JOHANNESBURG – After coming up short in 2016 and 2017, the Lions take their next step in their quest to be crowned Super Rugby champions when they host the Jaguares in their quarter-final at Ellis Park today.
The Lions and their fans will be hoping it is third time lucky this season (3.05pm kickoff) after the side lost the final last year and in 2016, to the Crusaders and Hurricanes respectively.
The good news for the Lions class of 2018 is that the emotion that went with the two previous campaigns isn’t part of this year’s group.
In 2016, the team made it into the playoffs for the first time – coming after a number of tumultuous years.
And last season saw inspirational coach Johan Ackermann bid the team farewell following the final at Ellis Park.
There is thus a feeling of the Lions flying somewhat under the radar this year, and it is easy to see why.
Their results haven’t been quite as stunning as in 2016 and 2017, there are no “hero” coaches leaving at the end of the campaign, and getting to this stage of the competition is now expected rather than hoped for.
Also, as captain Warren Whiteley has said since returning to the team after a long injury layoff, the Lions have yet to properly hit top gear and produce the kind of performance they are capable of.
It is for this reason that some, including the players, are quietly confident 2018 may just be the team’s year.
If they can finally hit their straps in the playoffs, with the Jaguares up first today, there’s every chance they can again contest the final and then anything is possible.
Even if having to potentially go to Christchurch to take on the Crusaders is not something anyone would want to do.
The two generals in the spotlight on Saturday during the Vodacom Super Rugby quarter-final at Emirates Airline Park, @jantjies_elton and Nicolas Shanchez have both piled-up some impressive stats during the year. Find their head to head here.#LetsUnite #LIOvJAG pic.twitter.com/5LLoMkMF69
But by finishing second on the overall log, the Lions can still host a final if the Crusaders fall out at some stage and Swys de Bruin’s men keep winning.
But to get on that road they have to first get past the men from Argentina.
Pablo Matera’s men have been the surprise package this season, qualifying for their first quarter-final, and deservedly so, but if they manage to topple Whiteley and his men at Ellis Park, it would go down as a major shock.
While the Jaguares had the better of the Lions in Buenos Aires, the Lions have dominated the clashes at home and should do so again today.
The Lions are a settled and now very experienced team, they’ve lost only a handful of matches at home in the last three years, and over the course of the 80 minutes should have too much firepower for their visitors.
Of course, the Jaguares have nothing to lose and will no doubt look to run the Lions off their feet and they’ve certainly got the potential to do that, but for how long?
They’ll ask plenty of Whiteley and his men, but having already spent three weeks in the country, following games against the Bulls and Sharks, the Jaguares may just be ready for home.
Discipline will be a vital element of today’s clash – something the Jaguares don’t pride themselves in – while, as Whiteley said this week, the team that starts best and is able to play consistently well over the 80 minutes will come out on top.
The Lions look more likely to be the team capable of doing exactly that.
It’s time for the title challengers to now come to the fore and show what they’re made of. It’s time for the Lions to show they belong among that group.
Teams For Ellis Park
Lions: Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronjé, Warren Whiteley (captain), Cyle Brink, Kwagga Smith, Franco Mostert, Marvin Orie, Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx, Jacques van Rooyen.
Bench: Corné Fourie, Dylan Smith, Johannes Jonker, Lourens Erasmus, Marnus Schoeman, Dillon Smit, Courtnall Skosan, Howard Mnisi.
Jaguares: Emiliano Boffelli, Bautista Delguy, Matias Orlando, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Matias Moroni, Nicolas Sanchez, Gonzalo Bertranou, Javier Ortega Desio, Tomas Lezana, Pablo Matera (captain), Marcos Kremer, Guido Petti, Nahuel Tetaz Chapparo, Agustin Creevy, Santiago Garcia Botta.
Bench: Julian Montoya, Juan Pablo Zeiss, Santiago Medrano, Matias Alemanno, Tomas Lavanini, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Martin Landajo, Sebastian Cancelliere.
Referee: Jaco Peyper.