The men from Auckland have their backs to the wall - again - this week, and will have to produce something very special if they’re to stop the Lions from making it four from four in these early stages of the 2018 Super Rugby season.
Swys de Bruin’s men have been in stupendous form, brushing aside the Sharks, Jaguares and Bulls, and look an even more dangerous outfit than a year ago when they powered their way to a second successive final.
They have plenty of shots to fire – be it by the forwards or the backs – and they have turned their home ground into something of a fortress in the past two seasons.
Only the Crusaders, in last year’s final, have rattled them at home in recent times – and that also only because they were reduced to playing with 14 men in the early stages of the match.
For the rest, the Lions have dominated all-comers to Ellis Park and will be the heavy favourites to again win today.
The last time the Blues visited Johannesburg, in May 2016, they were handed a 43-5 beating, and while they appear to be a stronger outfit two years down the line, they’ll go into today’s contest on the back of a tough couple of weeks, let alone days.
They did plenty of playing in their first two games – like they always do – but still lost; 34-41 to the Highlanders and 21-27 to the Chiefs, and then this week also experienced plenty of upheaval on their way to South Africa.
They were delayed by nine hours at Auckland airport last Sunday waiting for take-off clearance, only to have their flight pushed back a day and arrived in Johannesburg only late on Monday.
On top of that they’ll be fully aware they have won only one of 10 matches in South Africa in recent times.
It’s a Blues team, though, that can be very hot if they get it right on the day, but a lot has to happen for them to click, while the Lions are a settled side, unchanged from last week, and know how to go about constructing an “innings” and getting the job done.
Last week it was the lineout and driving maul that got them past the Bulls, but they can be just as destructive at scrum-time - and milking penalties there - or out wide with their passing and running game.
The Blues will seemingly rely heavily on All Blacks stars Jerome Kaino upfront and Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane in the centres, who’ll certainly be a threat. But as Lions backs coach Neil de Bruin pointed out this week, the Lions, as a collective, will look to trump the Blues rather than rely on any individuals.
And yet, the Lions have individual stars in virtually every position in their team who’ll ask plenty of the visitors’ defensive capabilities.
The Lions will be tested in a number of areas this evening, but they should still have more than enough fire-power, class, and experience to get past Tana Umaga’s men .@jacq_west
Independent on Sunday