JOHANNESBURG – It's their first meeting since the Lions went down to the Crusaders in the final in Christchurch last season, and again it is no surprise that the home team are heavy favourites to win again on Friday.
The back-to-back Super Rugby champions - they also beat the Lions in the final at Ellis Park in 2017 - are the comfortable log leaders a week after the halfway mark of the competition this season and they are also a happy and settled squad - as is seemingly always the case.
In contrast, the Lions are missing several key players, among them Malcolm Marx, Dylan Smith, Courtnall Skosan, Andries Coetzee and the exciting Gianni Lombard, who are either injured or being rested. But, they are also “coachless” to some degree, which is probably more unsettling than missing a few players.
Head coach Swys de Bruin and defence boss Joey Mongalo are both in Johannesburg after leaving the squad last week for different reasons, leaving the reins in the hands of regular conditioning coach Ivan van Rooyen.
De Bruin has apparently been given time and space to deal with a stress-related medical condition, while Mongalo is believed to be set to face a Lions internal hearing today following his being found guilty of indecent assault, stemming from an incident during the Lions’ stay in Sydney last year.
How the Lions react to these matters on the field at AMI Stadium will tell a lot about their character. Last week, just hours after De Bruin and Mongalo left the squad to return to South Africa, they managed to pull off a surprise 23-17 win against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
This week though the players have had time to think about what’s been happening, they are without a key man like Marx, and they are up against a Crusaders side that has won 10 of the last 11 meetings between the teams.
Van Rooyen though, is upbeat about the Lions’ chances.
“We’re expecting good weather come game time, and we all know the Crusaders are always good at home. They’ve got a number of All Black players in their team, but we’re expecting a great clash. We’re a youngish team this week, but it’s going to be an awesome learning experience for us,” Van Rooyen said.
The good news for the tourists is that Van Rooyen and his coaching team have been able to pick a strong pack, even if Marx is missing, with the back-row of fit-again Warren Whiteley, Cyle Brink and Kwagga Smith key to their performance.
The Crusaders though are chasing a 25th straight win on home soil. They’ve lost only once this season and so confident are they of achieving that number that coach Scott Robertson has opted to rest key national players Matt Todd, Owen Franks and Scott Barrett.
However, they still have in their ranks players like fullback David Havili, centre Ryan Crotty, flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, No 8 Kieran Read and lock and captain Sam Whitelock.
Tomorrow’s match kicks off at 9.35am SA-time.@jacq_west