All eyes on Newlands clash
Sport24 columnist Alan Solomons (File)
There is no question that the standard of play and officiating has improved as the season has progressed. I’m certain we will see a continuous upward curve.
Super Rugby is an unforgiving competition and sides are aware that if they don’t turn up on match day, for whatever reason, they can be in for a hiding.
The Reds found this out to their detriment when they ran into a rampant Bulls side this past weekend.
Frans Ludeke’s men are a very well-balanced side. The result of some excellent buys in the off-season - most notably Johann Sadie and JJ Engelbrecht - coupled with many of their youngsters stepping out of the shadows has seen them fire.
The Sharks in contrast have found wins harder to come by. They certainly didn’t get off to the start they wanted and I believe playing Frederic Michalak at scrumhalf wasn’t the answer.
They base their game on the power of their pack and the ability of their big forwards to generate momentum, which frees up their backline. Their locks are solid without being special.
They have missed guys like Jean Deysel and Ryan Kankowski who are effective crash-runners.
Their midfield combination is also unsettled. Tim Whitehead has played well for them and I would leave him at 12. I think JP Pietersen has to be afforded a run of games at outside centre, as he’s a talented footballer and certainly capable of doing the job.
Their clash with the Brumbies this weekend will be crucial. While the Brumbies will be high on confidence, the Sharks have the ability to outmuscle them.
I’m not surprised the Brumbies are leading the Aussie Conference. Jake White has made some smart decisions in getting former players involved in the hands-on coaching and deserves credit for doing his homework. I believe Eddie Jones will also be heading over to Canberra to share some of his insight.
The Chiefs remain in pole position in the New Zealand Conference, with the Highlanders now in second spot. There is some doubt whether the Highlanders can go all the way.
The Chiefs were a little too relaxed against the Brumbies, but after their bye, I see them walking it against the Waratahs on home turf.
The Stormers are leading the South African Conference and should be lauded for remaining the only unbeaten side in the competition.
The let a good lead slip against the Lions, but I reckon it’s always a good sign winning the tight games and hints at championship credentials.
They will be highly motivated for Saturday’s North/South derby and I believe this game will prove a true test. The Stormers’ forwards have improved a great deal and I expect this duel to have a massive impact in the match.
Both packs will go at it hammer and tongs, and it will be intriguing to see which side gains the ascendancy up front. For me the Bulls just edge it in the front row.
They both have outstanding potential in the backs, and whichever side dominates up front will ignite their backline.
The Stormers are a very strong defensive outfit and I think at times they have tended to be too defence-orientated. They need to get the balance right and harness their potentially explosive backline.
Morne Steyn is a bigger and better kicker than Peter Grant, but at times the latter offers more on attack.
Although the Bulls will look to keep ball in hand, they will also ensure they play in the right areas of the field. Bjorn Basson is fantastic in the air so I see the Bulls employing the high ball.
I do believe that in the modern game there is a need for a specialist openside flank, but the fact that neither the Bulls nor Stormers will have a fetcher this Saturday effectively means the sides cancel each other out in that department.
I’m predicting a nail-biting, low-scoring affair. Both defences will be sound and the game will be won or lost by errors in either judgement or skill execution.Alan Solomons was assistant coach to Nick Mallett when the Springboks went 17 Tests unbeaten. He is currently EP Kings’ Director of Rugby and is a consultant to the IRB.
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