Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the third of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, found Saturday’s Bulls v Sharks derby perhaps his trickiest result pick of the campaign so far.
After much soul-searching he saw the Sharks just snatching it – but still gives the hosts a fighting chance as the thought of them losing three on the trot in Pretoria is almost too surreal to digest.
Instability in Lions team selection, as much as poor form, is a key reason for his belief that the Stormers will take the other all-SA conference clash in Johannesburg, whilst down in Bloemfontein he may irk some Cheetahs fans by tipping a Blues triumph in another tight one ...
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
BULLS v SHARKS, Pretoria
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Warren Brosnihan & Gcobani Bobo (Eng), John van Rensburg & Dirk Hougaard (Afrik), Kaya Malotana & Alfred Mzizi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Chance of rain, warm, near-windless
Background: Shortly before this was written, I was fractionally leaning the Bulls’ way. Then a last-ditch, sixth sense intervened ... and I finished with “Sharks steal” in my mind. (If only draws were more common in rugby ...) This really shapes as a humdinger, with so much riding on the fixture for the Bulls, in particular. Many critics will be writing off their title chances, of course – so suddenly, so brutally – if the unthinkable occurs and they slump to a third reverse in a row at Loftus, where they didn’t lose even once last season. You would imagine they’ll play like men possessed, but the next thing to chew on is this: would that necessarily be enough? The Sharks restored “normal service” by beating the Lions very well in the rain last Saturday, and I believe the addition of Ryan Kankowski to their XV for the Loftus date adds necessary X-factor to their loose trio. His ability to link smartly with the backs could spice up the visitors’ attacking play, even while they miss such characters as JP Pietersen, Frans Steyn and Paul Jordaan for the time being. The Sharks’ scrum awakened amazingly in their last game, while the Bulls eight, by contrast, struggled again in the loss to the Hurricanes: that could be another key area of division between the teams. Still, remember the old “a wounded Bull is a dangerous Bull” thing ...
Key head-to-head: Ageing lineout legend Vic tor Matfield against his way more youthful, likely main challenger for the Springbok No 5 shirt this year, Pieter-Steph du Toit, is a huge one-on-one, too ... but I’ve opted here for the highly educative clash at flyhalf between the Bulls’ HANDRE POLLARD and his in-form opposite number and Bok colleague PAT LAMBIE. They are extremely hard to separate: Lambie is showing great maturity at present and certainly called the shots admirably in the swamp that was Kings Park last weekend. Pollard, meanwhile, is arguably being hampered by an uncertain, sterile Bulls game-plan and a lack of real conviction right now from allies around him like inside centre Jan Serfontein and (the now dumped) scrumhalf Piet van Zyl. He remains a prospect ridiculously under-appreciated by some critics, and I thought he came through creditably despite the Bulls’ narrow last defeat to the ‘Canes. Lambie boasts the more fluent place-kicking as things stand, yet Pollard’s physical strength in attacking the gain-line could be a countering asset favouring the Bulls in this derby ...
Last result between sides: March 22 2014: Bulls 23 Sharks 19 (Pretoria)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Do I have to? OK, Sharks by two points
SA GAME 2
LIONS v STORMERS, Johannesburg
When: Saturday, 19:10
Referee: Andrew Lees (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Joel Stransky (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Lungelo Payi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Chance of rain, mild, gentle breeze
Background: What to make of the Lions? Johan Ackermann’s slew of changes hints at panic after their 0/2 start to the campaign. Whether the effect will be to shock his charges into a positive mental space or have the opposite outcome remains to be seen. Common sense tells you that the Stormers, with their contrasting 100 percent record so far, warrant installation as favourites even if they were unacceptably ragged at times in downing the 14-man Blues. Certainly the Capetonians must smarten up their breakdown play this week, which perhaps was one reason why Bongi Mbonambi, who has pilfered hungrily in his appearances as a sub, edges Scarra Ntubeni to a start at hooker. As for the Lions, they will begin with their own reserve front row from last weekend, who stabilised the scrum a bit at Kings Park when they ran on en masse. With the mobile, industrious but quite lightweight Jurie van Vuuren still wearing No 4 for the Stormers, maybe the Lions fancy applying some overdue heat at scrum-time? All round, though, the visiting outfit seem to carry more guns ... and will possibly be additionally pumped-up by memories of that 34-10 debacle in the Big Smoke early last year.
Key head-to-head: They were first-time Bok squad-mates at the end of last year ... but now promising loose forwards JACO KRIEL and NIZAAM CARR, who will wear No 6 for the Lions and Stormers respectively, lock horns domestically in a potentially enthralling match-up. Both men are skilful tearaways with strong game-breaking capabilities, even if having something else in common: being just a little ring-rusty here. Kriel missed the latest Lions defeat to the Sharks with a groin injury, whilst Carr will be starting for the first time this season after his pre-season virus. Apart from their expected marauding roles in open play, they will be expected to do their share of hard graft on the deck and in mauling moves.
Last result between sides: April 19, 2014: Stormers 18 Lions 3 (Cape Town)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Stormers by seven points
SA GAME 3
CHEETAHS v BLUES, Bloemfontein
When: Friday, 19:10
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Butch James (Eng), Christo Olivier & Dirk Hougaard (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, light breeze
Background: The Cheetahs -- a little infuriatingly for them -- had a week off straight after their sensational, meritorious triumph in Durban. Sometimes that gap isn’t ideal for continuity purposes, and it is partly on those grounds that I am going a bit against the grain (I suspect?) of much SA thought by backing a tight Blues victory in this one. The Aucklanders have lost both of their first two games, so will be up for this one, certainly not lacking the belief that any dazzling running the Cheetahs can do, they can potentially do just as well. If things do get fast ‘n loose, New Zealand teams have an uncanny knack of outwitting South African foes. The last time these sides met in 2014, the Blues (at home) registered 4-3 supremacy in the try column en route to bagging a 70-point thriller. Can the Cheetahs avenge that game? Of course they can ... but defence is not always their most renowned suit and I’ve gone with a strange gut feel that they’ll be on the receiving end of some heartbreak near the final whistle.
Key head-to-head: Not helped by the red-card disruption to his team’s second row, long-serving Blues and All Black loosehead prop TONY WOODCOCK had a fairly inconclusive scrum duel with emerging Stormers tighthead factor Vincent Koch at Newlands. Here, though, he gets to grips with a fellow-international in Bok utility front-ranker COENIE OOSTHUIZEN, who is showing positive signs of settling at last into the challenges of the No 3 jersey for the Cheetahs. The role curbs the behemoth’s former prominence in ball-carrying a bit, but if evidence against the Sharks two weeks ago is anything to go by, he doesn’t intend to surrender it completely! If Big Coenie gets traction both at the set-piece and through his demonic leg-drive in more general exchanges, it will gee up the entire Cheetahs pack. Still, this is an acid scrummaging test for him as Woodcock doesn’t hand out favours lightly.
Last result between sides: March 22, 2014: Blues 40 Cheetahs 30 (Auckland)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Blues by one point*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing