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    Bulls to go very close, but ...

    2014-04-04 07:24

    Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in his regular South African-geared Super Rugby preview, tips lean pickings for the South African sides in the latest round of the competition.

    To be more precise, and particularly in the absence of the table-topping Sharks due to their bye, he envisages no wins among our four remaining teams ... although there will be nail-biters at faraway Napier and also Newlands.

    SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP

    HURRICANES v BULLS, Napier

    When: Saturday, 08:35 SA time

    Referee: Steve Walsh (Aus)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: New Zealand panel

    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, moderate wind

    Background: The main people dancing with delight at Victor Matfield’s supposed “coaching only” role on the Bulls’ overseas tour will be the various Antipodean opponents! After all, the veteran lineout champion has been very much on the up performance-wise. That said, seasoned coach Frans Ludeke is taking a sensible view on player rotation, despite the obvious risks, with the bigger 2014 picture in mind. I also wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Matfield re-enters the playing staff pretty swiftly if the Bulls are labouring on their travels. They still have enough brawny ammunition in the pack to potentially knock over the Hurricanes, especially based on the impressive dominant passages of their drawn Loftus thriller with the Chiefs. But I have to favour a very tight ‘Canes win, simply because of the obvious fact that SA triumphs in New Zealand are as rare as hen’s teeth, and particularly thus far in the current season. The hosts are in quite decent form, too, and will aim to test the inconsistent Bulls defence through slippery All Black attackers like Messrs Barrett, Savea, Smith and Jane.   

    Key head-to-head: One of the (again debatable) alterations Ludeke has made this week is to bench exciting blindside flanker Jacques du Plessis, move Dewald Potgieter to the No 7 role, and introduce former Kings favourite JACQUES ENGELBRECHT at eighthman. “Vleis” can be a demon ball-carrier, of course, and will need to hit his straps immediately: the Hurrricanes have fast-tracked Wellington-born All Black VICTOR VITO to a maiden start of the season after his knee injury. Which of the two banishes his big-match cobwebs best could influence team fortunes at McLean Park ...  

    Recent history between teams: May 4 2013: Bulls 48 Hurricanes 14 (Pretoria)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Hurricanes by two points

    SA GAME 2

    LIONS v CRUSADERS, Johannesburg

    When:
    Saturday, 17:05

    Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Hugh Bladen and Owen Nkumane (Eng), Hennie Koortzen and Breyton Paulse (Afrik), Makhaya Jack and Kaunda Ntunja (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, near-windless

    Background: Another Lions match, another possibly ill-judged vote of no-confidence in them from yours truly (despite boundless admiration, don’t get me wrong, for their various giant-killings this season). Johan Ackermann’s charges are flying startlingly high, in the early playoffs mix, and now entertain seven-time champions the Crusaders. Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the Lions’ steely competitiveness this season has been the stuttering showing from the Cantabrians. They seem ominously due to come right, and won’t be too perturbed by visiting a fast, hard Highveld pitch. A Lions win would be another wonderful, dream-like occurrence. But when you run through the list of pedigreed All Blacks in that ‘Saders side ... I’m afraid head does over-rule heart. Now just go and prove me faithless and inaccurate all over again, Warren Whiteley and company!  

    Key head-to-head: As we all know, the Lions don’t exactly burst at the seams with Springboks. But that situation may change in a couple of months’ time if they keep their collective vibrancy to the June Test window period. Saturday’s Ellis Park clash sees talk-of-the-town Marnitz Boshoff pit his burgeoning flyhalf skills against Colin Slade -- another nice test for him -- but I am particularly looking forward to the match-up a little closer in, at No 9, between young FAF DE KLERK and the Crusaders’ ANDY ELLIS, one of those feisty little characters of the trade with nine years of first-class experience and plenty of All Black caps to his name.

    Recent history between teams: No meeting last season (Lions absent from competition)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Crusaders by eight points

    SA GAME 3:

    CHEETAHS v CHIEFS, Bloemfontein

    When: Saturday, 15:00

    Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Andy Capostagno and Mark Robinson (Eng), Christo Olivier and Vlok Cilliers (Afrik), Lungelo Payi and Kaya Malotana (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Sunny, warm, light breeze

    Background: Last season, when the Cheetahs were so much more cohesive and marched all the way to the finals series, you’d have found this clash a much harder one to forecast had it also been in Bloemfontein. Right now, though, Naka Drotske’s team are just back from a disastrous overseas leg and with losing a worrying habit for them. Yes, they are much harder nuts to crack at home, but I just don’t feel they’ll have the ability or desire right now to bump off the defending champions from Waikato. The Chiefs came from far behind to earn a spirited draw with the Bulls last week that they’ll view as a “win”, and will be extremely confident of a full house of five log points against the Cheetahs’ brittle defence. The home team have also been hit by injury again, stalwart No 8 Philip van der Walt the latest casualty. Drotske’s perseverance with out-of-position Rayno Benjamin at inside centre also seems a bit odd: why no confidence in the sturdier lustre of bench-curtailed Howard Mnisi?

    Key head-to-head: If you wanted to be mischievous you might opt to brand this a bit of a “spare-tyre fest”: let’s face it, we won’t be witnessing the most athletic frames in the world when Chiefs tighthead colossus BEN TAMEIFUNA (not the prettiest sight when his jersey accidentally came off at Loftus) grapples at scrum-time with Cheetahs’ No 1 TREVOR NYAKANE, who gets a rare but welcome start here. The Bok prop’s discipline has come under scrutiny at times, but there’s also no doubt that he’s a formidable presence in the tight-loose when there’s a bee in his bonnet: might that be the case on Saturday?

    Recent history between teams:  March 2 2013: Chiefs 45 Cheetahs 3 (Hamilton)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Chiefs by seven points

    SA GAME 4

    STORMERS v WARATAHS, Cape Town

    When: Saturday, 19:10

    Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce and Bob Skinstad (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers and Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka and Mzwandile Stick (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Clear, warm, light breeze

    Background: So ... still no Israel Folau (unless they’re pulling a sly one?) in the Waratahs’ No 15 shirt as he continues his rehabilitation from that throat injury. Perhaps that should have tempted me to alter my view that the visitors will pinch this one after a cliff-hanger. But they say you should never change a “bet” so I’ll stick to my fear, from a domestic point of view, that the Sydney guests will spoil the Stormers’ Newlands homecoming. I believe they may have too much forward grunt for the injury-plagued hosts, and cash in accordingly. That said, it could easily go the other way, as many in the Cape side go all out to convince new director of rugby Gert Smal that they must remain part of the contracted furniture! The stakes are quite high: another reverse and the Stormers ought finally to be goners as far as flickering playoffs aspirations are concerned. Yes, I don’t have a good feeling ...   

    Key head-to-head: It’s not that easy to stand out when your team is on a downer, is it? But that has been the case in recent weeks for the Stormers’ versatile loose forward NIZAAM CARR, a ray of light amidst a sea of despondency and turmoil. Carr is probably happier at No 8, but with Duane Vermeulen the world-class incumbent (and now temporary captain) he has been stationed at openside flank where his speed and hand-skill set have come in very handy. Increasingly willing to mix it physically as well, in this game he pits his wits against the renowned Waratahs and Wallabies side-of-the-scrum flier MICHAEL HOOPER. Neither man ought to be slow to a bobbling, up-for-grabs ball ...  

    Recent history between teams:  May 11 2013: Waratahs 21 Stormers 15 (Sydney)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Waratahs by one point

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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