JOHANNESBURG - Lions captain Warren Whiteley is hopeful his team will be able to add a ruthless element to their arsenal as they head into the Super Rugby playoffs for the third year in a row.
The Lions go into the quarter-finals having scored the joint most number of tries in the competition - 77, with the Crusaders - and having put six past the Bulls in their final round-robin game last Saturday. But with the dangerous and unpredictable Jaguares coming up in the last eight at Ellis Park this weekend, Whiteley wants his team to step it up even more. “I definitely think we can be more ruthless. We’ve still got an extra gear in there somewhere,” he said ahead of Saturday’s 3pm kickoff.
Despite going into their third finals series since 2016, the Lions have yet to win the competition. They lost the final game in the two previous seasons, to the Hurricanes and Crusaders respectively. Whiteley said it was important to now put the league season behind them and focus only on the next game.
“Each and every opportunity from here on is like gold. We didn’t grab a number of chances we created against the Bulls, and that’s why I say we can be more ruthless. We’ve got work to do this week, and hopefully in the next couple of weeks. This is the business end of the competition and we have to make it count.”
Coach Swys de Bruin also said it would be important to stay in the moment and not look too far ahead as the Lions seek a first Super Rugby title. “There’s always going to be pressure at playoff time. Every game is going to be unique from here on, but all we can do is focus on the Jaguares this week and try and make the most of playing in front of our own fans this coming weekend.”
A year ago this time emotions were running high at Ellis Park and the Lions after it had been earlier announced head coach Johan Ackermann would be leaving the team at the end of the competition. There was a feeling of the “brotherhood” being broken and at the same time Whiteley was injured and unable to play in the knockout rounds.
2 international hookers will lock horns on Saturday when the Emirates Lions host the Jaguares at Emirates Airline Park with Malcolm Marx and Agustin Creevy line up for the VSR quarter-final. This is just one of a host of big head-to-head match-ups that will be on show.#LetsUnite pic.twitter.com/v3lD5E0Tz3
This year there is no inspirational coach heading abroad and Whiteley is fit so things are somewhat different to 12 months ago. The Lions leader agreed it was a slightly different scenario facing his team this year, but that it would not make much of a difference in the greater scheme of things.
“It was an emotional time last year (with Ackermann leaving for Gloucester), and then us later on qualifying to host the final, but again it’s a competition that’s in our hands,” said Whiteley. “It’s a mental game from here on. The hard work has been done, each team knows what they must do ... it’s now the small things that matter, and sticking to them will be crucial. It’s important we don’t veer away from what’s worked for us, what we’ve done well in the past and stick to those things.”
Having finished the league stage of the competition the Lions will again fancy their chances of playing in the final - for what would be the third year in a row - as they face the Jaguares this week for a place at home in the semi-finals. If they get that far they will play against either the Waratahs or Highlanders, both teams they’ll feel they can get the better of.