Lions pack must roar to unleash backs against Ospreys

Lions' Edwill van der Merwe is a dangerous runner with ball in hand. Picture: Steve Haag Sports / INPHO / Shutterstock / BackpagePix

Lions' Edwill van der Merwe is a dangerous runner with ball in hand. Picture: Steve Haag Sports / INPHO / Shutterstock / BackpagePix

Published Jan 21, 2024


While the Lions enjoy playing with great freedom on attack, they will have to do the hard yards upfront first to emerge victorious against the Ospreys in today’s Challenge Cup clash at Ellis Park in Johannesburg (3pm kick-off).

The Johannesburg side have enjoyed a much better season, where they have been able to turn those narrow losses of previous years into victories.

None was sweeter than a few weeks ago, when they fought back from 3-18 down to beat the Sharks 20-18 in Durban – where Boeta Chamberlain missed a last-gasp penalty at goal.

Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen picked a largely second-string line-up in last week’s 3-13 defeat to Montpellier in France, so his best players will be refreshed after avoiding the trip to Europe and the freezing conditions up north last week.

That was a wise move by Van Rooyen, as they will have to be at their optimum level to knock over an Ospreys side coming off three consecutive victories – over the Scarlets, Cardiff and Perpignan.

Both teams are on nine points on the Pool 2 log behind Montpellier (14) and Benetton (11), and have already reached the round of 16 as Newcastle (one) and Perpignan (zero) cannot pass them.

But with Benetton hosting Montpellier on Saturday already, the Lions will know exactly what they need to do to finish in second position and claim a home play-off. So there is a lot to play for at Ellis Park this afternoon.

“Ospreys have been going really well. Their attack is very good and their defence is probably the most improved in the competition,” Van Rooyen told the Lions website.

“We really want to put in a big performance, especially here at home. Looking at our roster in the next few weeks and the number of tough games coming up (a double-header against the Bulls), it’s important for us to put up a good performance this week heading into a packed schedule of local United Rugby Championship derbies.

“Due to the performances last week in France, there are one or two rewards in the match-23 ahead of Sunday’s game for some good performances and opportunities for those players to have another crack against Ospreys.”

The Lions have a number of backline weapons, such as centre Henco van Wyk, wing Edwill van der Merwe and halfbacks Sanele Nohamba and Gianni Lombard, who will be tested by Welsh internationals such as George North and Owen Watkin.

But the hosts will have their hands full upfront as well, with Ospreys captain and Wales Test lock Adam Beard leading the Challenge Cup lineout statistics, while former Western Province tighthead prop Tom Botha will be a strong presence in the scrums.

So, Lions No 5 Reinhard Nothnagel will have a real battle on his hands to secure lineout possession for the backs to flourish.

If they get enough ball, they will look to stretch the Ospreys defence, with the Welsh club having prepared in Cape Town this week before moving up to high altitude in Johannesburg.

“The Lions play a slightly different game when they’re at home. They have a stronger understanding of the conditions, which they’ll use to their advantage, especially in the kicking game,” Ospreys coach Toby Booth said this week.

“Often games like this one are about whether you can deal with the environment and whether you can adapt quickly; that will be the challenge.

“Last week against Perpignan we adapted brilliantly at halftime in order to be strategically smart in the second half, and credit to the boys for that.”

Teams For Ellis Park

Lions: 15 Quan Horn 14 Richard Kriel 13 Henco van Wyk 12 Marius Louw (captain) 11 Edwill van der Merwe 10 Gianni Lombard 9 Sanele Nohamba 8 Francke Horn 7 Emmanuel Tshituka 6 JC Pretorius 5 Reinhard Nothnagel 4 Ruben Schoeman 3 Asenathi Ntlabakanye 2 PJ Botha 1 JP Smith.

Bench: 16 Jaco Visagie 17 Morgan Naudé 18 Ruan Dreyer 19 Darrien Landsberg 20 Hanru Sirgel 21 Morné van den Berg 22 Kade Wolhuter 23 Erich Cronjé.

Ospreys: 15 Iestyn Hopkins 14 Mat Protheroe 13 George North 12 Owen Watkin 11 Keelan Giles 10 Dan Edwards 9 Reuben Morgan-williams 8 Morgan Morse 7 Harri Deaves 6 Will Hickey 5 Adam Beard (captain) 4 James Ratti 3 Tom Botha 2 Sam Parry 1 Rhys Henry.

Bench: 16 Ethan Lewis 17 Cam Jones 18 Ben Warren 19 Lewis Jones 20 Tristan Davies 21 Cameron Jones 22 Jack Walsh 23 Keiran Williams.