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    Bulls to up their game

    2013-05-02 18:20
    Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in his regular South African Super Rugby preview, cautiously predicts wins for all of the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks against New Zealand opponents ... but an Aussie-engineered setback for the Kings.

    SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP:

    BULLS v HURRICANES, Pretoria

    When: Saturday, 19:10

    Referee: Lourens van der Merwe (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    Commentators: Hugh Bladen and Bob Skinstad (Eng), John van Rensburg and Breyton Paulse (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka and Mzwandile Stick (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Clear, mild, gentle breeze

    Background: It is probably a healthy sign for this encounter that the SA conference-leading Bulls did not fire on all cylinders, yet still saw off the Waratahs by 11 points last time out. It certainly served as a reminder of how difficult it can be to topple the home side at their Loftus fortress. Do the Hurricanes have enough strings to their bow to do the job? They are traditionally one of the moodier sides in Super Rugby, and this season is really proving no different. The Bulls need to get the balance right between trying to move the ‘Canes around a lot in the challenging Highveld air, but simultaneously guarding against the game becoming too helter-skelter, which would play into their opponents’ counter-attacking hands. Good decision-making from the in-form Morne Steyn will do wonders in keeping the Bulls in control of both tempo and territory ...

    Key head-to-head: Everyone knows that the Bulls’ Bok-capped tighthead prop WERNER KRUGER is an admirable, Honest Joe for work-rate in general play. But his performances at scrum-time, supposedly his core trade, remain under some worrisome scrutiny. Here he comes up against an awkward, nuggety foe on the ‘Canes loosehead side, BEN FRANKS. The New Zealander was belligerent against the Stormers last week, although he did not have things all his own way at the set-piece and was lucky to evade a yellow card, first for a punch on Rynhardt Elstadt but then also for some cynical indiscretions in pulling down rolling mauls and the like. 

    Recent history between teams:
    No meeting in 2012; April 2 2011: Hurricanes 14 Bulls 26

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by seven points

    SA GAME 2:

    BLUES v STORMERS, Albany

    When: Friday, 09:35

    Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    Commentators: New Zealand panel

    Weather outlook: Cloudy, possible light rain, mild, gentle breeze

    Background: The Stormers look notably like a team on the up ... mind you, that’s been said of them at other junctures in this campaign, and then they’ve promptly crashed to earth with a thud. But with a first-up Australasian tour win already beneath their belts, and some of their best soldiers returning to service after layoffs, Jean de Villiers’s side possess the necessary ammo to win this one. They have a fine recent record against the Blues – both home and away – although an obstacle is their hosts’ own desire to start improving on an identical current record to the Stormers’: played eight, won four, lost four.

    Key head-to-head: The Blues’ slippery RENE RANGER has had some upheaval of late: first he was admitted to hospital with an infected finger (thought to be the product of a scratch on a fishing trip!) and then switched from midfield to left wing for this fixture. But it does facilitate a tantalising duel for best X-factor on the day between Ranger and the Stormers’ similarly crowd-pleasing right wing GIO APLON, who got on the try-sheet against the Hurricanes last week and seems to be approaching best form again after some blemished performances earlier in the campaign.

    Recent history between teams:
    March 16 2012: Stormers 27 Blues 17; May 20 2011: Blues 26 Stormers 28

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Stormers by one point

    SA GAME 3:

    HIGHLANDERS v SHARKS, Dunedin

    When: Saturday, 09:35

    Referee: Steve Walsh (Aus)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    Commentators: New Zealand panel

    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, cool, light breeze

    Background: Sooner or later, the Highlanders are finally going to land that elusive first scalp of their season ... so is it going to be ninth time lucky? A just-completed bye week wasn’t the worst occurrence for them, either; there’s been time for a “detox” and regroup. This could spell trouble for the Sharks, but presumably they will be well on their guard for a potential renaissance by a team that continues to look pretty decent on paper. The visitors continue to flirt with elimination from playoffs contention, and should be suitably amped themselves to shrug off the disappointment of three damaging losses on the trot. While a little vulnerable in some positions as their injury crisis continues, if the Sharks bite the bullet collectively they should just nick this one ... they just mustn’t have the sort of fatal 20-minute period of “leakage” that characterised their otherwise gutsy effort against the Chiefs.

    Key head-to-head: There’s a staggering gulf in age terms between the likely characters (the Highlanders team was not available at time of writing) wearing the respective No 4 jerseys: the home team’s steely 38-year-old BRAD THORN against rival lock PIETER-STEPH DU TOIT, a whole 18 years his junior at 20. The former will play his 100th Super Rugby game, which seems an ominous spur for him to be particularly “pumped” against the Sharks. But if Du Toit stands his ground – and then some, even? - against this uncompromising character, his Bok prospects in 2013 will be greatly lifted.

    Recent history between teams: May 5 2012: Sharks 28 Highlanders 16; no meeting in first year of conference system.

    Rob Houwing’s prediction:
    Sharks by three points

    SA GAME 4:

    KINGS v WARATAHS, Port Elizabeth

    When: Saturday, 17:05

    Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    Commentators: Matthew Pearce and Joel Stransky (Eng), Hennie Koortzen and Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja and Makhaya Jack (Xho)

    Weather outlook:
    Sunny, mild, gentle breeze

    Background: Well, the hype around the Kings after their commendable overseas tour has just softened a bit as they’ve taken successive, SA-soil beatings at the hands of the Bulls and Cheetahs. They can still be said to be making strides in their maiden season, especially as they were back to resilient ways in Bloemfontein. Buoyed by their enthusiastic home faithful, can they restore a winning feeling against the ‘Tahs? I would argue that they’ll still be underdogs: the Aussie outfit were rugged and sometimes very bothersome to the Bulls in Pretoria, and are also desperately trying to stay in the playoffs hunt.

    Key head-to-head: There are rather different beasts in the fullback slot for this clash: the Kings’ Bloemfontein-born GEORGE WHITEHEAD is an industrious, no-fuss professional who doubles very decently as a flyhalf, and has seldom let the cause down in either role in his maiden Super Rugby campaign. But up against him comes the new wow factor in the competition: the Waratahs’ ISRAEL FOLAU. NSW-born and of Tongan family roots, this latest recruit from “league” is inevitably being talked up already as the new Sonny Bill Williams in many respects. He brings some unique skills to the union fold, and his try against the Bulls last week was magical in the ridiculous ease with which he evaded defenders. 

    Recent history between teams: Not applicable

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Waratahs by seven points.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
     
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