Home Sport Lions need a winning ‘home run’ to ensure URC Top 8 berth

Lions need a winning ‘home run’ to ensure URC Top 8 berth

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To avoid having to rely on favours from other teams, the Lions need to win their next four games, which are all at home before rounding off their league phase against the Stormers in Cape Town.

Star Lions No 8 Francke Horn scored a brace against Connacht recently, and will hope to repeat the feat against another Irish outfit, Leinster, on Saturday. Picture: BackpagePix

Having seen them follow two consecutive victories with two defeats in a row, defence coach Jaque Fourie has warned his Lions team that there are “no more second chances” left to make their United Rugby Championship campaign a success.

The highlight of the Johannesburg side’s season came three weeks ago in Galway, when they dispatched Connacht 38-14 to record a bonus-point victory and make their intentions clear of pushing for a quarter-final spot.

That day saw tighthead prop Asenathi Ntlabakanye red-carded for a dangerous tackle, but star No.8 Francke Horn scored a brace as the Lions ran in six tries in a memorable display.

That came on the back of a 40-10 walloping of the Sharks at Ellis Park on March 2, but coach Ivan van Rooyen’s side lost their momentum by going down 36-21 to the Ospreys in Swansea.

The Lions management opted to rest some of their first-choice players for last week’s Challenge Cup quarter-final against Benetton, and were beaten 27-17 in Treviso.

So, with all their eggs in the URC basket, they have to prove that it was the right call to hold back some of their big guns in the race for a top-eight place when they face Leinster at Ellis Park on Saturday (3pm kick-off).

The Lions are in 11th position on the log with 34 points, but are just one behind eighth-placed Ulster, and trail the Stormers in fifth by only five.

But to avoid having to rely on favours from other teams, they need to win their next four games, which are all at home – against Leinster, Munster, Cardiff and Glasgow – before rounding off their league phase against the Stormers in Cape Town on June 1.

“If you want to be in the top eight, our main focus was to win the games at home. It doesn’t matter who the team is, even though Leinster is a quality side – we saw that again over the weekend (when they beat La Rochelle in the Champions Cup quarter-finals),” former Springbok centre Fourie said on Tuesday.

“But any team that they will bring over to South Africa will be well-prepared and up for the challenge.

“I wouldn’t say we had hiccups overseas, we just played very badly. In the first game against Connacht, we were down (to) 14 men and the guys were up for the challenge, and it was disappointing against the Ospreys and Benetton.

“So, we need to press the reset button. We are back home now again … There are no more second chances for us. We have to make the top eight, and in order for us to do that, we need to win all our games at home.

“That’s the challenge – we need to be consistent. Our consistency in the way we want to play, what our brand is … we need to do that weekend in and weekend out.

“The key is doing it on a consistent basis, and hopefully in coming back home now, knowing that we need to win four out of the five games to make the top eight, the importance of that, and knowing what we need to do to achieve that.

“Most of the squad have been together now for the last three seasons, and I think it’s about time that we push for the top eight. I know that was our goal in the first and second seasons, and it didn’t happen.

“But if you want to be in the top-eight teams in this competition, you will have to beat a Leinster, Munster, Glasgow if you want to be a contender.”

Ntlabakanye should make his return to action against Leinster after receiving a three-match suspension for his Connacht red card, which was set to be reduced to two after completing a World Rugby coaching intervention programme.

Fourie said that the players are “fresh and ready to go” after enjoying an off weekend, but he knows that the biggest challenge against Leinster is to stop their “well-oiled” attack.

And part of that process will be to look after their own possession against a Leinster defence coached by former Bok mentor Jacques Nienaber.

“The weather always makes a big difference. But we still need to keep the ball at our rucks, retain ball, get over the advantage line and play in the right areas of the field. Then, the way the Lions want to play will come out in that structure,” Fourie said.

“For me as a defence coach, we know Leinster is probably the best attacking team in the competition. To measure yourself against that is what you want to do.

“We also know that they have changed the way they are defending – (becoming) a very high-defending team – and we did our homework on that also.

“But for us, and as a defence coach, we know that they are probably going to score one or two crazy tries – that’s in them.

“So, we need to stay in structure and put their skill set under pressure, because if we give them time and space on the ball, they will punish you.”

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