Centre combo crucial for Lions

GARETH DUNCAN says the Lions’ chances of victory over the Blues will rely heavily on the performance of their new midfield combination.

Many will argue that the Blues will be the Lions’ best opportunity for victory during their overseas tour. While others will point to the feeble Force in Perth on 26 May, the Blues’ continuous struggle for cohesion and form should make the Auckland clash the Lions’ best bet. But there are complications for the Jozi tourists heading into Friday’s fixture.

Head coach John Mitchell’s selection of Jaco Taute and Lionel Mapoe as his centre pairing is the Lions’ fifth midfield combination of the season (after just nine games). Injuries haven’t allowed the Lions to field many settled combinations. Alwyn Hollenbach’s knee injury has forced Mitchell to rope in two of his specialised outside backs to play out of position in the No 12 and No 13 jerseys in Auckland.

Taute has proved to be a great prospect at centre. He has played in the midfield five times this season, and the stats look promising. The 22-year-old has only missed three tackles, he’s gained 249m with ball in hand (which is an average of 49.8m per match), has forced seven turnovers and provides extra help at the tackle points when support is needed.

The concern will be Lionel Mapoe at outside centre. The player has had several experimental runs in the position at the Cheetahs and during the Currie Cup last year, but his difficulty in adapting to the defensive game needed in the channel has created problems. It will be tough for the winger to adjust effectively in his first appearance at outside centre this season.

It’s a risky selection against the Blues’ Michael Hobbs and Ma’a Nonu, but Mitchell is confident that his players can do the job.

‘It was disappointing to lose Alwyn, who’s been key at centre for us. That’s our seventh centre option we’ve lost to injury or suspension now,’ Mithcell told keo.co.za. ‘But Jaco has been a revelation for us all year. He’s a good fullback, and I believe he can be a great centre. He’s impressed when picked at 13, and he’ll give [flyhalf] Elton Jantjies great support at 12. He will run strongly off Elton, will offer some good direction on attack, he’s solid on defence and offers a big boot when needed.

‘Lionel has concerns on defence, but he’s building great form since returning from injury this season. He will offer us a lot on attack at 13. We focused a lot on his defensive game during training, and if he can stick to the necessary structures, he should do well.’

Mitchell added that a strong forwards game and better ball retention will also be vital against the Blues.

‘The Blues have had a disappointing season, but they’re still an imposing side. Ma’a Nonu, Piri Weepu, Daniel Braid, Luke Braid and Ali Williams are all top players,’ said Mitchell. ‘We’ll need to be strong up front and can’t afford to concede regular turnover ball. We lost the ball at key moments in our defeat to the Chiefs last weekend, and we need to learn from that.

‘We also have to start stronger against the Blues. We didn’t do that against the Chiefs.’

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