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    Close... but Bulls to win

    2012-03-08 11:43
    Cape Town - Rob Houwing, in his SA Super Rugby Week 3 preview, believes the Bulls will survive nervy moments to make it three-out-of-three against the Blues.

    SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP

    BULLS v BLUES, Pretoria

    When: Saturday, 19:10
    Referee: Steve Walsh
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    Long-range weather forecast: Warm, gentle breeze.

    Background:
    These teams have experienced completely contrasting fortunes thus far ... and many critics are probably a little surprised that it is the visiting Blues labouring rather than the other way around. After all, the Bulls are supposed to be in transition and the New Zealanders were touted fairly heavily upfront as potential title-grabbers. Instead the Aucklanders find themselves nought from two and now on a tricky two-game safari in southern Africa where they must also tackle the Stormers! Arguably, their position is a little deceptive, considering that one of their reverses was by one point to the Crusaders, so there can be no room for complacency when Frans Ludeke’s overall log-topping troops entertain the Blues under lights. Still, having thumped the Cheetahs by a lofty margin in Bloemfontein, smart money says Pierre Spies and his merry men ought to secure a hat-trick of wins ... 

    Key head-to-head:
    With Gary Botha now out of the mix, Chiliboy Ralepelle has finally had the opportunity for consistent service in the hooker’s slot ... and made a forceful impression against each of leading South African rivals Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss in the first two weeks of the competition. There’s no let-up for the dynamic character, however, as this time he squares up to that old, cauliflower-eared All Black warrior Keven Mealamu, who also leads the Blues. Not much more than a week shy of his 33rd birthday, the 10-year Test veteran remains a combative presence, although Ralepelle’s rather more youthful legs could just be a useful advantage at altitude.   

    Recent history:
    These sides avoided each other last year, but in 2010, the last year of the old Super 14 format when the Bulls landed the title for the second time on the trot, one of their three round-robin losses came away to the Blues, 32-17 in mid-season. But the previous year (and last meeting between the two at Loftus) the hosts earned a handsome 59-26 victory.

    Rob Houwing’s prediction:
    I fancy a fairly high-scoring affair and some swings of the pendulum during the 80 minutes - but ultimately the Bulls to clinch it by around three points, with customary help from Morne Steyn’s deadly right boot.

    SA GAME 2

    SHARKS v LIONS, Durban


    When: Saturday, 17:05
    Referee: Mark Lawrence
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    Long-range weather forecast: Warm, moderate breeze, chance of rain.

    Background:
    There’s a double reason for the Sharks to be suitably amped to clinch this third derby challenge for them on the trot ... the obvious one is that they remain winless and even coach John Plumtree concedes that another setback would represent a significant torpedo to their hull in the quest to win the SA conference this year. The other is the opportunity to avenge that remarkable 42-16 Currie Cup final humbling late last year. The Sharks do remain vulnerable with a few of their “hardebaarde” still missing through injury, but the tonic of this being their slightly belated home debut in 2012 could be enough to see them over the line against Josh Strauss and company, who will feel they rather let it slip against the Hurricanes last time out. Still, it was a reality check of sorts, wasn’t it?

    Key head-to-head:
    Lineouts have presented some problems for the Sharks for a couple of seasons now, so one plus from the desperately narrow defeat to the Stormers at Newlands was this phase functioning rather better against highly-touted Andries Bekker and company. They will want to build on that against the Lions, with No 5 lock Ross Skeate presumably intended to come to the fore again. But he is up against the visitors’ main aerial threat in Franco van der Merwe, and their battle could be influential to the result. Skeate will want to make amends for his costly yellow card at an important stage against the Stormers ... he’s already tweeted as much!

    Recent history:
    It was a pretty clear-cut 27-3 to the Sharks in the equivalent conference fixture last season (with a bonus point courtesy of scrumhalf Charl McLeod’s 78th minute fourth try), so that is cause for some much-needed optimism in the currently embattled home ranks. That said, the Lions would have scratched their heads as to how they surrendered that match so emphatically on paper ... their pack dominated for solid periods on the day.

    Rob Houwing’s prediction:

    Sharks by 12 points, going reasonably clear in the final quarter after a typically tight derby scrap against foes perhaps slightly vulnerable in the front row now that JC Janse van Rensburg and CJ van der Linde are both sidelined.

    SA GAME 3

    BRUMBIES v CHEETAHS, Canberra


    When: Saturday, 06:35 SA time
    Referee: Keith Brown
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    Long-range weather forecast: Partly cloudy, mild, windless.

    Background:
    It was a long way from pretty, but Jake White at least got his Brumbies coaching career off with a scrappy, two-point triumph against the moderate Western Force. Then the Brumbies had a bye, so the Cheetahs may hope to catch them a little “cold” at Canberra Stadium. But the visitors from Bloemfontein, starting out their overseas leg, have issues of their own, most notably that unexpected drubbing at the hands of the Bulls last week, who romped over for six tries to spark some fresh reservations about the defensive organisation of Naka Drotske’s charges.

    Key head-to-head:
    There’s an earthy, honest match-up between two bustling, beavering No 8s as the Cheetahs’ Bok-capped Ashley Johnson locks horns with Ben Mowen, a similarly seasoned campaigner in Super Rugby with service across three Aussie franchises - the Reds, Waratahs and now Brumbies. Mowen consciously bulked up last season but that will be no special alarm bell to Paarl Gym product Johnson, who does not hold back from big hits and earnest mauling either. 

    Recent history:
    These teams last saw combat against each other in Bloemfontein last year, at the start of a productive little four-game winning trot by the previously pallid Cheetahs (they had previously won just one of nine games). Then, the hosts won a points-fest 47-36, including two tries by now Aussie-based scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius.

    Rob Houwing’s prediction:
    Brumbies by 16 points, alas, as the Cheetahs presently seem rather at sixes and sevens even on SA soil, and their away record in Super Rugby still remains abject overall.
    Read More On:  super 15 rob houwing

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