Lions: Their big risk at Newlands
Rob Houwing - Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – It is one of those “could work a charm … might backfire noticeably” selection moves.
On immediate thought, you have to credit Lions head coach Swys de Bruin for enterprise through his decision to pick two mobile but notably small flanks for the Super Rugby round-two clash with the Stormers at Newlands on Saturday (17:15 kick-off).
Rather than take the difficult decision over which of in-form incumbent Marnus Schoeman or fit-again Kwagga Smith to deploy on the open side of the scrum, he has instead shelved the principle - at least for this week - of fielding a more conventional, brawny blind-sider and pinned his faith in both whippets as his flankers for the derby.
Considering that captain and seasoned No 8 Warren Whiteley is also more renowned for his roaming and off-loading skills than his out-and-out “grunt” (though he is increasingly no shirker in that department), the Lions will fascinatingly field one of the least physical loose trios imaginable at this level.
By stark contrast, their home-town opponents, hurting from a 40-3 thrashing by the Bulls in Pretoria in their season-opener, again put out the Springbok current first-choice flankers in Siya Kolisi, their own skipper, and SA Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Both are rather more renowned for their bone-crunching qualities at close quarters - though Kolisi is not averse to a flair-laden offload or pacey charge or two in open play - than as pilferers and effective “extra back-liners”.
The tale of the tape between the two sets of flanks says a lot about the different styles on offer: Kolisi is 1.88m and 105kg to Schoeman’s especially diminutive 1.78m and 95kg, and the gap is considerably more acute between the powerhouse Du Toit (2.00m, 120kg) and former SA Sevens marauder Smith (1.82m, 94kg).
So clearly the Lions will be pinning a lot of faith in their front five to both outmuscle and outwork their direct Stormers counterparts, thus creating a springboard for fleet-footed Schoeman, fresh off his hat-trick of tries against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, and Smith to not only engineer turnovers ad nauseum but take part in attacking raids against a home outfit who looked as questionable for defensive organisation as they were fumbling and lateral for own ball-in-hand efforts at Loftus.
The other reason the joint-selection of Schoeman - well-known to many Stormers players through his loan stint at Newlands during 2017 - and Smith is risky for the Lions is that it naturally compromises their lineout toward the tail.
While Whiteley is a quality lineout factor, he will be a bit of a one-man show - up against a range of taller opposition timber nearby in the shape of Stormers loosies Kolisi, Du Toit and Sikhumbuzo Notshe.
Still, coach De Bruin may have figured that the Stormers’ lineout is fragile enough at present - they botched at least four off their own throw early on during the Pretoria calamity, especially of the deeper variety - not to be too major a collective factor in home favour on Saturday.
In his defence selection-wise, too, it is not easy for De Bruin to put out a suitably “balanced” loose-forward combo at present, considering the injured status of No 7 wrecking-ball Cyle Brink.
The mastermind’s main bench back-row option at Newlands will be Hacjivah Dayimani, another who falls much more into the “athletic” category although he is considerably taller than both starting flankers and could bolster the visitors’ lineout if it becomes necessary.
Broadly, it seems clear the Lions intend to outsmart, outrun and out-skill the Stormers on an anticipated dry and warm day.
But at the same time, Robbie Fleck’s under-scrutiny charges will have looked at the starting shape of the Highvelders’ line-up and probably believe that they can overcome them in an earthier, slightly more bullying fashion …
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