Home Sport Lions begin Challenge Cup campaign against familiar foe in Dragons

Lions begin Challenge Cup campaign against familiar foe in Dragons

Johannesburg — Four games … two at home, and two away.

That will decide the fate of the Emirates Lions and the seven other teams in Pool B of the EPCR Challenge Cup; and whether they get to play as hosts if they make the knockout rounds, or keep a packed travel bag at the front door as they fly to Europe and parts unknown.

The Lions begin that undertaking on Saturday against a familiar foe, the Dragons, at Emirates Airline Park at 12.45pm, and then a week later have an extremely tough encounter against Stade Francais, also at home.

The return fixtures will both be away in January in what one can expect will be hostile conditions with Europe deep in the grip of winter. So, striving for maximum points — 10 in all — in the next two games will be of the utmost importance if the Lions are to stake a claim for the Round of 16.

“It is a sprint within a bigger season,” said head coach Ivan van Rooyen earlier this week of the Challenge Cup.

“It is vital (winning at home), as we have seen historically with the European teams — especially the English and the French teams — their home records are unbelievable … It will be vital to get as many points as possible at home and then see how many points we can get away to hopefully get a home round of 16, quarter, semi and final.

“You need results, ideally with a bonus point,” he added.

“In four games, it is a potential 20 points. Anything less than 12 points, it will become an arm-wrestle on points difference.

“You want to get as many points as you can and you want to get a points difference … it will be really important to get a good start this weekend and start off on good footing.”

The objectives are clear then – a top two finish out of six.

Nevertheless, the Lions have arguably never experienced such immediate pressure in a tournament before, having always had the leisure of a league structure to fall back on. It will, therefore, not only be a physical challenge, but a massive mental one as well.

Dragons might be having a tough time of it in the URC but they will be much more experienced and wiser to the demands of what is essentially a cup knockout tournament more akin to the FA Cup or MTN8, than a premiership title race.

The Welsh side have been milling around and training in Cape Town, acclimatising to the conditions, awaiting the match this weekend. Although they have surrounded themselves with the comforts of the Western Cape, the lung-busting altitude of the Highveld will have less of an impact on Saturday, meaning there will be a little advantage in that, especially in the final 20 minutes.

At the end of last month, they made it tough for the Lions in the closing stages of their 33-25 loss. Van Rooyen called it a dog-fight, and the game certainly had a disjointed rhythm and flow.

The Dragons dig running the ball, and in recent weeks the Lions’ rush-defence has been breached by both them and the Scarlets by finding acres of space behind the line with quick plays. It was only due to their own failings with ball in hand, and some desperate scrambling by the Joburgers, that they did not take full advantage of their line-breaks.

Play like that once more, coupled with their street-smarts, and they will be a real handful to contain.

The Lions, meanwhile, will look to continue building on their own running game. The Lions failed to collect full points against the Dragons in their earlier clash, something that they can ill afford to repeat, as pointed out by their coach.

“We are building some nice momentum,” Van Rooyen said, “and it will be important for us to keep on working on the small things that are working for us currently, while fixing the things that are harming us from moving forward. The last two games at home, it was a bit of a dog-fight to get the results but there was some nice growth in certain areas.”

Van Rooyen selects his matchday 23 for the clash on Friday.

@FreemanZAR

IOL Sport