Two-and-oh, 30-25 and 22-15, three losses in the last five Currie Cup encounters against the Bulls; 10 play-off appearances since 2011; four subsequent final opportunities, and two championship triumphs.
Those are just a handful of numbers that the Lions will need to consider tomorrow when they face their northern neighbours in the first semi-final of the world’s oldest domestic rugby championship. And the Lions team that will do so is arguably Ivan van Rooyen’s most well-rounded and experienced matchday 23.
The Lions coach left no guesswork on Thursday when he selected the squad he believes will finally beat the Bulls, and it once again showed the depth and growth of the outfit as a whole. And it is a selection of few surprises, at that. The few changes that have been made include the good doctor and veteran of 70 Test matches, Jannie du Plessis, who will pack down at tighthead, while the return of a fully Sti Sithole, who was excellent before his injury, to the starting XV is a pleasing move for both the eye and the soul.
“We are definitely blessed with our props,” said Van Rooyen when explaining the selection of Sithole, and omission of Dylan Smith.
“Sti, in the previous game against the Bulls, he was part of the warm-up and the matchday squad, but he just came back from an injury, so we really smashed him on that Monday and Tuesday with fitness,” the coach, smiling, flanked by a chuckling captain Elton Jantjies, continued.
“Unfortunately, (Smith) has a slight hamstring that pulled. He passed his fitness test yesterday, but we just felt that for continuity we will go with Sti and (Ruan) Dreyer (on the bench).”
And that seemed to be the overarching narrative of Van Rooyen’s selection – continuity in his selections. It is now a well settle starting XV, one that will rely on the other statement made – a 6-2 split on the bench for what is shaping up to be another physical battle that will be won at the set-pieces and the contact areas.
The only other debate to be had, was who would be the centre-pairing for the encounter, and Van Rooyen answered that by playing Burger Odendaal and Wandisile Simelane in the midfield. Elsewhere, the team takes on the familiar look and shape it has held nigh all season.
In spite of that reassuring predictability, Van Rooyen was unafraid to declare that if the opportunity presents itself, then this team will have a go at the Bulls, if the fickle Highveld weather so permits.
“We’ve played them twice and came close twice,” said Van Rooyen. “I think we did create enough opportunities (in the 22-15 loss), we just didn’t manage to take them.
“So, I think within that mindset, first off it is going to be nice and warm – to see how the weather is playing … can we play with the ball? We need to be brave in play-off games. You got to be able and willing to give it a full crack, and we are keen to go there and see if we can put them under pressure, whether that is with ball in hand, ball-not-in-hand, or with the kicking game.
“We have worked hard the last two weeks on our decision-making and how we can apply constant pressure for 80 minutes, and we are excited to see how the guys are going to react,” he concluded.
The match kicks off at Loftus Versveld at 2pm on Saturday.
Lions Starting XV (15-1): Tiaan Swanepoel, Stean Pienaar, Wandisile Simelane, Burger Odendaal, Courtnall Skosan, Elton Jantjies (capt), André Warner, Len Massyn, Vincent Tshituka, Jaco Kriel, Willem Albert, Marvin Orie, Jannie du Plessis, Jaco Visagie, Sti Sithole. Bench: Jan-Henning Campher, Ruan Dreyer, Carlu Sadie, Reinhard Nothnagel, Wilhelm van der Sluys, Morne van den Berg, Dan Kriel; Touring members: Francke Horn, Nathan McBeth, EW Viljoen, Ross Cronjé