Preview: Sharks v Lions

Date published: April 8 2016

There should be plenty of drama and thrilling action when two of South Africa's leading sides, the Sharks and Lions, face off in Durban on Saturday.

Both sides have delivered several impressive performances up to now and are amongst the front-runners in the South African Group, putting them on course to reach the tournament's knockout rounds.

In fact, the Sharks are currently occupying top spot on the Africa Two table with 16 points from five matches, just two points ahead of the second-placed Lions, who have played the same number of games.

Judging from their respective campaigns so far, this will be a battle of contrasting styles. The Lions have made more ball-carries (589 versus 396), running metres (2454m–1841m), offloads (50–23) and clean breaks (54–34), but executed less tackles (410–564) and considerably fewer kicks from hand (75–129) than the Sharks.

That proves that the men from Johannesburg have set the tournament alight with several brilliant attacking displays and in players like Elton Jantjies, Ruan Combrink, Lionel Mapoe and Jaco Kriel they have some of the tournament's best game-breakers.

The Sharks by contrast, have gone quietly about their business but their defensive style of play has got the job done, in most of their previous fixtures, and they are above the Lions in the standings.

That statistic and the fact that they will be playing in front of their home crowd, should give them plenty of confidence.

The last time these teams met: The Lions fought back from a 14-6 half-time deficit to secure a 23-21 victory in Johannesburg. Tries from Renaldo Bothma and Lwazi Mvovo initially gave the Sharks the upper hand but the Lions fought back with five-pointers from Howard Mnisi, Faf de Klerk and Harold Vorster which gave them a 23-14 lead before Thomas du Toit scored a consolation try for the Sharks in the game's closing stages.

Players to watch: The Sharks will rely heavily on Andre Esterhuizen to get them over the advantage line with his ball carrying ability. Apart from his prowess with ball in hand, Esterhuizen will also be expected to marshall the home side's defence and don't be surprised if he puts in some big hits which could lead to crucial turnovers. Much of the Sharks' fortunes will also depend on the playmaking ability and goal-kicking of Joe Pietersen. If he's on top of his game, the Sharks usually secure victory and another fine all-round effort should give his side a vital edge.

The Lions loose trio of captain Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel and Warwick Tecklenburg have played consistently well and are one of the most complete back-row units in the competition. Whiteley's leadership and free running style, along with with Kriel's dynamism as a ball carrier and Tecklenburg's grafting skills make them a dangerous force and they will give their all to ensure that their side leave Durban with a win under their belt.

Team news: Shark boss Gary Gold has made only one change to his starting line-up. Philip van der Walt, who suffered a neck injury against the Crusaders two weeks ago, is not yet ready to resume playing and in his place comes Daniel du Preez at number eight. Keegan Daniel takes Du Preez’s place on the bench in the final change to the matchday 23.

Lions head coach Johan Ackermann has made two changes to his run-on side. Ross Cronje will start at scrum-half, after recovering from a facial injury sustained in the friendly against the Bulls in Polokwane earlier this year. Cronje replaces Faf de Klerk while Rohan Janse van Rensburg comes in at inside centre for Howard Mnisi. 

Form: The Sharks are fresh off a bye and have won three out of their five matches played. They kicked off the season in style with a deserved 43-8 win over the Kings in Port Elizabeth before claiming a narrow 19-15 victory over the Jaguares in Durban. They followed that up with a morale-boosting 18-13 triumph over the Stormers in Cape Town in Round Three, before drawing 16-16 with the Bulls in Pretoria and losing 19-14 to the Crusaders in Durban in Round Five.

The Lions beat the Sunwolves 26-13 in their opener in Tokyo before claiming an historic 36-32 victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton. They came crashing down to earth with a 34-15 loss in Dunedin against the Highlanders, before returning to the victory trail in style with a 39-22 win over the Cheetahs in Johannesburg. They had a bye in Round Five before losing 43-37 at home to the Crusaders last weekend.

Prediction: This match is so difficult to call and should go right down to the wire! The Lions' X-factor will pull them through, however. Lions to win by three points!

Previous results:

2015: Lions won 23-21 in Johannesburg
2015: Sharks won 29-12 in Durban
2014: Sharks won 25-12 in Johannesburg
2014: Sharks won 37-23 in Durban
2012: Lions won 38-28 in Johannesburg
2012: Sharks won 32-20 in Durban
2011: 30-30 draw in Johannesburg
2011: Sharks won 27-3 in Durban 

The teams:

Sharks: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Joe Pietersen, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Tendai Mtawarira (c) 
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Garth April, 23 Odwa Ndungane 

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse Van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Ruan Ackermann, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf De Klerk, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco Van Der Walt

Date: Saturday, April 9
Venue: Kings Park Stadium, Durban
Kick-off: 17:05 local (15:05 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Nic Berry (Australia), Rodney Bonaparte (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

By David Skippers