Home Sport Tough choices for Lions coach ahead of Bulls showdown

Tough choices for Lions coach ahead of Bulls showdown

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Ivan van Rooyen’s biggest conundrum will surround his selection in the Lions backline.

Emirates Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen has many choices to make this week as he prepares his team for their mammoth Jukskei Derby. Picture: Muzi Ntombela, BackpagePix

CHOICES … Emirates Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen has many to make this week as he prepares his team for their mammoth Jukskei Derby against the table-topping Blue Bulls at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday (kick-off 7pm).

After a fortnight managing a Covid-19 cluster that cropped up at their base in Doornfontein, many of the players placed in self-isolation will return this week.

But the Lions coach’s biggest conundrum will surround his selection in the backline. Van Rooyen made a handful of changes for the 61-31 romp against the Tafel Lager Griquas this weekend in that department, choosing Gianni Lombard at fullback, Courtnall Skosan and Stean Pienaar on the wings and Man of the Match Wandisile Simelane at outside centre, rotating them with EW Viljoen, Jamba Ulengo and Rabz Maxwane; and Burger Odendaal, respectively.

Those four – Lombard, Skosan, Pienaar, and especially Simelane – had an excellent outing against the Kimberly-based side, scoring six of the nine tries between them – confusing the selection question going forward in those positions – while captain Elton Jantjies booted over 16 points in conversions.

Probably the biggest selection Van Rooyen will have to wrestle with this week is who to pick at outside centre between Odendaal – who came on as a replacement against the Griquas – and Simelane, for their home game against the Bulls.

Odendaal was the Man of the Match in the Stormers encounter last month, while Simelane was imperious on Friday night carrying the ball 82m, making five clean breaks, carried the ball 14 times, offloading on another five occasions, racking up four try-assists and being rewarded for his industriousness with a try of his own.

There was much praise for the young centre after the game.

“(Simelane) has been working hard, and has been accountable, and he has taken responsibility and has a willingness to keep on growing as a player,” said Jantjies. “Friday night just showed what type of player he is, and a guy that takes ownership of his job.

“I am very happy for (Simelane) … I just want him to improve every day by working with the management, with the players, listening to the guys and getting into his game. I really think he will get even better.”

Van Rooyen agreed with the assessment.

Said the coach: “(Simelane) had a good game … We all know how dangerous he is if he is in open space. He is a world-class attacker one-on-one. So, ja, he had an opportunity on (Friday night) to do that. He is a very exciting youngster, keen to learn, keen to keep on growing, so we must commend him for that. He had a very good performance.”

Even so, Odendaal might find himself back in the starting XV. Concerns remain over the defensive strength of Simelane, and against the bullies that are the Bulls could find himself under pressure in that regard. Simelane no doubt has the X-factor and connected with aplomb with midfield partner Dan Kriel, but Odendaal has the power on both attack and defence.

The same can be said of Lombard, who had an excellent match at fullback, but who is perhaps not as physical as Viljoen, who seems to take joy in taking on the defensive line of the opposition. Skosan, meanwhile, scored three tries on Friday night and should probably be given another opportunity against the Bulls, even if it is at the expense of the explosive Maxwane.

And while Pienaar was good in his own right, the bulk of Ulengo will most probably outweigh his performance.

The only certainties in the backline, it seems, are Morné van der Bergh at scrumhalf, Jantjies controlling the game from pivot, and on his outside the form-finding Kriel.

Choices, so many choices.

@FreemanZAR