Lions v Sharks ... The match-ups that matter
JOHANNESBURG – It might be a pre-season encounter, but that doesn't change the fact that on Saturday (kick-off 4.15pm) the Lions and Sharks will field intriguing battles on the park.
Both sides are in the process of working out their kinks, and there is much to learn from how the two teams will approach and execute their gameplans.
Here, we look at a handful of match-ups that could help in understanding where each team is in their development and plans, and how they shape-up later in the regular season.
Tiaan Swanepoel v Aphelele Fassi
After playing the previous two games at flyhalf, against the Pumas and Eastern Province, Swanepoel will revert back to full-back - the position where he became something of a revelation last season - this weekend. Swanepoel's No 15 berth implies that the Lions will employ a deep territorial kicking game, such is the prodigious weight of the Namibian-born's right boot. The 24-year-old can slot over penalties from virtually anywhere on the park, and has the ability to turn the opposition's pack with booming kicks.
Fassi's gameplan, meanwhile, is based on counter-attacking play and he has become the catalyst for his team to take on the gainline and find holes in the defensive lines from positions within his own half. Highly regarded, Fassi is seen as a player that will find himself in the larger Springbok setup sooner, rather than later. At 23-years of age, he still has much to learn, so getting him up to speed and to the type of form where he can eviscerate any opposition is important for the Sharks and by extension the Boks.
Wandisile Simelane v Lukhanyo Am
The SA Rugby Young Player of the Year is going places, that is for sure, and on Saturday he comes up against the incumbent outside-centre of the Boks in Am. Simelane possesses that X-factor that so many teams talk about, and is undoubtedly a game-changer in every sense of the word. Unpredictable, especially when the game opens up, Simelane can create opportunities seemingly out of nowhere. He, too, is in line to be a part of the greater Bok setup, so a solid first outing will help hugely for his confidence and the ultimate goal of getting into the national setup, hopefully this year.
Am, in contrast, has arguably not been at his best since forming part of the championship winning Rugby World Cup squad of 2019. We all know what he is capable of when in fine-fettle, and he needs to recapture that form to remind all and sundry of his pedigree. The Sharks captain, therefore, needs a notable showing this weekend to begin that recuperation, and to build towards the type of form that made him one of the darlings of 2019.
Francke Horn v Sikhambuzo Notshe
Horn is one of those players to watch, a future Springbok for many - he just needs to be given more opportunity to prove his worth at senior level. The former Baby Bok played a few matches last season off the bench, but he remains largely an enigma in many respects, no doubt due to the year-and-a-half enforced hiatus due to battling a heart condition that nearly ended his career. Nevertheless, much is expected from the 22-year-old, and his continued development is of the utmost importance for the Lions and the future national setup.
His opposing number, Notshe, is also something of a puzzle. Capped six times by the Boks, the eightman has suffered from injury and poor form since making his debut for the national team in 2018. He returned to some of that form in 2020, however, and even played a part in the Springbok Showdown last year. At 27, he still has many years ahead of him which could see him revitalise his Bok career, so this weekend's clash will offer a good idea as to where he is condition-wise and where he needs to further improve his game to properly return to the Bok fold in the future.
Ruan Dreyer v Jean-Hubert Meyer
This entry, in all honesty, is more to do about Dreyer, with all due respect to the man he will be packing down against. Springbok Thomas du Toit, who is on the bench for the Sharks for this clash, is the incumbent at tighthead, and will make an appearance later in the encounter. Meyer is by no means a stop-gap, but he will play second fiddle to the Tank in the regular season.
No, Dreyer, is the talking point here. The Springbok's preferred position is at tighthead, but due to the departure of Dylan Smith and the short-term injury to Sti Sithole, finds himself on the opposite side of the scrum. He has played in the No 1 jumper before, and it has not always paid dividends but the Lions need him to become more comfortable in the position - especially if he is to be the fall-back to guy in the upcoming season at loosehead. Dreyer is a powerful scrummiger, but the Joburgers need to see that power with more consistency while he wears the No 1 on his back to allay some of the anxieties in the position's depth. No easy feat then.