The Lions will be determined to get their campaign back on track when they host the Reds in Johannesburg on Saturday.
After finishing as tournament runners-up last year, the Lions were amongst the favourites to go one better and win this year’s competition. And after winning their first two fixtures against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and the Waratahs at home, they looked well set to justify the pre-season hype.
Their early season momentum came to a grinding halt, however, when they were beaten by the Jaguares in Buenos Aires last weekend.
Diehard Lions fans will be quick to point out that they fielded a second-string team in that fixture but their head coach Johan Ackermann has brought back his first-choice players for their showdown with the Reds and they will be hoping to make a statement of intent against the men from Brisbane.
The average margin between these sides across the history of this fixture is just eight points, though it’s been the Lions who have enjoyed victory in each of the last two meetings between these teams in Brisbane and Johannesburg.
The Lions have won each of their last seven home fixtures – their longest winning streak ever on home turf – scoring an average of 47 points per game across that stretch.
The Reds have played well in patches during their three previous matches but only have a win over the Sharks in their opener to show for their efforts.
The Brisbane-based outfit have restricted their opposition to just 13 minutes and 35 seconds of possession per game this season, the lowest of any team in the tournament.
The 2011 champions are struggling on the road, however, as they haven’t won away from home since Round 16, 2015 – against the Western Force – losing each of their nine road games since.
Reds head coach Nick Stiles expects an improved effort from his troops against the Lions.
“The Reds haven’t had a great track record on this tour in recent years, but the professionalism and desire we’ve seen from the squad this week has been pleasing,” he said.
“We’re here to get results and a win at altitude against a quality team like the Lions would be a great reward for our hard work.”
The last time these teams met: The Lions claimed a narrow 18-17 win in 2015. The match marked the comeback from injury for Quade Cooper but the visitors spoiled his return with the morale-boosting result on their Australasian tour. Harold Vorster and Warwick Tecklenburg scored tries for the Lions and the Reds were awarded a penalty try and Samu Kerevi also crossed the whitewash.
Players to watch: Despite playing with a weakened team in their loss to the Jaguares last week, Lions captain Warren Whiteley was one of the standout players in that match. Whiteley was his usual busy self on attack and was rewarded with two tries for his efforts and also came to the fore with a busy defensive shift. A similar effort should help his side to victory over the Reds.
He might be 36 years old but former Wallaby flanker George Smith is still delivering superb performances in the twilight of his career. Since joining the Reds at the start of the season, Smith has shown that he is still a force at the breakdown but he has also impressed as a ball carrier and he combined well with number eight Scott Higginbotham and fellow flanker Hendrik Tui in the loss to the Crusaders last weekend.
Team news: Lions head coach Johan Ackermann has made 12 changes to his starting line-up. In the back-line, Andries Coetzee comes in at full-back where he replaces Jaco van der Walt while Courtnall Skosan shifts from the right to the left wing. Madosh Tambwe starts in the number 14 jersey while Lionel Mapoe and Rohan Janse van Rensburg start in midfield. Springboks Elton Jantjies and Faf de Klerk are the starting halfbacks while, in the pack, Franco Mostert will run out in his 50th Super Rugby game. There’s a brand new front row with Ruan Dreyer and Jacques van Rooyen the starting props and Malcolm Marx will wear the the number two jersey. In the back row, captain Warren Whiteley retains his place at number eight. Ruan Ackermann and Jaco Kriel come in as the starting flankers.
The Reds have made three changes to their starting XV after last weekend’s loss to the Crusaders. Hooker Andrew Ready has gained his first start of the season, coming into the number two jersey, with Stephen Moore shifting to the bench. Lock Kane Douglas also returns to the starting side after Izack Rodda was unable to train fully due to a head knock against the Crusaders. That change has also allowed Lukhan Tui to come into the matchday 23 for the first time this season as a reserve.
Form: The Lions have won two out of their three matches so far this season. They started their campaign with a narrow 28-25 victory over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein before claiming an impressive 55-36 triumph over the Waratahs in Johannesburg in Round 2. They then headed to Buenos Aires and suffered a 36-24 defeat to the Jaguares.
After starting their campaign with a hard-fought 28-26 win over the Sharks in Brisbane, things have gone a little pear-shaped for the Reds in recent weeks. In their next fixture, they were beaten 26-19 by the Western Force in Perth and they threw away a 20-7 half-time lead against the Crusaders last weekend before eventually losing 22-20 to the seven-time champions.
Prediction: Although the Reds will be competitive for large periods, the home side will have too much firepower in their own backyard. Lions to win by 12 points!
2015: Lions won 18-17 in Brisbane
2014: Lions won 23-20 in Johannesburg
2012: Reds 34-20 in Brisbane
2011: Reds won 30-25 in Johannesburg
2010: Reds won 41-26 in Johannesburg
2009: Lions won 31-20 in Brisbane
2008: The teams drew 24-24 in Johannesburg
2007: Reds won 26-20 in Brisbane
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Madosh Tambwe, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Ruan Ackermann, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Jaco vd Walt, 23 Harold Vorster
Reds: 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Izaia Perese, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Duncan Paia’aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 George Smith, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Andrew Ready, 1 James Slipper (c)
Replacements: 16 Stephen Moore, 17 Markus Vanzati, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Lukhan Tui, 20 Adam Korczyk, 21 James Tuttle, 22 Jake McIntyre, 23 Chris Kuridrani
Date: Saturday, March 18
Venue: Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 17:15 local (15:15 GMT)
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: Willie Vos (South Africa)