Preview: Lions v Crusaders

Getty Images

Friday, March 30, 2012    Getty Images

Quiet optimism in Lions land is sure to turn to noisy celebration if the locals pull this one off.

VENUE & TIME: Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg, Saturday March 31 @ 1705 local (0305 Sunday NZST)

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 15; Transvaal / Gauteng / Cats / Lions 4, Crusaders 11.

LAST TIME: March 20, 2010 (Christchurch) – Crusaders 46-19 Lions.

WALKING WOUNDED: John Mitchell will be hoping that his main backline players can get through the 80 minutes this week unscathed, as he has been forced to do without Alwyn Hollenbach (hamstring), Waylon Murray (knee), Dylan Des Fountain (knee), Michael Killian (hamstring), Lionel Mapoe (hamstring), Michael Bondesio (hamstring) and Elton Jantjies for much of the season. They were joined in the casualty ward by Doppies la Grange, who has a serious elbow problem that will rule him out for months rather than weeks. Jantjies and Bondesio were potential starters on day-to-day watch during the week. The Crusaders big news is that Daniel Carter will start for the first time this season after making his comeback via the bench last week. Tom Taylor moves to second-five, while the usual tight five rotation is responsible for the other changes to last week’s team.

Round 1: beat Cheetahs 27-25 (h)
Round 2: lost to Hurricanes 28-30 (h)
Round 3: lost to Sharks 20-32 (a)
Round 4: bye
Round 5: lost to Stormers 19-24 (h)

Round 1: beat Blues 19-18 (a)
Round 2: lost to Highlanders 24-27 (a)
Round 3: lost to Chiefs 19-24 (h)
Round 4: bye
Round 5: beat Cheetahs 28-21 (h)

The Lions are proving harder to beat than in some recent seasons, but three of their four opponents have still managed to do just that. They gave the Stormers a fright, though; after jumping out to a big early lead, the Stormers saw it getting whittled away until the Lions looked to be getting on top. A couple of penalties gave the visitors some breathing room before a last-minute dropped goal secured a deserved point for the Lions. The problem of scoring tries remains, although the defence is a lot more resolute than in some past seasons, so no opponent has thumped the Lions this year.

A lot of people in New Zealand are wondering when the ‘real’ Crusaders are coming out to play, but they haven’t had any easy matches and no team has fallen into the trap of playing their reputation rather than the 15 men in front of them. The Cheetahs gave the Crusaders a fright last week, recovering from a large deficit to level matters with time running out before some intense pressure led to the match-winning try. That was the Crusaders of old, finding ways to win the tight games in the last couple of minutes.

WHO'S HOT: The Lions loose forwards Joshua Strauss and Derick Minnie are often prominent for their team, and both are respected around the traps as good competitors and skilful players. Strauss is often seen in a ball-carrying role while Minnie is more the workaholic type, but their effectiveness means a lot to the Lions. How the Lions get on in the loose battle this week will have a big bearing on the outcome. After Elton Jantjies was injured, Butch James stepped up and slotted straight in at fly-half and has kept things rolling. Known around the world as an abrasive and competitive player, he has played steadily in a backline that cannot afford to take too many risks as well as kicking all eight of his goal chances in a solid few weeks.

Corey Flynn may have started slowly this year, but in recent weeks he has played a lot of minutes and been one of the pack anchors. He has been working hard in the close-quarter stuff and not straying too far from it, although he retains his old running power when given a chance. The Crusaders five-eighth pairing of Daniel Carter and Tom Taylor appeals as a combination with a future. Carter is a known star even if he is still making his way back from that groin injury, while Taylor impresses as a player who makes few errors while still having the flair to create something out of not much. If this combination gels, it could well provide the Crusaders with the sort of attacking punch that has been lacking so far in 2012.

WE THINK: It’s always very hard to pick the Lions in this match as the historical record is heavily in favour of the Crusaders, and the tendency is for these matches to be high-scoring (the winner has been held below 31 points only twice) which would also favour the visitors. Yet the fact remains this year the competition looks a lot more even than in some seasons and few matches are being decided by wide margins, which makes it less easy to predict. The Crusaders should still be good enough to get the win, but a 10-point margin might be all there is.

Lions: TBC

Crusaders: 1. Wyatt Crockett, 2. Corey Flynn, 3. Owen Franks, 4. Luke Romano, 5. Sam Whitelock, 6. George Whitelock, 7. Matt Todd, 8. Kieran Read (capt), 9. Andy Ellis, 10. Daniel Carter, 11. Zac Guildford, 12. Tom Taylor, 13. Robbie Fruean, 14. Sean Maitland, 15. Israel Dagg.

Replacements: 16. Quentin MacDonald, 17. Ben Franks, 18. Tom Donnelly, 19. Luke Whitelock, 20. Willi Heinz, 21. Ryan Crotty, 22. Tom Marshall.

REFEREE: Jonathan Kaplan (SA)