Preview: Lions v Sharks

Super Rugby action returns to Johannesburg where the Lions host the Sharks in a South African derby which has a lot riding on the result.

The Lions are currently sitting seven points ahead of the Sharks in the Africa Two standings and can wrap up top spot if they secure a win in this encounter.

The home side have set the tournament alight with several impressive attacking displays and if their previous performances are to be used as a yadstick then they are South Africa's top contenders to win silverware this year.

But despite their superb form, this is a South African derby where no quarter is usually asked or given and the Sharks are not heading to Johannesburg to make up the numbers.      

The men from Durban's director of rugby Gary Gold highlighted the importance of this match and wants them to hit the ground running so that they can determine their own fate in the play-offs.

"It is important for us to utilise our opportunities and ask questions of our own," he said. 

"The set-piece battle is going to be important and it will lay the foundation for us to launch our attacks off. It’s crunch time in the competition and we are looking forward to the challenge of playing an in-form Lions team. 

"We remain committed to improving from where we left off before the June break."

The last six games between these sides have seen both pick up three victories, only one of those games has seen a single digit margin of victory, however.

Not since the opening round of this year's campaign has a Sharks away fixture been decided by more than five points. The men from Durban- have conceded an average of only 7.4 clean breaks per game, the fewest of any team, though they face a Lions team which averages more clean breaks (11.8) than any other South African team.

The Lions are only three first-half points away from becoming the first team this season to have scored 200 points in each period of play (197 points in first half, 222 points in second half).

The last time these teams met: The Lions dominated from start to finish in their Round Seven clash in Durban earlier this year, eventually claiming a deserved 24-9 victory. Elton Jantjies led the way for the Lions with a 14-point haul, via a conversion and four penalties, and the men from Johannesburg outscored the Sharks by two tries to none with Andries Ferreira and Lionel Mapoe crossing the whitewash. Three penalties via the boot of Joe Pietersen were all the Sharks had to show for their efforts.

Players to watch: There are so many talented players in the Lions' starting line-up but we think the performance of their halfbacks, Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies, will have a huge bearing on this encounter's outcome. De Klerk has taken to Test rugby like a duck to water, in the Springboks' recent series against Ireland, while Jantjies also gave a good account of himself at the highest level. If their forwards provide them with quality ball, De Klerk and Jantjies are sure to prove a handful for the Sharks' defence.

With Pat Lambie still recovering from concussion and Joe Pietersen sidelined with a shoulder injury, there will be added pressure on Garth April to perform as the Sharks' key playmaker. April has risen to the occasion several times already this season and another sparkling performance could help his side to victory. Lambie's absence also means that Beast Mtawarira will captain the Sharks. The Springbok prop was criticised, in some quarters, for the confrontational manner which he questioned referees' decisions in previous matches as captain and will have to be calm under pressure in the leadership role this weekend.

Team news: The Lions have named their strongest available side for this crucial clash. Despite being without captain and number eight Warren Whiteley, this is still an impressive XV that includes Springboks Julian Redelinghuys, Franco Mostert, Jaco Kriel, Faf de Klerk, Elton Jantjies, Lionel Mapoe and Ruan Combrinck. Ruan Ackermann starts in place of the injured Whiteley and is joined in the back-row by Warwick Tecklenburg and the in-form Kriel. Elsewhere, hooker Malcolm Marx joins Dylan Smith and Redelinghuys in the front-row while Andries Ferreira locks in alongside Mostert.

With Willie le Roux sidelined through injury, Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold has named Odwa Ndungane to start at full-back. Ndungane is joined in the back three by Springbok wingers JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo. The team will be led by Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira and also features Garth April at fly-half with Pat Lambie still under observation following his injury in the Boks' first Test against Ireland in Cape Town earlier this month.

Form: The Lions were in brilliant form before the break for the June Tests. They had a bye during the first weekend in May but then claimed impressive home victories over the Blues (43-5) and Jaguares (52-24), before heading to Pretoria where they were on fire in their 56-20 triumph over the Bulls.

The Sharks had a bye in the last round before the break but prior to that they were in fine form, winning three successive matches against the Hurricanes (32-15), Jaguares (25-22) and Kings (53-0).

Prediction: The Lions will continue where they left off before the break and consolidate their position at the top of the South African Conference. Lions to win by 12 points.

Previous results:
2016: Sharks won 24-9 in Durban 
2015: Lions won 23-21 in Johannesburg
2015: Sharks won 29-12 in Durban
2014: Sharks won 25-12 in Johannesburg
2014: Sharks won 37-23 in Durban
2012: Lions won 38-28 in Johannesburg
2012: Sharks won 32-20 in Durban
2011: 30-30 draw in Johannesburg
2011: Sharks won 27-3 in Durban 

The teams:

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith
Replacements: 16 Armand Van Der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Sylvian Mahuza

Sharks: 15 Odwa Ndungane, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Garth April, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Tendai Mtawarira (c)
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Ruan Botha, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Stefan Ungerer, 22 Rhyno Smith, 23 S'bura Sithole

Date: Saturday, July 2
Venue: Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 17:10 local (15:10 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Quinton Immelman (South Africa), Lesego Legoete (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)