Three in a row and top of the table – that’s the carrot dangling in front of the Lions when they visit Loftus Versfeld.
Not too many rugby fans would have predicted the above scenario when the new Super Rugby season kicked off three weeks ago. But after surprising friend and foe in the first two rounds, Johan Ackermann’s team are one win away from making a stunning start to their season.
The wins against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, then the Stormers at Ellis Park, have rejuvenated the Lions and they’ll be a confident bunch going to the home of the Bulls this afternoon. A rare victory against their Gauteng neighbours will see Ackermann’s men stand atop the standings after the weekend’s action – something only the Lions players, coaching staff, administration and fans would have dreamed about a month ago.
But with flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff landing drop-goal after drop-goal and penalty after penalty, the men from Joburg have found some mojo and got into a position where they believe they can beat anyone – and that’s done wonders for their confidence. They may not be playing as expansively or as attackingly as they’d like, but they’re getting the job done by being sound and aggressive in defence, solid in the set-pieces and seriously competitive at the breakdowns. And they’ve been getting into the right areas of the field – and the rest is left to Boshoff – and how he’s responded.
Unlike the Stormers a week ago, the Lions are playing with hunger and determination – eager to restore the pride in their sponsor-less red and white jerseys and that’s what will again drive them on this afternoon. They’ll also look to the Bulls and see Frans Ludeke’s team are low on confidence after losing both their first two games. Questions have been raised about the Bulls’ playing style, with many suggesting they’re too predictable and certain players simply don’t fit. The players may even be doubting their own ability.
So if there were ever a perfect time to tackle the Bulls at Loftus and be in with a real shout of winning away from home, it is now. But, despite the position the Bulls find themselves in, they will still start as favourites, as suggested by Ackermann in the week.
It’s their first game on home turf this year and they’re desperate. And all know how dangerous desperate teams can be. But, more crucially, the Bulls have veteran lock Victor Matfield starting again for the first time after coming off the bench in the last two weeks and together with Flip van der Merwe, they’ll lead the charge up front and get those men around them firing too.
And even though the Bulls haven’t shown any attacking prowess in recent weeks, they’ve got a fine back division who, with quick, quality ball, can rip holes in opposition defences. The Lions will miss Alwyn Hollenbach’s strong defence in midfield and it’s an area Ludeke’s team may look to exploit.
On paper, the Bulls – with 10 Boks in their ranks – should win comfortably today, but then that’s what was said of the Cheetahs and Stormers when they faced the Lions in the last fortnight. Will this be the turning point for the Bulls or will the Lions continue their hot streak? – Saturday Star