The Lions will need to be at their best to beat the Crusaders in their Super Rugby quarter-final in Johannesburg this Saturday.
The knockout showdown comes after Lions head coach Johan Ackermann's seemingly crazy decision to rest his best players against the Jaguares last weekend, which ended in a 34-22 loss for the former table-toppers.
Consequently, instead of the Lions facing the Sharks, who they have beaten twice this season, they now have to weather the Crusaders, who no one needs reminding of their potency in the finals stage of Super Rugby.
A nasty backlash is probably bubbling under in the Crusaders camp after their heavy loss against the Hurricanes at home last week. The Crusaders fell 35-10 at home and conceded five tries as they were obliterated by a strategically astute Hurricanes side. The Lions won’t underestimate the Christchurch men this weekend and would be wise not to.
Crusaders head Todd Blackadder believes that despite last week's negative scoreboard, there were positives to their defensive performance.
"There's still a lot of upside to our D … Last week we just weren't aggressive going forward – while we were making our tackles, we were making them on the gain-line or on the back foot. And then we were giving the ball straight back to them. We will be smarter than that this week," Blackadder told Stuff.
But it is the Crusaders’ attack that makes them such a dangerous side. They rank first in clean breaks this season, offloads and passes. And all of that isn’t just for show as they have scored the third most tries in the competition with 64.
Sam Whitelock says they expect the Lions to swing the ball wide and as they have done all season, and will have to keep that in mind.
“Every New Zealand side knows that when they are over here the Lions are going to attack‚ use the ball and probably play a bit more expansive than they would have done traditionally‚” the Crusaders lock told TimesLive.
“We just need to be aware of that and ensure that we cover the whole field.”
Whitelock would be right to be mindful of the Pride of Jozi’s attack. The Lions have scored the most tries in the competition with 71, have scored the most points with 535 and they are also first in run metres and defenders beaten.
The Lions’ expansive game plan isn’t usually utilised in this section of the tournament but as assistant coach Swys de Bruin told IOL, they will be sticking to their guns this weekend as they’ve proven they can win against New Zealand sides.
“There’s no reason to change anything,” said De Bruin.
“Yes, we lost to the Crusaders the last time we played against them, and also against the Hurricanes… those two matches without a doubt being our two worst performances of the year. But, we also beat the Chiefs away and won against the Blues. We’ve shown we can play against New Zealand teams and win… so it doesn’t really matter that we’re up against the Crusaders.
"The Crusaders caught us with something like a blitzkrieg when we played them the last time,” De Bruin admitted.
"They’re an experienced outfit, they’ve been in play-offs before and know what’s in store and what’s needed to get past this stage of the competition."
The last time the teams met: The Crusaders and Lions treated the crowd to a ten try-thriller when the visitors defeated the Lions 43-37 Johannesburg. Ryan Crotty scored a hat-trick, while Lions hooker Akker van der Merwe scored a brace for his side. The game was a roller-coaster ride from start to finish as Crotty got his first try of the match in the opening minute of the game, the Lions then responded three minutes later through Lionel Mapoe. The two teams were neck and neck at half-time as the first-half ended 22-20 to the visitors. Until the 71st minute it looked like the Crusaders had run away with it until Van der Merwe crossed for his second try of the game to close the gap on the men from Christchurch. But it wasn't enough and the visitors won by six points.
Players to watch: Elton Jantjies has been at the forefront of his team's success this season. The fly-half general brings his own brand of distribution to the game. His quick decision making and accurate passing makes the Lions' game-plan of sending multiple runners at one time off his shoulders work brilliantly. His vision for the game has been almost unmatched as he ranks second for try assists this season. The Crusaders will need to close Jantjies down to inhibit his genius. Jaco Kriel's resemblance to Captain America seems to be less and less accidental considering his super-human performance this season. He plays with dynamite pace to get to the breakdown and in the midfield. He's also proven to be fantastic with ball in hand as he ranks fifth in the competition for defenders beaten.
Despite the Crusaders' big loss last weekend Richie Mo'unga and Matt Todd had a defensive master-class in the red and black jersey. Mo'unga kicked six points but he showed his real worth with his defence as he made 13 tackles, an unheard of fly-half statistic. The young playmaker has been on form all season, providing complete performances, as he remains strong in kicking for poles, attack and kicking for touch. If there any chinks in the Lions' armour Mo'unga will find it. Todd is definitely someone to keep your eye on, if not only to see how many tackles he can rack up. Todd made 20 hits last weekend in an energetic performance, he also ranks fourth in the overall competition for tackles made with a monstrous 159 tackles this season.
Team news: Johan Ackermann made 15 changes to their side. Warren Whiteley looks set to start at number eight this weekend and regains the captaincy. The rest of the loose trio will consist of Warwick Tecklenburg at seven and Jaco Kriel at six. In the second-row Franco Mostert and Andries Ferreira retake the four and five jerseys while Julian Redelinghuys, Malcolm Marx and Dylon Smith return as the front-row. Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck and Courtnall Skosan return as the back three with Lionel Mapoe and Rohan Janse Van Rensburg taking back their centre pair spots, with Howard Mnisi providing cover from the bench. The Springbok pairing of Elton Jantjies and Faf De Klerk are the half-backs.
The Crusaders coaching staff have made four changes for their quarter-final clash. All Black scrum-half Andy Ellis comes back into the side after suffering to a calf injury before last weekend's game. Jone Macilai replacin Nemani Nadolo in the 11 jersey is the only other change to the backline. In the forwards, Sam Whitelock comes back into the team after being sick last week and will take Scott Barrett's place at lock, with Barrett dropping to the bench. Flanker Jordan Taufua will take over the six jersey from Jimmy Tupou who will provide loose forward cover.
Form: The Lions are on some pretty hot form going into the quarter-finals. Despite their 34-22 loss to the Jaguares, they had won five in a row. They recorded some big wins as well after completely decimating their opponents, beating the Blues 43-5, the Bulls 56-20 and the Jaguares 52-24.
The Crusaders on the other hand are coming off a mix bag of performances. They beat the Waratahs and the Blues before losing to the Chiefs. The men from Christchurch regrouped and then hosted the Rebels, giving them a hammering to the tune of 85-26. Just as they started looking like the formidable side they were earlier in the season the Hurricanes came to visit and scored a bonus-point win against over them by 35-10.
Prediction: It should be an electric game of rugby between these two exciting sides. Although the Lions are playing at home, the seemingly innate winning mentality of the Crusaders should see them through. Crusaders by 7.
2016: Crusaders won 43-37 in Johannesburg
2015: Crusaders won 34-6 in Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 28-7 in Johannesburg
2012: Crusaders won 23-13 in Johannesburg
2010: Crusaders won 46-19 in Christchurch
2009: Crusaders won 32-20 in Johannesburg
2008: Crusaders won 31-6 in Christchurch
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse Van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylon Smith
Replacements: 16 Armand Van Der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Jacques Van Rooyen, 19 Ruan Ackermann, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco Van Der Walt/Sylvian Mahuza
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 David Havili, 11 Jone Macilai, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read(c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Jimmy Tupou, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Ben Volavola, 23 Kieron Fonotia
Date: Saturday, July 23
Venue: Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg
Kick Off: 16:30 local (14:30 GMT)
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant Referees: Marius van der Westhuizen, Rasta Rasivhenge
TMO: Marius Jonke