Lions look to make URC history against the Sharks

Lions captain Marius Louw during a post-match interview in the United Rugby Championship

Even though they are unbeaten in four games, the Lions have won two Challenge Cup, and two URC matches before the break – they arrive at the Shark Tank as the underdogs, having not won there since 2017. Seen here: Lions skipper Marius Louw. Picture: Luca Sighinolfi/INPHO/Shutterstock

Published Jan 6, 2024


Holding on to the continuity after almost three weeks away from rugby will be a tough challenge for the Lions in Durban on Saturday.

But, they finally look like a cohesive unit in the United Rugby Championship (URC) that can build on some good wins picked up in December to give the Sharks a go.

The two teams meet at Kings Park (kick-off 5pm) in an important South African derby for their season aspirations.

Even though they are unbeaten in four games in both competitions – the Lions have won two Challenge Cup, and two URC matches before the break – they arrive at the Shark Tank as the underdogs, having not won there since 2017.

Boost in confidence

And, while the Sharks are struggling to find form, the home side had a good outing last weekend against the Stormers in Cape Town that will have boosted their confidence ahead of this match.

The focus for the Lions will be on finding their feet at the start, but in expected humid and slippery conditions, that can pose a big challenge. But if they overcome this and connect as soon as possible after the kick-off, it can lay a good foundation for the rest of the match.

Captain Marius Louw spoke this week about the unity and synergy in the Lions side, and it has been evident this season. But their struggles against SA opposition are also well documented.

They have only beaten the Stormers (2021) and the Bulls (2023) once in the history of the tournament, and they will hope to change that little statistic against the Durban side.

Louw and former Sharks scrumhalf Sanele Nohamba will be two key players for their side at the back. Nohamba cracked the nod for the flyhalf jersey, and the 10-12 channel between him and his captain will be vital not just on the attack but defence as well.

It's interesting that Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen picked Nohamba ahead of the experienced Jordan Hendrikse for this clash, but the unpredictable Nohamba has been thriving in the 10-jersey since shifting positions.

He will no doubt give the Sharks’ defence headaches when he runs with the ball or when he spreads it down the backline.

But before Nohamba and the backs can even think of doing that, their young-ish forward pack will have to manage the onslaught of the Eben Etzebeth-bolstered Sharks front rankers.

Etzebeth boost

The home side will no doubt receive a boost with the presence of Etzebeth, but they also stood their ground against the Stormers’ hard men last weekend. Apart from the scrums, the Sharks’ defence around the breakdown and rolling mauls was outstanding. It’s something the Lions pack will definitely have taken notice of.

If the conditions are wet, it will be up to the likes of eighth man Francke Horne, loose forwards James Venter and Emmanuel Tshituka, and the returning Ruben Schoeman to do the hard yards. Schoeman is back after serving a three-week suspension for foul play.

Since Nohamba can cover both halfback slots, Van Rooyen selected a six-two bench split in favour of the forwards. So it’s clear where the Lions want to hit the Sharks.

A win will propel the Jozi side further up the URC table and within reaching distance of a top-eight spot that could secure a play-off berth at the end of the season.

But for now, any thoughts of climbing up the log will be far from their minds as the biggest challenge will be bagging that first URC win in Durban.

Lions Squad:

Lions: 15. Quan Horn, 14. Richard Kriel, 13. Henco van Wyk, 12. Marius Louw (captain), 11. Edwill van der Merwe, 10. Sanele Nohamba, 9. Morne van den Berg, 8. Francke Horn, 7. James Venter, 6. Emmanuel Tshituka, 5. Darrien Landsberg, 4. Ruben Schoeman, 3. Asenathi Ntlabakanye, 2. PJ Botha, 1. JP Smith.

Bench: 16. Jaco Visagie, 17. Morgan Naude, 18. Ruan Smith, 19. Reinhard Nothnagel, 20. Hanru Sirgel. 21. JC Pretorius, 22. Jordan Hendrikse, 23. Rynhardt Jonker.