomorrow.
There’s also the small matter of avoiding finishing last of the South African teams in the final standings and, according to Lions skipper Warren Whiteley, fans can expect an open, free-flowing clash.
“When isn’t a Lions versus Cheetahs match an entertaining game?” asked Whiteley. “I can’t remember these two teams ever being involved in anything else. It’s the nature of the sides to play attacking rugby.
“All the guys enjoy playing against the Cheetahs. There’s likely to be a bit of space and time to play attacking rugby, but the key will be how we stand up defensively.”
Indeed, with nothing but an improved final log position riding on the outcome, the Lions and Cheetahs have the opportunity to end the 2014 competition with a bang. The Cheetahs, in particular, have a Springbok-laden back division and, as Whiteley points out, will ask plenty of the Lions defenders.
“The Cheetahs are a very good side and only a few small things cost them this year. The difference between being in the play-offs and missing out is tiny, it really is,” said coach Johan Ackermann. “Just look at the Cheetahs; they’re the team with the most influence in the Bok side at the moment. They’ve delivered a bunch of new Springboks, yet they’re battling it out with us to avoid finishing last in the SA Conference.
“They’ve got a bunch of exciting players, guys like Lood de Jager, Oupa Mohoje and Cornal Hendricks, and then they’ve got Willie le Roux.”
While Whiteley knows his team are not up there with the sides gunning for the knockout stages, he’s very optimistic about the Lions finishing the campaign with seven wins and pushing for higher honours in a year or two.
“No one gave us a chance at the start of the year. A lot of the guys hadn’t even played Super Rugby when the season started and no one knew what lay ahead or what to expect. To be honest, we’ve surprised ourselves a bit. We’ve beaten the Stormers, Bulls and the Cheetahs. I know how good this group are ... the difference between making the playoffs and where we find ourselves is two or three wins; that’s all. And, that’s where we want to be next year. Right now, though, we want to finish the competition with seven wins.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Ackermann has opted to hand Elton Jantjies a start ahead of new Bok pivot Marnitz Boshoff. Ackermann explained the decision to swap the players was two-fold. “Bossie didn’t get a break, like the other players did recently because he was involved with the Springboks. Mentally, I feel he needs a break but I also think he can make a difference for us off the bench this weekend.
“Furthermore, Elton is leaving us to play in Japan after this weekend, so we want to reward him for his service to Lions rugby. He’ll be earning his 50th Super Rugby cap (tomorrow), as will Lionel Mapoe.”
In the only other change to the team that beat the Rebels last weekend, fit-again Andries Coetzee takes over at fullback in place of Coenie van Wyk.
Meanwhile, lock Franco van der Merwe will earn his 99th Super Rugby cap tomorrow, before joining Ulster in Ireland on a two-year deal.
Ackermann said the one-capped Bok lock would be sorely missed around Ellis Park.
“He’s always given 100percent effort. His stats are always up there with the best, in line-out wins, steals, cleans ... and he’s been a great leader, on and off the field. He’s a fun guy who’s always set a good example for those around him.”
Lions: Andries Coetzee, Lionel Mapoe, Stokkies Hanekom, Alwyn Hollenbach, Anthony Volmink, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronjé, Warren Whiteley (capt), Warwick Tecklenburg, Jaco Kriel, Franco van der Merwe, Franco Mostert, Julian Redelinghuys, Robbie Coetzee, Schalk van der Merwe.
Replacements: Armand van der Merwe, Corné Fourie, Ruan Dreyer, Willie Britz, Derick Minnie, Faf de Klerk, Marnitz Boshoff, Courtnall Skosan.
Cheetahs: Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks, Johann Sadie, Ryno Benjamin, Raymond Rhule, Johan Goosen, Sarel Pretorius, Philip van der Walt, Teboho Mohoje, Torsten van Jaarsveld, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss (capt), Trevor Nyakane. Replacements: Caylib Oosthuizen, Luan de Bruin, Carl Wegner, Jean Cook, Henco Venter, Shaun Venter, Elgar Watts, Hennie Daniller. - The Star