Two star-laden teams will go head to head in round one of this year’s Super Rugby competition when the Lions host the Sharks at Ellis Park on Saturday (5.15pm kickoff), with the pressure squarely on coach Robert du Preez and his team from Durban.
The Sharks go into the much-anticipated match on the back of a few significant pre-season warm-up games and acquiring the services of much-hyped flyhalf Rob du Preez from Cape Town and wing Makazole Mapimpi from the Cheetahs.
Also, they have added the wily and experienced Dick Muir to their coaching team and several pundits have labelled them early favourites to be the dominant local team this year.
For their part, the Lions have lost a few key men in Ruan Ackermann, Faf de Klerk, Jaco van der Walt and Akker van der Merwe (who’ll be in Sharks colours on Saturday) since last season’s competition, as well as head coach Johan Ackermann and highly respected defensive man JP Ferreira.
On top of that, the home team have hardly made significant gains in the player department, preferring to back their youngsters, among them Aphiwe Dyantyi and Hacjivah Dayimani, who will both feature today.
The Lions also have no form, so to speak, behind them going into the competition, with new coach Swys de Bruin having opted to play a weakened side in their only official warm-up against the Bulls a few weeks ago, with the first-choice men playing against a Lions B team last week.
As is the case, and to be expected, in a first proper outing of the year, there are several question marks around both teams. How will the Lions go under new-look management? How match-sharp will they be? Will the Sharks again rely on brute force and their physical pack?
What is certain, though, is this afternoon’s match should provide thrills aplenty.
In the front row battle, we have last year’s impressive trio of Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx and Jacques van Rooyen of the Lions packing down against Thomas du Toit, Franco Marais and Juan Schoeman.
In the second row the abrasive Sharks duo of Ruan Botha and Stephan Lewies take on the highly impressive Franco Mostert and Andries Ferreira, arguably the best combination last season.
The back-row battle promises to be equally intriguing, with Warren Whiteley finally back from a lengthy injury layoff to lead his team.
And he’ll hope the man in the Lions No 6 jersey, Kwagga Smith, continues where he left off last year.
Smith’s red-carding in the Super Rugby final may have contributed to his team missing out on bagging the title, but his performances throughout the season were of match-winning standard and he’s sure to keep the Sharks busy today.
And at the back, there’s class everywhere.
The Lions might be missing injured wings Courtnall Skosan and Ruan Combrinck, but they’ve got the exciting hot-stepper Dyantyi in the mix, the experienced and classy centre pairing of Lionel Mapoe and Harold Vorster, and the mercurial Elton Jantjies at 10.
For the Sharks, wings Sbu Nkosi and Mapimpi ooze class, while Lukhanyo Am and André Esterhuizen will keep the Lions’ defence honest for 80 minutes. Flyhalf Du Preez has plenty to prove, having been recruited from the Stormers and being picked ahead of Curwin Bosch.
With this being a first-up game for both teams there are no favourites, but the Lions will be happy they’re playing at home, while the Sharks have it all to do.
Teams For Ellis Park
Lions: Andries Coetzee, Sylvian Mahuza, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Warren Whiteley (capt), Cyle Brink, Kwagga Smith, Franco Mostert, Andries Ferreira, Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx, Jacques van Rooyen.
Bench: Robbie Coetzee, Dylan Smith, Jacobie Adriaanse, Marvin Orie, Marnus Schoeman, Hacjivah Dayimani, Howard Mnisi, Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
Sharks: Lwazi Mvovo, Sbu Nkosi, Lukhanyo Am, André Esterhuizen, Makazole Mapimpi, Rob du Preez, Cameron Wright, Keegan Daniel, Jacques Vermeulen, Philip van der Walt, Stephan Lewies, Ruan Botha (capt), Thomas du Toit, Franco Marais, Juan Schoeman.
Bench: Akker van der Merwe, John-Hubert Meyer, Tendai Mtawarira, Hyron Andrews, Daniel du Preez, Michael Claassens, Kobus van Wyk, Curwin Bosch.