Preview: Lions v Highlanders

Date published: May 8 2015

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The Lions will hope to get back to winning ways this weekend but face an almighty test with the visit of the Highlanders to Ellis Park.

Six wins from seven matches propelled the Lions into playoff contention, with the Jo'burg based side having not made the knockout stages since 2001, back in the days of the Cats.

Last week's 35-33 loss to the Bulls admittedly put a dent in those ambitions with the Lions seven points of the South African Conference leaders, who are on a bye this week.

Johan Ackermann therefore will have drilled into his side the importance of picking up something from Saturday's clash.

The form of Elton Jantjies off the kicking tee has been crucial when you take into account that the Lions have scored the third-most penalties in Super Rugby so far in 2015.

By getting on top at the breakdown and then having a rock-solid defence, given only two teams have missed more tackles this year, the Lions have been able to ground down their opponents and pick up multiple wins. But is that possible against such an enterprising Highlanders outfit?

Jamie Joseph's side are brilliant with the ball in hand, with 29 tries so far, but their ability to win turnover ball and then use that on attack can be devastating.

Just ask the Sharks, whose defence faltered in Dunedin and they were consequently punished in a 48-15 thumping.

Factor in the Highlanders' strengths on attack, at the breakdown and with their tackling, where they've recorded the fourth highest figure in the competition, and it's no wonder they're contenders.

One negative for the visitors however is their record on South African soil – with five defeats in their last six matches. They have also never defeated the Lions twice in a row.

"I've got a plan but it changes every day," Joseph told the Sunday Star Times discussing the final weeks of the season.

"For us it was about getting some momentum [early], and we've got that, and then being really smart about it. Now it's working out the best-case scenario over the remaining six games."

The last time these teams met: The Lions hit back in dramatic style in Dunedin last year, coming back from a 23-0 deficit to ultimately lose 23-22. Courtnall Skosan's final try earned the Lions a bonus point but they fell short of victory when Marnitz Boshoff missed the conversion.

Players to watch: Such a big figure for his side at number eight, Warren Whiteley continually inspires his team from the back of the scrum while trying to make Heyneke Meyer take notice ahead of the Rugby World Cup later on this year. A useful option at the lineout as well as an excellent ball carrier, Whiteley will have to match the Highlanders back row in Johannesburg.

As for the Highlanders, having Ben Smith available after a concussion scare from last week's game is massive for the New Zealand franchise when you consider the leadership he brings to his side. Smith's tactical kicking as much as his attacks joining the line could make the difference.

Team news: Lions boss Johan Ackermann has made two tweaks to the forwards and both come in the front-row. Schalk van der Merwe will start at loosehead and Robbie Coetzee, having made a full recovery this week, has been included at hooker. In the backline, Ross Cronje will start at scrum-half and links up with Marnitz Boshoff, who shifts to fly-half for this game. Courtnall Skosan returns at left wing and Andries Coetzee shifts to full-back. Alwyn Hollenbach has also earned a starting position at inside centre with Howard Mnisi dropping down to the bench.

The Highlanders have named an unchanged side for this weekend's clash with the Lions in Johannesburg. The only changes come on the bench, where Ross Geldenhuys and John Hardie are among the replacements after missing out last week.

Form: That defeat at Loftus for the Lions brought their five-game losing streak to an end, after having lost four of their first five matches. The Lions have only managed one try bonus point all season. The Highlanders meanwhile have won four of their last five contests and are also currently the third New Zealand side in the top six.

Prediction: This could be a high-scoring thriller at Ellis Park given how both sides are capable of racking up the points, but with the Highlanders in hot form, we'll back them to pick up another victory on the road to the playoffs. Highlanders by 10!

Previous results:

2014: Highlanders won 23-22 in Dunedin
2011: Lions won 26-22 in Dunedin
2010: Highlanders won 39-29 in Dunedin

The teams:

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Harold Vorster, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Ruaan Lerm, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Howard Mnisi.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Elliott Dixon, 20 John Hardie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery

Date: Saturday, May 9
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 15:00 local (23:00 AEST, 01:00* (Sunday) NZST)
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant Referees: Marius van der Westhuizen, Rodney Bonaparte
TMO: Johan Greeff

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