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    Bulls to bolt gate on Brumbies

    2014-05-22 14:28
    Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in his regular South African-geared Super Rugby preview, tips the Bulls’ very necessary survival instincts to just work in their favour against the Brumbies in Pretoria on Friday night.

    A little nervously, he also fancies the Sharks to entrench their overall lead by pipping the Blues at North Harbour in their last tour match, tips home advantage to swing the Stormers-Cheetahs derby at Newlands and sees more misery for the injury-dogged and tired Lions in Perth.


    BULLS v BRUMBIES, Pretoria

    When: Friday, 19:10
    Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: Hugh Bladen and Owen Nkumane (Eng), John van Rensburg and Vlok Cilliers (Afrik), Kaya Malotana and Lungelo Payi (Xho)
    Weather outlook: Clear, mild, windless

    Background: The Bulls are on the precipice, trying not to look down as the wind whistles around them. Yes, that may sound dramatic but trust me: they are goners for the finals series if they botch this one, and the remaining games against the Lions, Stormers and Rebels would then be just for pride. Fuelled by the urgency of what is really a knockout match for them, I envisage the Bulls piling more SA tour misery on the Brumbies – for all their own potential firepower – by scraping a precious win before the intimidating Pretoria faithful. It is still a taxing ask for overseas teams to prevail at Loftus, and remember that Flip van der Merwe and company are unbeaten there this season (even if they infuriatingly ran out of puff against the Chiefs to be held to a draw in a humdinger several weeks ago). It is a little disappointing that exciting young pivot Handre Pollard has been benched ... but the return of reliable old soldier Jacques-Louis Potgieter is perhaps also a signal of how the Bulls’ “hardebaarde” must come to the party here!

    Key head-to-head: When these teams last played, in a nerve-jangling semi-final at Loftus last season, strong-striding Brumbies outside centre TEVITA KURIDRANI scored the game-deciding try in the 78th minute, despite suspicion of a forward pass in the lead-up. The Fijian-born Wallaby is at his No 13 station again this time, and also encounters gangly Springbok JJ ENGELBRECHT as his direct foe again – Engelbrecht got the Bulls’ lone try in that semi. The midfield battle is broadly a good one on Friday, with Jan Serfontein opposing Christian Lealiifano in the inside channel.

    Last result between teams: July 27 2013 (semi-final): Bulls 23 Brumbies 26 (Pretoria)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by one point

    SA GAME 2

    BLUES v SHARKS, Auckland

    When: Friday, 09:35 SA time
    Referee: Nick Briant (NZ)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: New Zealand panel
    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, gentle breeze

    Background: The Sharks must still be on Cloud Nine after that victory over the Crusaders against huge odds ... and I reckon enough of the euphoria will remain (just!) to knock over the Blues, who may well simultaneously fall irreversibly off the playoffs radar at their second home of North Harbour Stadium. I’m pretty sure they’d have preferred to tackle the leaders in the more intimidating environment of Eden Park. Jake White has probably gone all out to eliminate any sense of complacency in the Sharks ranks, given that their return to local shores very shortly doesn’t mean a run of “easy’’ fixtures to the end of ordinary season. Seeing off the Blues would mean a commendable three from four record in Australasia, however (in marked contrast to the travelling angst suffered by various compatriots in 2014), and make the men from Durban really irresistible bets for that key home semi. Let’s deviously hope the Blues’ off week has been more curse than blessing, eh?

    Key head-to-head: The respective front rows absolutely ooze Test quality and experience in this game, so I have opted for the men at the very fulcrum: rival hookers KEVEN MEALAMU and visiting captain BISMARCK DU PLESSIS. They must know each others’ strengths and weaknesses backwards! Veteran Mealamu may be the fresher player, given the Blues’ bye last weekend, but even after a six-day turnaround Du Plessis seldom struggles to get those competitive juices flowing. Alongside “Bissie” at scrum-time are the old firm of Beast Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis; Mealamu can also summon conspicuously gnarly support in Tony Woodcock and Charlie Faumuina.

    Last result between teams: June 29 2013: Sharks 22 Blues 20 (Durban)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Sharks by three points

    SA GAME 3


    When: Saturday, 17:05
    Referee: Stuart Berry (SA)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce and Bob Skinstad (Eng), Hennie Koortzen and Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja and Makhaya Jack (Xho)
    Weather outlook: Mild, chance of rain, moderate wind

    Background: When these teams met in the first-round conference fixture on the Highveld only about a month ago, the ping-pong game was notable for the once-unbreakable Stormers defence being punctured five times in try terms. The Cheetahs deserved their clear-cut victory on the day, although I would argue that the Capetonians have shown more pronounced improvement since then and begun to get the attack-defence balance right. That said, they are struggling to string together successive wins, so my prediction of a revenge triumph here is tempered by that fact. For their part, the Cheetahs are also tending to win rather sporadically. It’s a tough call, then, and not too much can be read into fine results last week against the Force and Brumbies respectively by Saturday evening’s foes. The reinfusion of core players Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger to the home mix helps tilt the scales a tad, by my book. This game should see an epic loosie scrap: Messrs Burger, Vermeulen, Brussow and Mohoje are all in the Bok training squad, whilst Nizaam Carr and Boom Prinsloo will only go out to show that they ought to have been ...  

    Key head-to-head: There are several appealing match-ups here, with the wing scrap between Willie le Roux and Damian de Allende quickly coming to mind. But quirky, inventive Le Roux features in this slot so often that I’ve opted instead for the duel of the No 5 locks: the Stormers’ emerging RUAN BOTHA against no-frills FRANCOIS UYS. The latter has an important job in nursing still-rookie partner Boela Serfontein through his first derby. Botha, for his part, had his best start yet for the Stormers, I felt, in the heartening win against the Force with a thoroughly industrious performance.

    Last result between teams: April 26 2014: Cheetahs 35 Stormers 22 (Bloemfontein)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Stormers by six points

    SA GAME 4

    FORCE v LIONS, Perth

    When: Saturday, 11:40 SA time
    Referee: Steve Walsh (Aus)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: Australian panel
    Weather outlook: Mild, light rain, moderate wind

    Background: March 22 must seem a decade ago to the Lions: that was when they sneaked past the Reds at Ellis Park (albeit arguably aided by the kindness of officialdom) to keep up a pleasing, giant-killing trend at the time. But it’s been nothing but a slippery slope for them ever since ... six defeats in succession, including three from three abroad thus far. The only hope of a tour-ending win on the West Australian stopover, perhaps, is that the Force come home knackered from South Africa themselves, and their prior confidence knocked by that pretty heavy Newlands reverse. Sadly even the Lions set-piece strength is getting more and more diluted by injuries and over-exposure of certain personnel. Another two locks in MB Lusaseni and Martin Muller have returned to our shores prematurely ... the Lions’ second-row woe is begin to match the Stormers’! So how and where the Lions muster the muscle to push for a win here I just don’t know ...

    Key head-to-head: Early in the season, Lions flyhalf MARNITZ BOSHOFF was one of the hottest names on Super Rugby lips with his sparkling initiative in open play and rich pickings off the kicking tee. But his form has slipped a bit with the overall downturn in the Johannesburg-based team’s fortunes, and if the Lions are to register a significant upset in what may be a damp Perth, Boshoff may need to recover his cutting edge. It won’t be an easy task against expat fellow-South African SIAS EBERSOHN, who has revelled in his new surroundings. The Lions pivot has a new halfback partner on Saturday, as normal first-choice Faf de Klerk is “rotated” and Ross Cronje provides the service.

    Last result between teams: May 26 2012: Force 17 Lions 11 (Perth)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Force by 13 points

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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