JOHANNESBURG – Coach Ivan van Rooyen has had a handful of days to consider his Lions starting XV that will face the British and Irish Lions on Saturday and will on Thursday reveal his matchday squad to face the tourists in the opening match of the 2021 tour at Emirates Airline Park.
Here, we speculate what that team might look like.
Full-back: EW Viljoen
With Tiaan Swanepoel injured and Divan Russouw not selected in the Lions' 26-man squad, the responsibility of wearing the No 15 jumper falls to Viljoen. After an innocuous start for the Joburg team last season, Viljoen has finally started to find his rhythm and an understanding of the team's culture. He plays an agreeable mix of attacking and defensive rugby, but can isolate himself and concede turnovers. He is also solid under the high-ball, if not spectacular, but is equally unafraid to attack the gainline. With support, he has the ability to open up defences.
Wings: Rabz Maxwane and Jamba Ulengo
If Maxwane is given an inch of space, then there is every chance that no one will be able to catch him. Springbok Ulengo, meanwhile, is strong and physical and has a point to prove after a set of injuries has hampered his return to full form. Both are dangerous finishers - Maxwane with his speed and sidestep and Ulengo with his power. Both put an impressive shift against the Western Province last week, and they will have to up that workrate off the ball on Saturday if they wish to create more chances for the team and score tries.
Centres: Dan Kriel and Burger Odendaal
Odendaal will in all probability captain the team this weekend but that added responsibility has not dulled his game in recent months. Indeed, the No 12 has arguably had his best games this season for the Lions, carrying the ball with intent and leading his charges from the front. Both are powerful players, unafraid to take on the gainline, and when they are on song, can bully any mid-field. In the absence of Wandisile Simelane, one of them will have to inject a bit of flair and X-factor into their game as well to unleash their deadly wings, and not simply rely on crash-ball with the hopes of breaking a defence that will surely be equal to any task before them.
Flyhalf: Jordan Hendrikse
An argument can be made for Fred Zeilinga, and in all honesty, Van Rooyen might prefer the veteran over the now 20-year-old rookie. Nevertheless, in the several senior professional matches that the Baby Bok has played, he has shown a degree of maturity, skill and vision that belies his age. The occasion might overwhelm him, for sure, but the Lions have a real gem of a player, and quite possibly a future Bok in the young man. He is an impressive attacker, whereas Zeilinga can be slightly more defensive in his general play, and if Hendrikse's pack can get a semblance of parity up-front against the Lions, he could enjoy a great outing. With the experience of Odendaal on his outside, and the calmness of our No 9 on his inside, he will also have room to breathe and play his natural game.
Scrumhalf: Dillon Smit
Andre Warner would have started this match in the No 9 jersey, if not for an injury to his cheek-bone. In his absence, the now fit Smit should have the honour of starting the match. Smit should have by now played a lot more for the Lions, but injury has hampered his progress at the team. He fully deserves his shot at the BI Lions on Saturday, and will bring a level-headedness to the base of set-piece and breakdown. Morne van den Berg, meanwhile, is a livewire and as an impact player off the bench later in the match, will bring energy and a measure of unpredictability to the encounter.
Loose-forwards: Francke Horn, Vincent Tshituka and MJ Pelser
I'd be lying if I did not admit that every fibre of my being wants Jaco Kriel to be in the starting XV. However, the Springbok flank has only recently returned from a long injury lay-off, while Horn, the elder Tshituka and Pelser have clicked nicely when they have played together and are starting to form a formidable loose-trio. Maybe Kriel will sneak onto the bench. Tshituka meanwhile, has been one of the standout performers for the Lions in recent seasons, and will be afforded the opportunity to show off all his wares against the BI Lions. The Lions have been guilty at times in the last year of not protecting their breakdown, and also not contesting the rucks with intent, something the loosies will have to work hard to rectify. These three players, however, are highly mobile and powerful, and could do the business for their team in that department.
Locks: Reinhard Nothnagel and Ruben Schoeman
With the long-term injury to the Bone Collector Willem Alberts, Nothnagel and Schoeman are the natural selections in the locks. Both have steadily come into their own, and have several matches under their belt this season as a pairing. The line-outs have been perhaps the one area where it has not always gone to plan for the Lions, so they will need to step-up and show control in that particular set-piece from the get-go. Youngster Emmanual Tshituka has shown glimpses of his power and talent, and will be a fine replacement off the bench. He can also cover as a loose-forward, and will be an important utility-forward.
Props: Sti Sithole and Jannie du Plessis
You could easily slot Carlu Sadie into the starting XV at tight-head, but Van Rooyen might be more inclined to opt for the experience of former Springbok Du Plessis. The good doctor was just short of being ready to play against the WP last week, and his wisdom and knowledge could be invaluable during the initial exchanges against the BI Lions. Against Japan last weekend, the tourists were solid at scrum-time but failed to over-awe the Brave Blossoms. The Lions scrum, meanwhile, has dominated Springbok-laden front-rows more often than not. Much of that success is down to Sithole, who has powered his way through the opposition and into the hearts and minds of Lions' fans. Springbok Ruan Dreyer, meanwhile, covers both sides of the scrum, and will be invaluable off of the bench.
Hooker: Jaco Visagie
PJ Botha is the other option at hooker, but is arguably a bit too inconsistent. He had a bit of a mare against the Pumas in the opening match of the Currie Cup a fortnight ago, but was much improved against the WP five days later. The incumbent in the No 2 jersey is Visagie, recently returned from a hiatus, and he remains one of the unsung warriors of this Lions team. When in form, his line-out service is secure, while at scrum-time he has an intuitive working relationship with his props. He can also snaffle a ball or two on the ground, and is overall, a more complete player.