The Lions will be keen to prove that last weekend’s win over the Cheetahs was no fluke when they host the Stormers in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Johan Ackermann’s men, who missed out on last year’s competition after being relegated, made a memorable return when they beat the Cheetahs – thanks to some last minute heroics from fly-half Marnitz Boshoff – in Bloemfontein.
That result shocked many but Ackermann is convinced his side have the ability to build on their superb start by beating the Stormers – a side who haven’t lost in nine previous Super Rugby encounters against the Lions.
“We are used to the pressure and how the referees make the calls, so those small little things will help and the fact that the guys got that first game out of the way – the uncertainty about where you are,” said Ackermann.
“Hopefully the tempo, the heat and the altitude will work for us but it is still an interesting game lying ahead.”
The departures of stalwarts like Andries Bekker, Bryan Habana, Joe Pietersen and Gerhard van den Heever as well as a injuries to Eben Etzebeth and Juan de Jongh mean the Stormers will have some new faces in their side, with four players – including Argentina lock Manuel Carizza – in the matchday 23 set to make their tournament debuts.
Ackermann believes this inexperience presents his side with an opportunity to break their duck against their visitors.
“I think they are a bit unsettled as well, it is always difficult to make changes and some of your frontline players aren’t there but looking at the team there is still quality and they still have a lot of self-belief,” Ackermann said.
“You’ve got the leaders in the side like Jean de Villiers, Duane Vermeulen and all those guys, but it obviously helps if a Eben Etzebeth and a Juan de Jongh are there.”
With a couple of youngsters in right wing Kobus van Wyk and centre Michael van der Spuy – preferred ahead of Damian de Allende, who is on the wing – Stormers skipper Jean de Villiers has extra responsibility.
“I remember the days when I was a newcomer and I enjoyed great encouragement from the senior players,” he said. “It is up to us as the senior players to support the youngsters coming through the ranks.”
The Springbok captain expects a difficult assignment in Johannesburg but unlike last year – when the Stormers lost their first two matches to the Bulls and Sharks – he believes his side can kickstart their campaign in positive fashion.
“Each guy in Saturday’s squad will go on to the field with a lot of confidence, and in the knowledge that they the best in their positions at the Stormers,” said De Villiers. “It’s always tough to play at Ellis Park, and after last week’s win over the Cheetahs, they (the Lions) too will be confident.”
Lions: 15 Chrysander Botha, 14 Deon van Rensburg, 13 Stefan Watermeyer, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Ruan Combrinck, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Derick Minnie, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Franco Mostert, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 MB Lusaseni, 20 Warwick Tecklenburg, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 JW Jonker, 23 Coenie van Wyk.
Stormers: 15 Gio Aplon, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Michael van der Spuy, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Damian de Allende, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Manuel Carizza, 4 Rynhardt Elstadt, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements:16 Deon Fourie, 17 Oliver Kebble, 18 Pat Cilliers, 19 Michael Rhodes, 20 Nizaam Carr, 21 Nic Groom, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Ryno Eksteen.
Date: Saturday, February 22
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 19:10 (local, 17:10 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: tbc, Cobus Wessels (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)