Lions look to turn tables on Hurricanes in Super Rugby semis
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — South Africa's Lions hope home advantage will help them turn the tables on the Hurricanes from New Zealand when they meet Saturday in the Super Rugby semifinals.
The Lions lost 20-3 to the Hurricanes in last year's final in Wellington but will earn the right to host this year's final if they win on Saturday after they finished the regular season as the top ranked team.
In the other semifinal, the Crusaders host the Chiefs in an all-New Zealand clash. The Crusaders are bidding for a record eighth title, but first since 2008, while the Chiefs are eyeing a third crown since 2012.
The Lions, chasing a first Super Rugby title, lost just one match during the regular season but have not played a single team from New Zealand this season.
New Zealand teams have won five of the last 10 Super Rugby finals and Lions coach Johan Ackermann said his side were wary of the threat they posed after South Africa's Stormers were thrashed by the Chiefs in last year's quarter-finals.
"Obviously, we're proud of the boys and how this season went," said Ackermann. "We kept our consistency up to reach the playoffs and a number of the guys have proven themselves at this level.
"The only question that hasn't been answered from our team's side is we haven't played any New Zealand opposition and we saw what happened with the Stormers last year when they got to the playoffs and played the New Zealand sides."
The Hurricanes have made some important changes to their lineup. Hooker Dane Coles, who made his comeback from a four months injury layoff last week, returns to the starting lineup in his 100th Super Rugby match and Vince Aso returns at center, forcing All Blacks Test winger Julian Savea back to the bench.
Ackerman said the Hurricanes would be under greater pressure than his team because of the high expectations on them to win.
"They're the defending champions and have that added pressure," he said. "I think we can just play with a lot of freedom.
"I must be honest, I don't think anyone is giving us a chance to win so we can just go out and play, and hopefully be competitive."
The Hurricanes have set records for the numbers of points and tries they have scored this season but said they would play a more conservative style Saturday.
"The basics of the game need to be performed well before we can unleash what we know we can do," assistant coach John Plumtree said. "We've started slowly the last three games. We have to make sure that we apply early pressure and not have to absorb so much."
The Crusaders are favored to beat the Chiefs after winning their first 14 matches in the regular season and posting an emphatic quarterfinal win over the Highlanders.
The Crusaders beat the Chiefs during the regular season during their winning streak but a loss to the British and Irish Lions exposed some weaknesses and they also lost their last match to the Hurricanes to miss out on a perfect regular season record.
"Looking at their pack, they've got 10 All Blacks who will strip this weekend so they've got amazing depth and it's a great weapon for them," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said. "But it always has been. As long as I can remember they've probably had the best pack in the competition.
"They drive well, they've got a great defensive lineout so we've always known what our challenge is and we've got a group of men who are keen to measure themselves."
The Chiefs have had the added hardship of having flown back from South Africa this week but Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said he doesn't expect the travel to affect their performance.
"Even though they are flying back it doesn't mean the old mindset isn't going to be right," Robertson said. "They can turn up and climb into us like they have done in years gone by. For us, as a team it's about focusing on what we are doing this week. We are ready."