Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The unbeaten Lions, much sharper in many areas against the Waratahs on Saturday, get their maiden full-strength opportunity to down the Jaguares in their Buenos Aires stronghold this weekend.
It will be just their second Super Rugby visit to the Jose Amalfitani Stadium, as it follows their furiously-debated first experience of it - in defeat - at the very end of 2016 ordinary season.
That game was so earnestly talked about because coach Johan Ackermann made the massive decision to rest the overwhelming majority of his “A-team”, protecting them from the travel factor through time zones to ensure their freshness for the home quarter-final (and then onward to a home semi, too).
In that sense, the policy was a marked success as his charges, once back at best staffing after their “off” weekend, impressively overcame respective, difficult New Zealand opponents in the two knockout clashes at Emirates Airline Park – first the Crusaders (42-25) and then the Highlanders (42-30).
But there are still plenty of experts who swear that by making the heavily-diluted Lions vulnerable to a reverse in Buenos Aires, which eventually did occur by a 34-22 margin, Ackermann effectively sacrificed a coveted, golden-opportunity home showpiece - the Hurricanes, who snuck into top-placed finish overall as a consequence, pretty convincingly saw off the Lions 20-3 in the Wellington final.
You can argue about what might have happened, had the red-and-whites instead taken all their top-tier players to Argentina, until the cows come home, of course; we will never know whether the alternative route would have instead led to trophy-lifting glory.
What we do know is that the Lions mastermind is highly unlikely to field a second-string sort of outfit against the Jaguares this time around (21:40 kick-off, SA time) - they are still building a head of steam in 2017 at this early juncture, and will doubtless wish to extend their winning run.
It is only a “mini-tour” comprising one game abroad, after which the 2016 runners-up return to face the Reds at home, Kings away and big Africa 2 Conference rivals the Sharks back at home before they enjoy a refreshing bye week.
So there seem few compelling reasons for Ackermann to tamper too much with continuity this time around, even if it has already been confirmed that in-form backline star Rohan Janse van Rensburg - joint leading competition try-scorer so far with four - will miss the Jaguares encounter after bravely turning out against the Waratahs despite the very recent death of his mother.
The Lions were infinitely closer to their 2016 model for attacking sharpness and lustre against the ‘Tahs in the Big Smoke at the weekend, running in eight tries in the high-scoring affair (55-36) even if some areas of their game - like concentration on defence, and some overly cavalier exit play - require further attention.
If Ackermann, captain Warren Whiteley and the rest of the brains trust have watched the video of the tight Stormers-Jaguares clash at Newlands, they will have been made more aware than ever of the improving quality of the South American outfit, who will be hugely looking forward to a first home match this year after one win (Kings) and then the Capetonian loss on their start-out SA trek this year.
The Lions should look virtually unrecognisable this Saturday from the wet-behind-the-ears starting XV which succumbed, admittedly fairly pluckily, in last year’s Buenos Aires meeting - it is quite possible that only scrumhalf Ross Cronje, who may just keep Faf de Klerk curtailed to the “splinters” for a second successive week, and prop Jacques van Rooyen will be survivors from the team which lost there in 2016.
Van Rooyen should remain in his more suitable berth of loosehead for this one, after scrumming down on the other side in last year’s match.
If the vast majority of their big guns do turn out this time, the Lions may well be considered slight favourites by most bookies to do the business on Saturday, especially as the Jaguares have also had to fly across the Atlantic from their safari on our shores.
Although Agustin Creevy and company were thumped 52-24 when they played the Johannesburg fixture last season, they do boast a 60 percent win record at home against South African outfits.
These were their Buenos Aires results last season against SA foes: Jaguares 8 Stormers 13, Jaguares 73 Kings 27, Jaguares 22 Sharks 25, Jaguares 29 Bulls 11, Jaguares 34 Lions 22.
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