JOHANNESBURG - Lions skipper Warren Whiteley has admitted his team are in a crucial period of their campaign and need to stay focused on just the job at hand, and not get carried away by what lies ahead.

The Lions are just back from a successful three-week trip of Australia, where they picked up 14 out of 15 available points, they face neighbours, the desperate Bulls on Saturday, and then the ever-improving Southern Kings, before they have a month-long international break. 

After that, they return for a match against the Sunwolves, before enjoying a bye weekend, and then wrap up with an away game against the Sharks. Then only is it play-off time.

There’s a lot going on in a stop-start few weeks, bodies are tired and sore, and the pressure to finish on top of the overall points table is massive, but Whiteley is confident his players will come through this challenging period strongly.

“I believe the guys are in a good space.

"We’ve gained a lot of confidence from the tour and we know there is still a lot of work to be done,” he said on Thursday ahead of the Jukskei derby at Ellis Park.

“It’s an important part of the competition for us, with the challenge of having a month off from after next week. But we’re in the right frame of mind and know we have a job to do in the next two matches.”

While the Lions are, indeed, in a good space – having won 10 of 11 games – the Bulls are not. They have struggled to win this season and there are continuous questions about whether their coach Nollis Marais is the right man to lead them.

“You can’t underestimate anyone,” said Whiteley emphatically. “We’ve seen in this competition that a top team can be toppled by a bottom team. We need to keep our feet on the ground.

Captain Warren Whiteley soars into the air to win a lineout for the Lions. Photo: Samuel Shivambu, BackpagePix

“The Bulls are going to fight, they’re going to be determined. They’ve got quality players all around the park.”

Coach Johan Ackermann reiterated his captain’s sentiments. “The young players in the Bulls team will bring a lot of energy to the set-up. They’ll want to show their coach they can play at this level. They’ve got nothing to lose so that makes them dangerous.

“Those youngsters would have been waiting for this opportunity and they’ll go out there and express themselves.”

Ackermann has picked a familiar looking team, but there is no place for fit-again Ruan Combrinck.

“Ruan still has some work to be done, but I also want to reward the guys who went on tour. There’s no reason to change them now,” said Ackermann.

He’s again rotated the players in the front row, while on the bench Faf de Klerk, Cyle Brink and Akker van der Merwe get an opportunity.

Meanwhile, Jaco Kriel, who missed the tour to Australia because of a knee problem, is only likely to return for Lions duty after the June break.

“He’s done very well to be nearly ready for action and might be involved next week, but his diagnosis was always to return after the June break,” explained Ackermann.

“We must make a good decision regarding his return it’s not going to help to rush him back, not when he might be involved with the Springboks next month. We don’t want to risk him.”

@jacq_west

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The Star

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