Lions becoming harder to ignore

2016-06-24 19:30
Warren Whiteley

Cape Town - When Allister Coetzee named his starting line-up for the first Test against Ireland in Cape Town there were just two Lions players in the 15. 

They were debutant scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and first-time starter Lionel Mapoe at outside centre. 

Now, for the third Test in Port Elizabeth on Saturday, there are five Lions in the starting line-up as Elton Jantjies, Warren Whiteley and Ruan Combrinck join De Klerk and Mapoe.

Jantjies obviously started the second Test in Johannesburg, but there is a clear sense that Johan Ackermann's men have slowly exerted their authority on the national side throughout the course of the series. 

Pat Lambie's concussion opened the door for Jantjies, who has a lot to prove this weekend, but the performances of Whiteley and Combrinck off the bench at Ellis Park made them impossible to ignore for Saturday's decider. 

Whiteley's inclusion was aided by an injury to Duane Vermeulen, but there was a vocal school of thought that wanted him to start in place of Vermeulen anyway. 

The starting backline for the first Test had the two Lions players (De Klerk and Mapoe), one Stormers player (Damian de Allende) and four Sharks in Lambie, JP Pietersen, Lwazi Mvovo and Willie le Roux. 

While Coetzee has insisted that this is a team of Springboks and not franchise players, the make-up of that backline was at the very least curious given the differing Super Rugby fortunes of the Sharks and Lions in 2016. 

The Sharks have often laboured their way to victory this year through solid defence and brute force, while the Lions have been far more expansive with Jantjies, De Klerk, Mapoe and co. forming part of what has been the most dangerous backline in the country. 

The Lions have scored 55 tries this year - significantly more than the Sharks (30), Stormers (31) and Bulls (32). 

That statistic combined with the massive impact that Combrinck, Whiteley (who scored a try each), Franco Mostert and Julian Redelinghuys made off the bench last weekend suggests that having more Lions on the field in Port Elizabeth should not come as surprise. 

When Coetzee named his original 31-man squad for this series, the Stormers boasted the most players (9) ahead of the Lions (7), Sharks (6), Bulls (5) and Cheetahs (1).

But given the way things are going in Super Rugby and on the national stage, those numbers could look significantly different come the Rugby Championship.

Springboks starting line-ups in the Ireland series:

June 11, Cape Town: 5 Sharks, 4 Stormers, 2 Lions, 2 overseas-based, 1 Bulls, 1 Cheetahs 

June 18, Johannesburg: 5 Stormers, 4 Sharks, 3 Lions, 2 overseas-based, 1 Bulls

June 25, Port Elizabeth: 5 Lions, 5 Stormers, 3 Sharks, 1 overseas-based, 1 Bulls


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