Lions brace for toughest challenge as they take on Ulster
Joburg team hoping to finish their four-match URC tour on a high
The Lions have resigned themselves to the last clash of their four-match United Rugby Championship (URC) tour being their most demanding.
Having won their first before losing their next two matches on tour they will run out at Ulster’s Kingspan Stadium on Friday (8.35pm) knowing they will probably have to deliver their best performance since exiting Super Rugby.
“We told ourselves this is the most difficult game on tour. Ulster is a brilliant team,” acknowledged captain Burger Odendaal.
To that end they, in their own minds at least, have elevated the significance of the game. “We don’t look at this as the last game, we will see it as a final. It’s a game in which we have to get a result. The guys will be up for this and hopefully we can pull through before heading home.”
Ulster though are redoubtable opponents at home. Since the start of the 2019/20 season their only in-competition home defeat came against cross-border rivals Leinster.
Conditions in Makhazeni are often as inhospitable as anywhere in the competition and the Lions are bracing themselves for a wet and blustery evening on Friday.
We also have to be brave even if it is wetLions coach Ivan van Rooyen
“You have to get forward dominance against the Irish teams. We also have to be brave even if it is wet,” said coach Ivan van Rooyen.
In Ulster he has observed a side that plays the percentages, especially in the way they treat territory. They almost exclusively launch only from their opponents’ half.
“It may appear boring but the team that makes a mistake first in their own half will concede points. That was what cost us against Glasgow,” recalled Van Rooyen.
After a steady performance against Glasgow, Van Rooyen has retained makeshift flyhalf EW Viljoen, while new arrival Fred Zeilinga will start from the bench.
“EW had a good game last weekend. We felt it is the Right thing to do. Fred trained with us only from Monday. A lot of detail has changed the past four, five weeks. It would have been throwing Fred in the deep end,” said Van Rooyen.
Also on the bench, and perhaps surprisingly so, is Wandisile Simelane, while Manny Ras continues in the No 13 jersey.
“Manny had a good game for us last weekend,” said the coach. “Hopefully we can apply pressure through a different source after 60 minutes. We hope Wandi can come on and finish things off for us with that X-factor of his.”
There was no room in the match-day squad for prop Jannie du Plessis despite a solid performance last week. “Jannie laid a good foundation. Ulster, in the last 30, 40 minutes play a high-tempo game. This is just rotation. Also, it will be invaluable for Ase [Asenathi Ntlabakanye] to get experience at Kingspan,” explained Van Rooyen.
As much as the Lions have tried to steel themselves for their toughest opponents on tour, they will also have to roll with any punches the match officials may present. Last week they conceded a try that should never have stood.
The try was awarded despite the matter being reviewed by the television match official. The rules of engagement are limited for players who have observed refereeing folly, or downright incompetence.
I have to trust he will have a look and actually does thatLions captain Burger Odendaal on the refs
“It is a difficult one,” admitted Odendaal. “I had previous ones where I felt it was clear and obvious and asked the ref and he says he’ll have a look and that is basically how far it goes. I can't really keep hammering for him to take a look. I have to trust he will have a look and actually does that.
“I just try to keep the players in the mindset that we don't have to focus on the ref. We have to get ourselves in a position that the game won't be decided by one decision of the referee.”
Lions squad: Divan Rossouw; Stean Pienaar, Manuel Ras, Burger Odendaal (captain), Rabz Maxwane; EW Viljoen, Andre Warner; Ruhan Straeuli, Vincent Tshituka, Sibusiso Sangweni; Reinhard Nothnagel, Ruben Schoeman; Carlu Sadie, Jaco Visagie, Sti Sithole. Substitutes: PJ Botha, Ruan Dreyer, Asenathi Ntlabakanye, Wilhelm van der Sluys, Emmanuel Tshituka; Morne van den Berg, Fred Zeilinga, Wandisile Simelane.