Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the sixth of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, feels the Sharks will just subdue the Chiefs despite the Waikato outfit’s dazzling display at Newlands.
Especially given how disastrous a defeat would be to them in this one, he sees the Bulls continuing their own claw-back by beating the Force by a fairly clear-cut margin at Loftus.
But he finds it difficult to believe either of the overseas-touring Lions (albeit a better chance) or Cheetahs will have any joy in their assignments against the Rebels and Crusaders respectively.
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
SHARKS v CHIEFS, Durban
When: Saturday, 19:10
Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & AJ Venter (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Lungelo Payi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Cloudy, warm, moderate wind
Background: The Sharks may well relish the fact that they finally get a break from a lengthy, five-game cycle of punishing derbies. Those games didn’t do them any special favours, either, when you look at their two-from-five record. Now they tackle a New Zealand foe for the first time, and a thoroughbred one in the shape of the Chiefs, so enthralling with ball in hand as they came from behind to boss the Stormers at Newlands a week earlier. Considering that they will probably boast a more assertive and accurate kicking game than the Stormers did, with both Pat Lambie and Frans Steyn vital elements, the Sharks may be less vulnerable to the Chiefs’ handsome ball-in-hand game on the counter. You would think, too, that the visitors will surrender quite a bit of midfield punch with both Sonny Bill Williams and Tim Nanai-Williams forced out of this one. Nevertheless, the Sharks will need to stick meticulously to their game-plan and be furiously committed as a collective to pull this one off in expected muggy conditions at Kings Park. I fancy they will do it, after a tight scrap.
Key head-to-head: It’s hardly surprising that hefty loosehead JAMIE MACKINTOSH gets a start for the Chiefs this week: their scrum was putrid before he entered the fray off the bench; notably revitalised when he and others beefed the engine room in the second half against the Stormers. The bearded former Highlanders skipper gets to grips here with veteran first-choice Bok tighthead JANNIE DU PLESSIS and which of the two edges this duel could influence which pack as a whole bosses the set-piece. Keep in mind that a hitherto wonky Sharks scrum looked a lot better in Bloemfontein with their entire “old firm” front row reunited, and the status quo applies to this week’s line-up.
Last result between sides: April 27, 2013: Chiefs 37 Sharks 29 (Hamilton)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Sharks by three points
SA GAME 2
BULLS v FORCE, Pretoria
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Nick Briant (NZ)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Robbie Kempson (Eng), John van Rensburg & Dirk Hougaard (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, light breeze
Background: Pre-game logic doesn’t always translate into automatic fruition on the scoreboard ... but common sense still tells you that a Bulls side starting with a tally of Springboks running into double figures and with several more on the bench (including one Victor Matfield) should simply be too strong on the Highveld for a visiting Aussie side sporting no more than a handful of Wallabies. This Force outfit also comes off a debilitating four straight losses since that incredible humbling of the Waratahs several weeks ago – so this is not the ideal time for a taxing SA mini-safari that also features the Sharks a week on. Frans Ludeke would do well to remind his charges just how harmful a shock reverse would be, considering their iffy start to the season ... but he might also suggest that a full-house victory is quite feasible if the Bulls can be suitably up-tempo. Expect the usual formula at Loftus: “sagmaak” and bang over a couple of early penalty goals if possible, and then get expansive in the pursuit of several tries.
Key head-to-head: The western Australians are understandably chuffed to have one of Super Rugby’s cult figures NICK CUMMINS – the Honey Badger to most – back in their ranks after his sojourn with a Japanese club. Here the expansive-haired Wallaby left wing comes up against Springbok utility back FRANCOIS HOUGAARD, who finds himself in the No 14 jersey for the Bulls again: critics remain at odds over what this slippery individual’s best berth on a rugby field really is. But if he gets the better of the unmistakable Cummins on the day, it won’t do his ongoing claims out wide any harm.
Last result between sides: April 26, 2014: Force 15 Bulls 9 (Perth)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by 10 points
SA GAME 3
CRUSADERS v CHEETAHS, Christchurch
When: Saturday, 08:35 (SA time)
Referee: Andrew Lees (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: New Zealand panel
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, gentle breeze
Background: Given their grim record in New Zealand, it is awfully hard to see the Cheetahs earning the bragging rights from this one. Think about it: if they could even leak six tries to the ‘Saders in a high-scoring loss in Bloemfontein last year, then what price a significantly more resilient showing in Christchurch? This could be a classic case of a moderate South African team proving gritty opponents in an Antipodean date for half or two-thirds of the game ... but then the dam wall bursting. It doesn’t help that the Canterbury outfit are better than most at keeping their key personnel fresh through intelligent rotation. With surnames like Dagg, Carter, Read, Whitelock, Romano, Franks and Crockett featuring in this one, the Cheetahs will require their own, smaller group of blue-chippers like Le Roux, Oosthuizen and Brussow to play out of their skins – and the first two of those are already at risk of becoming jaded.
Key head-to-head: If the Cheetahs are to register a famous upset win, they will want HEINRICH BRUSSOW to repeat the great hunger and energy he displayed on comeback off the bench against the Sharks last time out. The feisty fetcher has a habit of doing well against New Zealand foes (think: All Blacks 2009!) and here he comes face to face with another quality open-sider in the Crusaders’ MATT TODD, presumably sprightly after one of those rotational breaks I mentioned. Both have a low centre of gravity and feverish work-rate; keep an eye on the bottom of your TV screens ...
Last result between sides: April 12, 2014: Cheetahs 31 Crusaders 52 (Bloemfontein)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Crusaders by 17 points
SA GAME 4
REBELS v LIONS, Melbourne
When: Friday, 10:40 (SA time)
Referee: Mike Fraser (NZ)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Australian panel
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, moderate wind
Background: The Lions have made wholesale changes ... and when a side not renowned for its depth of genuinely stellar names does that, it’s debatable whether they’ve actually been strengthened. Administered an increasingly powerful poison by the Crusaders last week, the Jo’burgers may also still be feeling some effects from that Herculean defensive job to pip the Blues. A good omen is that the Lions have not previously lost to the Rebels ... but the history is only two matches, and both in the Big Smoke! The Melbourne combo come off a commendable win in Perth, and will be a difficult nut to crack in their home city. Of course a Lions triumph is possible, but the smartest of pundits are still likely to be leaning the Rebels’ way. Reluctantly, I’m among them.
Key head-to-head: If this one’s close – which it could be – then place-kicking could enter the equation and here both teams are served by usually dependable customers: the Rebels field versatile MIKE HARRIS (the NZ-born campaigner was formerly a renowned Reds points machine) at flyhalf and the Lions have recalled MARNITZ BOSHOFF to the No 10 channel. This also facilitates the interesting switch of Elton Jantjies to relatively virgin territory at inside centre where a one-on-one with experienced Mitch Inman awaits him. Boshoff got 19 points off the tee (including a 5/5 penalty record) the last time these teams met. A similar haul would be manna from heaven.
Last result between sides: July 4, 2014: Lions 34 Rebels 17 (Johannesburg)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Rebels by seven points*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing