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    Lions: Duels that could sway it

    2016-07-29 13:00

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Skilful, adventurous rugby may well come to the fore in expected pleasant conditions for Saturday’s Vodacom Super Rugby semi-final in Johannesburg between the like-minded Lions and Highlanders.

    Yet bear in mind for a second that certain slightly more conservative elements are often decisive in knockout matches too.

    That could mean, for instance, that goal-kicking plays a key part in determining the outcome of the Emirates Airline Park clash (15:00), especially given the closeness of so many modern tussles between these franchises.

    Here are some head-to-heads I fancy to have a major say in the outcome...

    Courtnall Skosan v Waisake Naholo

    Increasingly Springbok-aspirant Skosan, the in-form livewire on the Lions’ left wing, isn’t likely to be too cowed by marking the main “diesel loco” in the visitors’ backline, the often rampaging Naholo: he’s one of those “size of the fight in the dog” individuals, so the concession of a few kilograms and some height ought not to be a major factor in a particularly enticing one-on-one. Their styles are slightly different: Naholo more direct, and a handful to stop when charging for the line, but Skosan a slippery customer with pace off the mark who can exploit even a half-gap or seemingly negligible space in the blink of an eye. The former Brackenfell High School flier also still has a stab at being top try-scorer this year … with nine, he and a brace of team-mates (Lionel Mapoe and Rohan Janse van Rensburg) are only two off the now-dormant Israel Folau of the Waratahs (11).

    Elton Jantjies v Lima Sopoaga

    There’s been so much talk of the potentially enthralling Aaron Smith-Faf de Klerk duel at scrumhalf that maybe people have forgotten the importance of the flyhalf tussle between Jantjies and Sopoaga – well-known to each other as they’ve been opponents more often than not since as far back as 2011, when conference systems began in Super Rugby. The Highlanders’ pivot may be a mere two-cap All Black at present, but the poor guy has to contend with an array of other high-quality No 10s in NZ and most countries would love to field him in that channel. Jantjies, of course, is seeking to put beyond doubt his right to the starting berth for the Boks when the Rugby Championship begins. Apart from their respective attacking skills, a tense semi-final can often be a fixture where place-kicking comes more into the equation that usual; it has also been influential in several close prior meetings between these foes in recent years. And these two are neck-and-neck ion 2016: Sopoaga sports 171 points and success rate of 73 percent; Jantjies 165 at 72 percent!

    Ruan Ackermann v Luke Whitelock

    OK, this may not seem the most obvious of drawcard duels, but particularly from a Lions point of view the performance of Ackermann, still a relative rookie in a No 8 shirt at this level, could be critical as he fills the huge void left in individual skills (and leadership) by injured Warren Whiteley. Of course he will play no part in the latter department – that’s the duty of Jaco Kriel – but there’s no reason to feel Ackermann, the brawny 20-year-old utility man, will let the cause down at eighthman. While slightly lacking Whiteley’s intuition at this stage plus rangy, roaming qualities, he will bring extra go-forward and grunt in the close exchanges, and has already shown good control of the ball at scrums and in ruck recycling situations. Up against him is another versatile forward in Whitelock, one of the many siblings who have illuminated NZ rugby in recent years although he has bucked the trend of most of them donning the Crusaders’ kit; he’s gradually come to the fore more and more in his maiden season “down south” and got a Highlanders contract extension two months ago.

    Julian Redelinghuys v Daniel Lienert-Brown

    Expect Bok coach Allister Coetzee to keep a really close eye on Redelinghuys over the next couple of games (assuming the Lions can march onward to the final) as he may soon be main tighthead anchorman against the All Blacks and others in the Rugby Championship now that Frans Malherbe is a longish-term casualty with a neck problem. There will be those advocating the low-centre-of-gravity Redelinghuys as first-choice anyway, given that Malherbe was off-colour and penalty-prone in the Irish Test series. On Saturday he may well add credibility to that opinion if he spearheads a dominant Lions scrummaging effort. On song, he might well provide a difficult day at the office to young Lienert-Brown, who is no special physical powerhouse as a loosehead and still learning his trade in the boiler room. Nevertheless, expect him to contribute fulsomely to the hard-graft ethic of the ‘Landers pack as a whole … something the Lions naturally pride themselves on too.

    Teams:

    Lions

    15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith

    Substitutes: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Steph de Witt, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt

    Highlanders

    15 Ben Smith (captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown

    Substitutes: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Te Aihe Toma, 23 Marty Banks

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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