Johannesburg - The spectre of the Hurricanes blowing into Johannesburg to end the Emirates Lions’ dream looms large over the semi-finals as South Africa’s last team standing will finally be able to answer the tournament structure’s critics this weekend on their home ground.
According to the SuperSport website, the Lions will be the first to admit they burgled the victory over the Cell C Sharks this past weekend and were rather lucky to come through the quarterfinal unscathed against a team that disrupted their momentum and could easily have won against the odds in an epic clash in Johannesburg.
But all along in this competition, despite being last season’s finalists, the Lions have heard all too often that because of the competition format, and the fact that they don’t face a New Zealand side in pool play, they will be unable to handle the intensity of a playoff game.
Still, by finishing top of the log, and negotiating the tricky quarterfinal against the Sharks, they have given themselves the ideal opportunity to both silence their critics and secure a home final, and with it a bonus for their union’s finances after a long, tough season.
But the Hurricanes game adds extra spice as the defending champions have hit form at exactly the right time, beating the Crusaders in the final pool game and then the Brumbies away from home to secure the clash, and will head to South Africa full of confidence after a big victory in their last appearance at Ellis Park, as well as beating the Lions in the final in New Zealand last year.
Whichever way you look at it, it all comes down to a massive clash for Johan Ackermann’s side, as they have enough to work on following the scare the Sharks gave them with their impressive performance, and will no doubt have learnt some tough lessons in the process that could come in handy this weekend.
Ackermann and his team know they have to front up to all the talk this week, and know the Hurricanes will be the first New Zealand side they face in the competition, and a dangerous one at that. And given their own unhappiness at their own play against the Sharks, the training this week will need to be as focussed as possible if they are to take a step closer to their goal.
“We will have to go and look at the space that they (the Hurricanes) give you,” Ackermann said.
“One thing is for certain, they’re going to be in your face the whole time. The Sharks were like that as well, so perhaps we had a bit of a rehearsal today. Perhaps we need to look to kick a bit more tactically and not just to run the ball, but it is a year later, and the teams have changed in terms of personnel. And hopefully we can handle the pressure a bit better than we did last year, but now that we know who we play, we will analyse them properly and prepare accordingly.”
The one thing the Lions won’t do is change the way they play the match and will keep their expansive and attacking platform with a few minor adjustments and back it to pay off for them.
“There were enough opportunities for us to run, where we kicked. If we run we must run and if we kick, we must kick much better. I still feel our plan is the right way, we must just finish off the small little opportunities. When we got behind the defensive line, we were more accurate in the past than against the Sharks. We would have scored the tries and created that gap between us and the other team, but we didn’t.
“That is where we must improve. We tried fancy passes so there is still a lot of place for ambition, but it is just that accuracy that we needed. I don’t think we will change anything much at this latter stage.”
Ackermann made the observation that the “ball didn’t bounce for us” in the Sharks game and that the borderline decisions tended to favour the Sharks at times, but accuracy, along with the 13 points the team left on the park with missed kicks, will be crucial this weekend when the Hurricanes arrive.
Then it will be the moment of truth, and the Lions will be unlikely to get out of jail again.