JOHANNESBURG - The Sunwolves may be winless in three matches but they are not the whipping boys of the past and the Lions are taking them very seriously, according to flyhalf Elton Jantjies.
The teams clash in a round four Super Rugby match at Ellis Park on Saturday with the home team coming off a rare and unexpected defeat by the Blues, while the Sunwolves were given 50 points by the Sharks last weekend.
Despite the men from Japan being widely regarded easy-beats and having copped a 94-7 hiding by the Lions last year, Jantjies insists they’re stronger than before. “They’ve got more overseas-based players in their team this year; I’d say that’s the biggest change,” said Jantjies ahead of the clash.
And he’d be correct, as no less than 10 of their starting players have their rugby roots in other countries, besides Japan. Among those men are South Africans Lappies Labuschagne (who played for the Cheetahs and Bulls) and Wimpie van der Walt (who played for Western Province, Eastern Province and the Bulls), who’ll both start.
The starting line-up also includes New Zealand-raised centre Michael Little (son of former All Black Walter) and, surprisingly, fullback Kotaro Matsushima. He was born in Pretoria, finished his schooling in Yokohama and then joined the Sharks Academy in 2012 and turned out for the U-19 team and Sharks Currie Cup team in 2013.
And playing off the bench for the visitors will also be well-known prop Hencus van Wyk, lock Grant Hattingh and loose-forward Willie Britz.
Jantjies, who plays some of his club rugby in Japan, said the Sunwolves would play a fast game with little kicking. “They like to play in one’s face, they’re quick off the line, and they don’t kick much. They’re definitely a better team than before,” said the Lions No 10.
“They’re a quality team who love playing with turn-over ball, but we just have to focus on what we need to do.”
Indeed. The Lions will be desperate to put together a clinical performance after coming unstuck against the Blues last week. Coach Swys de Bruin has opted to rest some of his players ahead of next week’s trip to Argentina for the match against the Jaguares, which means starts for props Dylan Smith, Jacobie Adriaanse, Lourens Erasmus and new No 8 Len Massyn, who’ll be on debut in place of the injured Warren Whiteley.
“I’m very excited about Len. He’s a youngster (20) in the mould of a Pedrie Wannenburg and Warren (Whiteley) ... he understands the game and was a star at age-group level,” said De Bruin about Massyn, who played for the Junior Boks last year.
In Whiteley’s absence, lock-cum-flank Franco Mostert will lead the side. “He’s an inspirational player who gets guys to follow him,” said the Lions coach. “He’s a role-model and embraces every challenge that comes his way. He enjoys the pressure, so it was an easy decision to make him captain.”
While there are several changes to the team that lost a week ago, including Rohan Janse van Rensburg shifting to the wing, the spine of the side remains intact - something De Bruin believes will be important this week.
“Apart from Warren who’s not there, the rest of the spine is there (hooker, No 9, flyhalf and fullback) and that’s important to note. We had to rest some of the guys, and would have done so irrespective of what happened last weekend. We’ve got a big trip to Argentina next week and after that we’re up against the Crusaders.”
Lions team: Andries Coetzee, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Len Massyn, Franco Mostert, Kwagga Smith, Lourens Erasmus, Marvin Orie, Jacobie Adriaanse, Malcolm Marx, Dylan Smith; Replacements: Robbie Coetzee, Sti Sithole, Johannes Jonker, Robert Kruger, Marnus Schoeman, Marco Janse van Vuren, Howard Mnisi, Shaun Reynolds