Preview: Lions v Crusaders

The Lions face a stern examination when they take on the tournament's most successful side, the Crusaders in Johannesburg on Friday.

Under the guidance of head coach Johan Ackermann, the Lions have, once again, impressed in 2016 and will look to build on the fine start to their campaign in which they have won three of their four matches played so far.

The Crusaders have a similar record and will be aiming to finish off their tour to South Africa with back-to-back victories after they beat the Sharks last weekend.

That triumph in Durban was a significant one as it ended the Sharks' unbeaten run in the competition and the seven-time champions will be brimming with confidence as they enter the Lions' den.

Both these sides have impressed with ball in hand this season and it's no surprise that they are amongst the leading teams in several of the tournament's attacking statistics.

The Crusaders have scored the third most tries (16) while the Lions have just one less five-pointer. The men from Christchurch are also third highest for clean breaks (60) with the Lions in seventh place in that department with 43.

The Lions are third highest for metres gained (2118) while the Crusaders (1993) are in seventh position. Ackermann's charges are also fourth highest for defenders beaten with 115 while the Crusaders are surprisingly low in that facet of play, languishing in 15th spot with just 72 defenders beaten.

Both are also amongst the frontrunners for offloads with the Crusaders second with 58 and the Lions fifth with 52.

But where the Crusaders have an advantage is in the scrum, where they are topping the charts with a 97 percent success rate compared to the Lions' 84 percent.

The Crusaders are also the tournament's most successful team at the rucks with a 96 percent success rate although the Lions are not far off in that category with 95 percent.

The last time these team met: The Crusaders proved to strong when these sides met in Christchurch last year, claiming a 34-6 bonus-point victory. Former All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter, who was playingat inside centre, finished with a 14-point haul after kicking four conversions and two penalties. The Crusaders' five-pointers came via a penalty try and further touchdowns from Andy Ellis, Kieron Fonotia and Kieran Read. For the Lions Elton Jantjies kicked two penalties.

Players to watch: Lions outside centre Lionel Mapoe has caught the eye with several impressive performances and although it's still early in the season he has already put his hand up for Springbok selection. Mapoe's direct running style has caused plenty of headaches for opposing defenders and he is also solid in the tackle and doesn't shy from his defensive duties.

Crusaders fly-half Richie Mo'unga has stepped up to the plate with several impressive performances but he will be under pressure after a poor goalkicking display in which he missed three penalties and a conversion. The Crusaders' head coach Todd Blackadder has dismissed that showing as an off day for the 21-year-old, who will be keen to make up with another fine allround performance.
Team news: Lions fly-half Elton Jantjies is bracketed with Marnitz Boshoff as their playmaker as the former hopes to return from a wrist injury suffered against the Cheetahs. Ackermann has also bracketed locks Andries Ferreira and Lourens Erasmus while Warwick Tecklenburg returns on the flank.

Blackadder has made four changes to his run-on side. Wyatt Crockett comes in at loosehead prop, rotating with Joe Moody who will take a spot on the bench. Luke Romano and Scott Barrett are the starting locks, with Sam Whitelock in the reserves. Jimmy Tupou and Jordan Taufua have also rotated, with Tupou starting at six this week and Taufua preparing to make an impact off the bench. 
Form: Both these sides have won three out of four matches so far this season. The Lions kicked off with away victories over the Sunwolves and Chiefs before suffering their only defeat against the Highlanders in Dunedin. They bounced back with a 39-22 triumph at home over the Cheetahs in Round Four.

The Crusaders lost their opener in Christchurch against the Chiefs but returned to the victory trail in style by beating the Blues and Kings at home before they got the better of the Sharks in Durban last week.

Prediction: There should be plenty of fireworks as both these sides employ attacking game-plans and don't be surprised if this is a high scoring affair. Home ground advantage will swing it in the Lions' favour though. Lions to win by three points.

Previous results:
Crusaders won 34-6 in Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 28-7 in Johannesburg
2012: Crusaders won 23-13 in Johannesburg
2010: Crusaders won 46-19 in Christchurch
2009: Crusaders won 32-20 in Johannesburg
2008: Crusaders won 31-6 in Christchurch
The Teams:

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies/Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira/Lourens Erasmus, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Ruan Ackermann, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Jaco van der Walt, 23 Rohan Janse van Rensburg

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Ben Volavola, 23 Sean Wainui

Date: Friday, April 1
Venue: Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 19:00 local (17:00 GMT)
Referee: Stuart Berry
Assistant Referees: Craig Joubert, AJ Jacobs
TMO: Johan Greeff

By David Skippers