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Challenge Cup selections show it’s a marathon and not a sprint for Lions

Johannesburg – True to his word, coach Ivan van Rooyen has made a handful of key rotational changes to the Emirates Lions team that will debut this weekend in the EPCR Challenge Cup.

The Joburgers will face the Dragons on Saturday at Emirates Airline Park at 12.45pm in European club rugby’s second tier tournament, and will have to be in the mood from the onset if they are to make an indent in the tournament.

Earlier this week, Van Rooyen explained that due to the sprint within the marathon, the Lions will have to plan carefully how they manage their players going forward. The immediate effect of that sees an expected change in what the coach has often called the spine of the team – nine, 10 and 15.

Here, Van Rooyen has returned Gianni Lombard to the flyhalf position, dropping Jordan Hendrikse – who has driven the Lions forward to victory over the last fortnight – onto the bench. Lombard will combine with veteran Andre Warner, who has also recently played off the bench, and has brought a sense of composed urgency to the closing moments of recent matches.

Quan Horn, who has been patrolling the backline as full-back, will miss the clash, with Springbok Andries Coetzee returning to the No 15 jumper. Van Rooyen will also rest Marius Louw in the midfield, with Zander du Plessis and Sango Xamlashe combining to form a new centre partnership.

Xamlashe had a busy debut last week for the Lions against the Scarlets in URC action. If he continues that momentum, the 24-year-old could appeal to Van Rooyen and Co to keep him in the position in the coming weeks, in spite of the imminent return of the banned Henco van Wyk.

Du Plessis, meanwhile, has done enough off the bench in recent weeks to warrant a start. Nevertheless, it will be an area that the vastly more experienced Jack Dixon and Sio Tomkinson of the Dragons, along with Welsh international Sam Davies at flyhalf, will note as a potential target.

Van Rooyen has selected an unchanged pack from last weekend’s game, but they will face a Dragons first eight that is arguably stronger than the one they beat earlier this season. In that 33-25 victory, the Lions outmuscled their visitors up front after it became clear that their backs would be unable to make a major impact on the game.

As pointed out by both skipper Reinhard Nothnagel and Emmanuel Tshituka, the Dragons were a nightmare to combat in the tight exchanges on that day – especially at the breakdowns – and if the Lions are to generate quick front-foot ball, they will have to improve considerably in those areas.

The Dragons welcome back Wales internationals, prop Rhodri Jones and lock Ben Carter, from the Autumn Internationals, as well as Chris Coleman, Joe Davies and captain Harri Keddie, which will only bolster their forwards’ unit.

Both teams will endeavour to run the ball, but will have to nullify the heavy men of the tight five and their highly mobile loose-forwards to earn that right.

TEAMS FOR ELLIS PARK

Emirates Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Rabz Maxwane, 13 Sango Xamlashe, 12 Zander du Plessis, 11 Edwill van der Merwe, 10 Gianni Lombard, 9 Andre Warner, 8 Emmanuel Tshituka, 7 Darrien Landsberg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Reinhard Nothnagel (capt), 4 Ruben Schoeman, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 PJ Botha, 1 Sti Sithole.

Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 JP Smith, 18 Asenathi Ntlabakanye, 19 Ruan Venter, 20 Sibusiso Sangweni, 21 Sanele Nohamba, 22 Jordan Hendrikse, 23 Rynhardt Jonker

Dragons starting XV: 15 Jordan Williams, 14 Jared Rosser, 13 Sio Tomkinson, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Ashton Hewitt, 10 Sam Davies, 9 Rhodri Williams, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Harri Keddie (capt), 6 Matthew Screech, 5 Ben Carter, 4 Joe Davies, 3 Chris Coleman, 2 Bradley Roberts, 1 Rhodri Jones.

Replacements: 16 Brodie Coghlan, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Lloyd Fairbrother, 19 Aaron Wainwright, 20 Ben Fry, 21 Lewis Jones, 22 Will Reed, 23 Steff Hughes.

@FreemanZAR