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    Bulls to end Sharks’ hopes

    2015-04-17 10:05

    Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the 10th of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, suspects the Bulls will narrowly see off the Sharks on Saturday ... all but ending their hosts’ playoffs hopes at the same time.

    He also backs the Stormers to keep their eyes properly on the ball in Perth, adding the scalp of the struggling Force to their prior fine triumph on Aussie soil over the Waratahs.

    But a pure hunch tells him the Willie le Roux-less Cheetahs, just back off a long-haul passage, may fall in Bloemfontein to a Reds side acclimatised to high altitude and still containing some big Wallaby names – they have been punching a bit below their more appropriate weight.


    SHARKS v BULLS, Durban

    When: Saturday, 17:05

    Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Robbie Kempson (Eng), John van Rensburg & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Kaya Malotana & Lungelo Payi (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, light breeze

    Background: We’re certainly in, I think, for one of those ferocious, blood-and-guts SA derbies with stakes mounting for both sides. This applies particularly to the still under-strength Sharks, very close to disappearing from top-six contention. That should be a motivator in itself to avenge the high-scoring but fractious first-round loss at Loftus. But the Durban-based side were probably better-equipped on paper then than they are now, despite the return this week of front-row stalwarts Tendai Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis. Man for man, the Bulls should carry too much class at Kings Park to slip up in this one – Handre Pollard is back to give great direction to the visitors’ back play and general tactical arrangements, and the Sharks are likely to rue the absence of Pat Lambie as a counter, even if Fred Zeilinga will put in a willing shift in their “ten” channel. There will be some pretty good forward legs – Messrs Botha, Labuschagne, Nyakane etc -- to summon from the bench by the Bulls after halftime, too. All that said, it could be seriously close! Do the Sharks have a fair chance? Of course ...

    Key head-to-head: You always wonder with WILLEM ALBERTS whether he is going to go the distance (or at least pretty close to it) in any given match ... his history of irksome hamstring and/or shoulder niggles ensures that worry. But the beefy Springbok, when injury-free, remains one formidable physical specimen: ask the Lions’ poor Mark Richards, sent into la-la land last weekend as he bravely went into a 50-50 situation with the blindside flank monster. The Bulls have switched a large specimen of their own, JACQUES DU PLESSIS, back to No 7 from the second row (facilitating the welcome return to the first XV of Flip van der Merwe) and it will be interesting to see which player earns more go-forward from that berth on the day ...

    Last result between sides: February 28, 2015: Bulls 43 Sharks 35 (Pretoria)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by two points

    SA GAME 2


    When: Saturday, 13:45 (SA time)

    Referee: Mike Fraser (NZ)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Australian panel

    Weather outlook: Clear, warm, gentle breeze

    Background: Just by winning one of their overseas tour games already the Stormers -- all set soon for a hearteningly home-heavy run-in programme -- have set themselves up for staying well in contention this year. But that certainly doesn’t mean they can step off the pedal in this Perth stopover: in fact, this could be a critical game in deciding whether the Capetonians are simply playoffs contenders (if they lose) or potential home semi-finalists (if they win). On paper and current form – remember the Force are on a hapless seven-game losing habit – the Stormers really should win, and even a former coach of the West Australian franchise, John Mitchell, reckoned on Boots & All it might be by 10-plus. In a XV freshened by some rotational picks, it’s exciting to see the visitors finally pairing together in the second row the tall, muscular timber of Eben Etzebeth (back near his best) and back-in-favour Ruan Botha. 

    Key head-to-head: Based on respective iffy form in recent weeks, the battle at flyhalf between the Force’s SIAS EBERSOHN and his Stormers counterpart DEMETRI CATRAKILIS would not ordinarily be an attractive point of focus. But perhaps it is for that very reason that I have introduced the duel here: if one of these pivots has a welcome, assertive day in such a key role, it could influence which way this game tilts. Bloemfontein-born Ebersohn mixes some clever touches with the odd spectacular “shank” or other gaffe, whilst Catrakilis, a killer off the tee, is often under fire from those who feel bench-man Kurt Coleman offers the Stormers’ backline greater oomph on attack. Might the Greek God subdue some knockers here?

    Last result between sides: May 17, 2014: Stormers 24 Force 8 (Cape Town)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Stormers by eight points

    SA GAME 3

    CHEETAHS v REDS, Bloemfontein

    When: Saturday, 19:10

    Referee: Jaco van Heerden (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & AJ Venter (Eng), Christo Olivier & Derick Hougaard (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Mzwandile Stick (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Clear, mild, light breeze

    Background: The Cheetahs are just back off their gruelling tour of Australasia, and Naka Drotske has admitted there are some understandably tired minds and bodies – they trained cautiously this week. They are also giving what seems very necessary break to talisman Willie le Roux, and that probably helps to make the Reds interested in what might be termed a “minor upset” in Bloem. They have already played one Highveld match themselves since arriving, and will be well acclimatised to the oxygen needs of the Free State Stadium even if they spent much of the lead-up period in Jo’burg, it seems. This could be a crowd-pleaser, but when I look at the number of seasoned Aussie internationals still in the Reds’ mix, I just have a feeling that they will do enough to steal a morale-lifting victory. To be clear, though: I’m not writing off the Cheetahs at all, and they may get some log-points joy anyway out of a possible try-fest  in this clash ...

    Key head-to-head: The Reds ought to benefit from JAMES HORWILL, the 58-cap former Wallabies captain, returning to their second row from suspension for a “swinging arm” assault on a Rebels player recently. Horwill, 29, has had a few disciplinary issues in recent times, which is surprising and perhaps a reflection of the pretty bleak mood in the Queensland-based camp. But this sturdy specimen in the tight phases is back, nevertheless (albeit not as skipper) to oppose the Cheetahs’ honest, workmanlike lock and leader FRANCOIS UYS. The Springs-born No 5 has carried extra responsibility this season due to promising Bok Lood de Jager’s long-term injury, and mostly delivered ...   

    Last result between sides: March 7, 2014: Reds 43 Cheetahs 33 (Brisbane)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Reds by four points

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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