Lions to stun Sharks

JON CARDINELLI believes the Cinderellas of Currie Cup rugby will upset the log leaders in Johannesburg this Saturday.

There’s a glow about this Lions outfit. John Mitchell has built a solid side, and the most encouraging thing is that the team is yet to reach it’s potential. They won’t qualify for the Currie Cup semi-finals and I doubt they’ll make the play-offs of the 2011 Super Rugby tournament, but there has definitely been significant signs of improvement.

The Lions are already a better side now than there were in the first round. They lost 32-0 to Western Province, 32-18 to the Bulls, 26-20 to Griquas, and 48-19 to the Sharks, but that heavy defeat in Durban was to be the last time they were humiliated.

They scraped two close wins over the Cheetahs and Pumas, and after a resounding victory over the Leopards, they made their biggest statement against WP. The Lions thumped Allister Coetzee’s men 46-28 in Johannesburg and put 40 past Griquas the following week. Last Saturday, they came close to upsetting the Blue Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, a ground that’s proved a fortress in recent years.

They’ll host the Sharks this Saturday, and Durbanites expecting a replication of the first-round clash should think again. Mitchell’s Lions are in impressive form while the Sharks have let their game slip somewhat in the last couple of weeks.

Judging by the overall statistics, the Lions should have no chance. Along with WP, the Sharks are the top attacking unit in the competition with 47 tries. They boast the second-best defensive record having conceded 24 tries. The Lions are third (with 34 tries) and fifth (32) on these respective lists.

But the stats of the second round tell a different story. Not only have the Lions won three of their four games, they’ve collected four log bonus points in the process. They’ve scored a total of 152 points with 17 tries, and conceded 91 points and 12 tries. While the attacking stats are similar to those of the first round, the defence has shown a marked improvement from the 219 points and 20 tries leaked in the Lions’ first seven games.

This is why they stand to beat the Sharks on Saturday. They’ve lifted their defensive effort while maintaining their attacking potency. Their forwards should be able to withstand a forward barrage, and with Elton Jantjies marshalling the backline, they will test the Sharks’ defence.

A lot will depend on the individual decision making, as well as the goal-kicking, of Jantjies and opposite number Pat Lambie. Both have shown composure that belies their age, but with the two packs evenly matched, somebody will have to produce something special.

Playing at Ellis Park, Jantjes and the Lions will have that something extra. It will be an incredible boost to their confidence after smashing Province and pushing the Bulls close, and will reaffirm what many already believe, the Lions are finally on the right track.

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