Will '17-50' ghost stalk Lions?

    2017-07-26 15:30

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - It was really all over by the 18th minute which, in rugby terms, roughly translates to the blink of an eyelid or slicing of the first piece of biltong.

    All Black Cory Jane crossed for the third Hurricanes try and, with the successful conversion, a dreamy 21-0 lead against their aghast hosts the Lions.

    Add in a further Beauden Barrett penalty in the 26th, for a 24-0 advantage at virtually a point a minute, and the Emirates Airline Park faithful could almost have been excused had they scuttled sneakily for the gates even at that juncture.

    Just a semblance of pride was later restored as they struck back a few times themselves, but that eventual 50-17 defeat (and seven tries to three) in a floodlit ordinary-season encounter on April 30 last year also proved easily the lowest point of the Lions’ Super Rugby campaign.

    After all, Johan Ackermann’s charges recovered their dignity to still stride onward purposefully to the final, against the very same Hurricanes, and did put up a better, grittier fight in Wellington despite the arduous journey and massive weight of statistical history against them before going down 20-3 in the Cake Tin.

    Saturday’s 2017 semi-final against the same foes back in the Big Smoke, though, represents the first meeting between them at Ellis Park (what many of their fan base habitually still call it) since that night when the Lions were caught so cold, so quickly.

    Put it this way: the 2016 outcome may well have played some part in bookies generally putting their weight ever so slightly in favour of the visitors for this weekend, despite the Canes’ unfavourable crossing of time zones at relatively short notice.

    But is it a more tangible factor in their favour?

    I would argue probably not, even if that also shouldn’t be interpreted as an automatic sign that I fancy the Lions to do the business this time; it seems one of those fixtures almost too tight to call.

    For one thing, these Lions are an intelligent bunch – to well-nigh match their known collective humility – with a proven capacity for learning from prior errors and so often acting smartly and diligently to redress them.

    It is doubtful, for instance, whether they will be in “fast asleep” mode straight from the kick-off in the anticipated Highveld sunshine (14:30), given the tornado that effectively struck them from the outset when the Hurricanes were last in town.

    Early complacency is even less likely from the Lions due to the all too heart-stopping nature of their 23-21 quarter-final victory over the Sharks, which could easily have been their occasion of shattered dreams until Ruan Combrinck stepped up coolly to bang over the long-range, rescuing penalty three minutes from time.

    They will not wish to go into such nerve-jangling territory again, even as they will be fully aware of the steeper challenge awaiting them on paper this weekend.

    But the Lions will also field - even though this was penned ahead of team announcement - a starting XV that will differ substantially from the one which ran out for the 50-17 humiliation some 15 months ago.

    More than half the line-up is expected to be different, in fact, as the following eight players for varying reasons either definitely won’t or might not make the run-out team: all three of the front-rankers from last year’s heavy reverse, Dylan Smith, Akker van der Merwe and hasty, crisis-answering tighthead debutant at the time Pieter Scholtz, plus Warren Whiteley, Warwick Tecklenburg (he has retired), Faf de Klerk, Howard Mnisi and Jaco van der Walt.

    For their part, the Hurricanes won’t be blessed by too many starters on Saturday who were also in the XV that cantered out at Ellis Park last season.

    Judging by the side that started last weekend’s 35-16 quarter-final victory over the Brumbies in Canberra, they may be limited to around seven: Barrett, Julian Savea, TJ Perenara, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Vaea Fifita and Jeff Toomaga-Allen.

    That 50-17 eyesore? Yes, it’s indelibly in the annals.

     But times have also changed quite considerably in the interim ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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