Super Rugby semi-finals: Key battles as the Lions take on the Highlanders
By Louise Warr
Last Updated: 30/07/16 1:51pm
The key match-ups as Lions take on Highlanders for a place in the 2016 Super Rugby final.
Faf de Klerk v Aaron Smith
Fresh from making his Test debut in the summer series against Ireland, scrum-half Faf de Klerk will be looking to continue his run of fine form as he comes up his All Blacks' counterpart Aaron Smith on Saturday afternoon, live on Sky Sports.
The 24-year-old South African faced criticism during the regular season for being naive and failing to execute a kicking game plan in order to win a tight encounter but has since gone on to cement himself as a shining light in Springbok rugby.
De Klerk caught the eye in the series win against Ireland as his last-gasp tackle won the decisive penalty in the third test, and has gone from strength-to-strength since that day, placing himself at the forefront of the Lions' charge to their first Super Rugby semi-final.
He made 50 metres in three carries against the Crusaders in a 42-25 quarter-final win and provided the try-scoring pass for Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
The Springbok will be tested thoroughly in Johannesburg as he comes up against the world-class operator, Aaron Smith.
The scrum-half was world-class against Wales in the summer tests, steering the ship with ease while showcasing his individual talent.
Against the Brumbies in the quarter-finals, Smith made 33 metres, beating two defenders in the process, and will have to replicate the influence that has become expected of him if his side is to overcome an impressive Lions outfit.
Ruan Combrinck v Patrick Osborne
Ruan Combrinck has been South Africa's breakout player of the season, his stellar performances on the wing for the Lions earning him international honours and his first Test start.
The 26-year-old has made the most line breaks of any player other player this season (23), making a total of 1,322 metres and breaking through 53 tackles in the process, the top South African performer in both categories.
He capped off a strong performance against the Crusaders by scoring a try in the 69th minute, taking the South African side out of reach of the former champions.
Combrinck will face powerful finisher Patrick Osborne. Against the Brumbies, the winger made a total of 11 carries, bettered only by Lima Sopoaga with 13, and also made 50 metres while beating six defenders.
Osborne, who was included in an All Blacks training camp before pledging his allegiances to his native Fiji, has formed a dangerous combination with fellow Fijian-born wing Waisake Naholo and All Black fullback Ben Smith in the Highlanders' back three and all will provide a stern test for rising star Combrinck.
Elton Jantjies v Lima Sopoaga
Lima Sopaga will be the man at the heart of the Highlanders' quest to extend their season by an extra week.
Now into his sixth season of Super Rugby, Sopoaga combines his excellent basic skillset with flashes of magic, as indicated by his unbelievable over-the-head kick against the Hurricanes earlier in the season.
In the quarter-final against the Brumbies, Sopaga made 53 metres and was his side's top carrier, beating one defender and kicking the ball in play on 10 occasions, making sure his team played in the right areas of the field.
Like his opponent Elton Jantjies on Saturday, Sopoaga has found himself fighting for further international recognition, Sopoaga behind Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett, and Jantjies facing competition from Patrick Lambie and Handre Pollard. Both will be keen to further their case to move up the pecking order when they go head-to-head at Ellis Park.
Jantjies cemented himself as a key player in the Lions side as they made a historic first Super Rugby semi-final.
The 25-year-old was the top South African points-scorer during the regular season, his 148-point haul putting him in sixth place overall, as well as boasting 15 try assists.
Question marks do however exist over his defensive capabilities, the fly-half has slipped off 28 attempted tackles during this Super Rugby campaign, proving himself to be a frail link in an otherwise solid Lions defence.
Despite his problems in defence, Jantjies has sparked a dangerous combination with half-back partner De Klerk, and the pair are pivotal in the Lions' hopes.