Lions banking on backline and lung-busting effects of altitude

QUAN Horn of the Lions will make his 50th franchise appearance during the United Rugby Championship when the Lions face Cardiff this afternoon. | BackpagePix

QUAN Horn of the Lions will make his 50th franchise appearance during the United Rugby Championship when the Lions face Cardiff this afternoon. | BackpagePix

Published May 11, 2024


THERE can be no doubt about it – the Lions will employ a multi-vector-assault mode when they face Cardiff this afternoon.

That is a bit of Star Trek geekdom seeping out but the description is apt – just as in the lore of that show, the Joburgers’ matchday 23 has been constructed for the United Rugby Championship (URC) clash at Ellis Park (kick-off 6.15pm) to have the ability to click in and out of attack mode as the match progresses.

Morne van den Berg and Sanele Nohamba will start as the half-back pairing again, but it is on the bench that things become quite interesting. Coach Ivan van Rooyen has gone with a 6-2 split today, with his two backline replacements both attacking options in Jordan Hendrikse and Gianni Lombard.

It was clear earlier this week that Hendrikse will cover 10 and 12, while Gianni will also be an option at flyhalf, while covering fullback. During the Wednesday session, Nohamba was running at No 15, too.

It is, therefore, possible that at some stage or another Van den Berg, Nohamba, Hendrikse and Lombard could all be on the field together, inter-changing roles and positions to get the best out of the Lions on attack and defence.

What is more likely, however, is Nohamba moving into the scrumhalf position later in the game to supply Lombard and Hendrikse. That too could be an entertaining development, especially when also considering that Cardiff only landed in Johannesburg on Thursday and should, therefore, be unequipped to deal with the lung-busting effects of altitude during the latter stages of the encounter.

It shows an immediate willingness towards an attacking game plan as the Lions look to secure the maximum five points they desperately need. Do their part, and with help from results in other matches, the Lions could move into a play-off spot with two rounds of the regular season remaining.

The Doornfontein outfit are in 11th in the URC standings with 39 points and three games left, starting with the Welsh outfit this weekend

The Ospreys (on 40 points), Benetton and Connacht (both on 44 points) all have tough encounters against Leinster, the Sharks and Munster, respectively; and could foreseeably drop points in those matches. Edinburgh, ninth with 43 points and seventh-placed Ulster – who also have 44 points – have easier assignments, with respect to Zebre and Scarlets, but upsets are not outside the parameters of probability.

Earlier this week, wing Richard Kriel hinted at what the objective will be, starting with Cardiff, and then in their final two matches against Glasgow Warriors and the Stormers.

“(This game) is massively important for us,” said the 23-year-old.

“We need 11 to 15 points, or something like that, to qualify for a Top Eight spot. No one needs motivation. As they say in Afrikaans, dit kom van ditself (it will come on its own).

“We are expecting a big, physical game,” he added. “They have a big pack of forwards and obviously a good kicking game with Thinus de Beer at flyhalf, as well.”

The Lions’ inconsistency this season has made them a frustrating and unpredictable lot. It was especially jarring during their loss to Munster, where they were schooled in how to apply a singular vision and purpose without remorse.

Kriel admitted that that failing cannot be repeated against the visitors.

“Sometimes,” he explained, “I don't even know why we don’t pitch up and play the way we played like last week. Some days we just have an off day. Our prep is so good during the week and everything building up to the game is so good and then sometimes on game day we just mess it up.”

Quan Horn, meanwhile, will make his 50th franchise appearance when he returns to the starting XV after recovering from a shoulder injury. The Lions arguably missed his sure command of the No 15 jumper and directness in attack against Munster.

During his stint at the Lions, he has become a staple of the team and has earned the respect of pundits and fans alike, while also enjoying interest from the national set-up.

“He is really working hard,” said assistant coach Ricardo Loubscher, earlier this week when discussing the milestone.

“He takes his game seriously in terms of preparation and analysing the opposition. The standards that he brings to the team, and the rest of the guys, it is amazing.”

It was a sentiment shared by Kriel, who has also enjoyed a fine season, and who continues to develop an agreeable partnership with his fellow outbacks.

“Every game I’ve played,” he said, “we’ve had the same back three. We have some good chemistry between me, Edwill (van den Merwe) and Quan. It is a joy to play with those two.”

Lions XV: 15 Quan Horn, 14 Richard Kriel, 13 Erich Cronje, 12 Marius Louw (capt), 11 Edwill van der Merwe, 10 Sanele Nohamba, 9 Morne van den Berg; 8 Francke Horn, 7 Ruan Venter, 6 JC Pretorius, 5 Ruan Delport, 4 Willem Alberts, 3 Asenathi Ntlabakanye, 2 PJ Botha, 1 Ruan Dreyer.

Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 JP Smith, 18 Conraad van Vuuren, 19 Reinhard Nothnagel, 20 Emmanuel Tshituka, 21 Hanru Sirgel, 22 Jordan Hendrikse, 23 Gianni Lombard

Cardiff XV: 15 Cam Winnett; 14 Gabriel Hamer-Webb, 13 Mason Grady, 12 Ben Thomas (capt), 11 Theo Cabango; 10 Tinus de Beer, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou; 8 Mackenzie Martin, 7 James Botham, 6 Ben Donnell, 5 Rory Thornton, 4 Seb Davies, 3 Keiron Assiratti, 2 Evan Lloyd, 1 Rhys Carre.

Replacements: Liam Belcher, Corey Domachowski, Rhys Litterick, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Alun Lawrence, Ellis Bevan, Jacob Beetham, Max Clark.