All eyes on Jozi joust

The impending thriller at Ellis Park will be an all-decisive precursor to the playoffs, as neither the Lions nor Vodacom Western Province can afford to lose.

The previous game lived up to its billing with breathtaking end-to-end rugby finally culminating in a narrow two-point win to the Capetonians. Both sides have been consistent this season, but then again, both have shown debilitating lapses in concentration that have yet to cost them dearly.

This crunch encounter holds room for no such mistakes, especially for the home side, who are one loss away from an early exit from the Absa Currie Cup. Province have also made their desires known, and despite being likely semi-finalists, the team won’t be happy with anything less than home-ground advantage in the playoffs.

The mental aspects aside, there are several key areas worth considering in weighing up the teams’ strengths and flaws.

NO 10 SHOWDOWN

As a priority, the respective flyhalves will need to be flawless with the boot. Goal-kicking will be especially crucial, as the game is likely to be a close-finish, and Andre Pretorius holds the upper-hand in this area. Naas Olivier has been a solid all-round player this season, but his kicking for poles has been less than consistent. However, he has confirmed that he finds the Highveld more favourable than Newlands, as the altitude lends a lot to kicking distance and the elements rarely play their part. In other words, if it is a typical winter’s day in Johannesburg on Saturday, there will be no excuses for a missed kick.

Pretorius is also ahead in the tactical kicking department, although this comparison may be based on the fact that Olivier prefers to keep a lot of possession in hand. Both are excellent distributors, and if either one is supplied with a decent platform from their forwards, the dangerous outside backs will undoubtedly come into play. Both thrive in pressure situations, but Pretorius’ experience once again tips the scales in the Lions favour, with this being Olivier’s biggest match to date.

TANK VERSUS TECHNIQUE

The first half is expected to be very tight and intense, with both sides not willing to concede an early lead. The competition in the front row will be telling, and the 107kg Schalk Ferreira faces an enormous challenge in the form of Lions’ tighthead Bertus Smit, who boasts six years of first class rugby as well as an advantage of 23 kgs over his opposite number. But the WP coach has confirmed that he has the utmost faith in Ferreira, who has been given the start ahead of JD Moller.

On the other side of the scrum, Brock Harris packs down against SA U21 loosehead Heinke van der Merwe. Harris has outscrummed most of his opponents this season, the most recent victim being the Springbok veteran Ollie le Roux in Bloemfontein. As the senior member of the front row, the onus will be on him to ensure Province maintain momentum in the set pieces.

TURNOVER TUSSLE

Both Kobus van der Merwe and Eugene Eloff have been vocal over the point of possession, especially in the early stages of the game. The Lions will feel that they got the better of the Province back row at Newlands by effecting more turnovers, but it remains to be seen how effective they will be in their new combination. Ernst Joubert had been a standout for them before he got injured, and although Pietie Ferreira does have plenty of experience, it will be difficult for him to come straight into the team and make an impression.

While WP may also miss the services of injured blindside Justin Melck, Pieter Louw has proved an adequate replacement. He’s been particularly strong on defence, an area Luke Watson has listed as a priority in this fixture. Watson himself has been a little flat of late, the last big game against the Vodacom Cheetahs being especially forgettable. With Wikus van Heerden and Cobus Grobbelaar in rampant form, the talented WP captain will be looking to lift his own game, as well as respond to Van Heerden’s jibes that the Lions loosies are superior to those of Province.

BROKEN PLAY BLACKOUT

The long punt into opposition territory is a persistent tactic on the Highveld, but it should be underutilised this weekend due to the counterattacking potential of both backlines. WP are especially dangerous in this area, with players like Gio Aplon and Sireli Naqelevuki always the favourites to beat at least two defenders from the back.

But kicking will still play its part, and Pretorius may follow Willem de Waal’s example by peppering the WP wings with high-balls. No extra space will be afforded, as the number of Sevens stars littering the field will certainly put pay to any lapses in defence.

PAST FIVE RESULTS AT ELLIS PARK

2005: WP WON 23-38
2004: LIONS WON 32-28
2003: DRAW 26-26
2002: LIONS WON 50-13
2001: WP WON 51-28

By Jon Cardinelli