Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing
Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the fourth of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, believes better continuity in current team make-up could tilt the scales the Stormers’ way narrowly in the big coastal derby at Newlands on Saturday.
He also thinks the Bulls will build on their heartening triumph over the Sharks last weekend to spoil the Cheetahs’ unbeaten early-season record in Bloemfontein.
As for the Lions, their nought-from-three record in South Africa doesn’t suggest they will suddenly strike for a win in New Zealand in their overseas tour opener, even if their opponents are the flaky, similarly basement-end Blues ...
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
STORMERS v SHARKS, Cape Town
When: Saturday, 19:10
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Joel Stransky (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Mzwandile Stick (Xho)
Weather outlook: Clear, mild, moderate breeze
Background: Another horrible game to call, given how close it could be. There is greater pressure on the Sharks right now, undoubtedly: if they slide to one win from four, without even having left South African soil yet, the chance of a favourable playoffs position dips appreciably. Sheer urgency – not to mention a sense of injustice from Loftus? -- could be a major device for them at likely near-packed Newlands. Perhaps they also boast more “hardebaarde” on paper, too, plus the knowledge that last year they won by as many as 24 points in Cape Town at the end of ordinary season. So why then do I tip the Stormers to shade it? It’s primarily on the grounds that the visitors are putting out a team marked by as many as five players making their maiden starts of the campaign. Two of those – the all-change midfield of seasoned Springboks Frans Steyn and JP Pietersen – are doing so out of Japan, where the intensity is just not the same. We have seen before how it can take men like Fourie du Preez, Peter Grant and Jaque Fourie a good few games to re-adjust to bigger stages like Super Rugby or Tests, even given their known pedigrees. The Stormers’ run-out team (albeit that vital tight five meanie Eben Etzebeth is not likely yet to be able to go a full 80) just looks that fraction more adhesive and familiar to one another at this early stage ... it could give them a marginal edge, I reckon.
Key head-to-head: As so often in this fixture, appealing match-ups aren’t hard to find at all, but in the end I figured that the no-frills duel between two blindside flanks making their first starts of the competition this year, the Stormers’ SIYA KOLISI and WILLEM ALBERTS of the Sharks, could be a vital game-swayer. Who’ll last the pace for longer? Both Springbok loosies have had their share of injury drawbacks, both of the niggle and longer-term variety, with the sort of abrasive styles they employ perhaps not helping a whole lot. Steam-engine Alberts is an out-and-out No 7, of course, although Kolisi has been schooled more as an open-sider in recent times and switches to the other side here primarily because of the enforced absence of under-rated workhorse Michael Rhodes. Carr v Coetzee at No 6 and Vermeulen v Kankowski at eight makes for a titanic loose forward contest as a whole, doesn’t it?
Last result between sides: July 12 2014: Stormers 10 Sharks 34 (Cape Town)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Stormers by three points
SA GAME 2
CHEETAHS v BULLS, Bloemfontein
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Stuart Berry (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Bob Skinstad (Eng), Christo Olivier & Dirk Hougaard (Afrik), Kaya Malotana & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, windless
Background: Intelligence: some wags might say that’s not a particularly strong hallmark of the Bulls’ rugby these days, given the reasonably inflexible playing style they tend to employ. But that’s not what I’m referring to in this instance ... “intelligence” could have a key, different meaning for this one as it is much more in the sense of the visitors boasting tons of information about the Cheetahs’ tactical calls, and areas of comfort and dislike. That is through Adriaan Strauss, until pretty recently the white-and-orange-jerseys’ captain, making a nostalgic return to Bloemfontein in the rival shirt, and co-pack members Trevor Nyakane and Lappies Labuschagne (still heading the Super Rugby tackle count) doing likewise. It must have made Naka Drotske’s planning fairly hazardous in the lead-up: he’s had to be careful not to be too predictable, but also not so different as to overly confuse his own troops. That aspect aside, I believe the Bulls are in a good space to stay on a roll anyway and keep inching up the table after their shoddy start. The Cheetahs can never be discounted at home, but they were fortunate to shade the Blues game last time out ... and will taste a first loss here!
Key head-to-head: A certain Cheslin Kolbe’s claims elsewhere in the country shouldn’t be overlooked, but for excitement factor and pure, natural ambition from the last line of defence, this tussle between home favourite and Bok staple WILLIE LE ROUX and the 21-year-old former Baby Bok star JESSE KRIEL could be a classic if the game is suitably free-flowing on what ought to be a firm pitch. The Bulls do seem to be serious about gradually wanting to be less formulaic and kick-obsessed, and as we know the Cheetahs always favour brazenness over caution. The equivalent Bloemfontein game very early last season was an entirely forgettable affair in the slush, won 15-9 by the Cheetahs with no tries on the books. Le Roux with his deft touches and instinctive awareness of situations, plus Kriel with his pacey, snaking intrusions through the middle, could help change all that a year onward.
Last result between sides: May 3, 2014: Bulls 26 Cheetahs 21 (Pretoria)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by four points
SA GAME 3
BLUES v LIONS, Albany
When: Saturday, 08:35 (SA time)
Referee: Matt O’Brien (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: New Zealand panel
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, stiff breeze
Background: The Lions aren’t all bad, despite their present rock-bottom status on the overall table and mere one point from a possible 15. Remember that in two of their three defeats so far, against the Hurricanes and Stormers, they might well have won with some luck. So the opportunity exists on Saturday to confirm that they won’t be enduring whipping boys this year. But even if the Blues are also winless, what are the chances of the Highvelders stealing a victory in Albany? As we know too painfully, these don’t come dime-a-dozen for touring Saffers in New Zealand, and the Lions lost all four overseas matches last season (though the Highlanders only saw them off by one point). They have a fair chance ... but will also know that if they fail here, the trip could turn out to be notably fruitless once again. It’s hard not to back the Blues, even with their quite shocking defence at times.
Key head-to-head: Plenty of South Africans respect the rugby union longevity, loyalty and undying competitiveness of Blues and All Blacks hooker KEVEN MEALAMU, who makes his first start of the season against the Lions. It is a poignant one, too, given that he will break Wallaby lock Nathan Sharpe’s record of 162 appearances in Super Rugby. Some 11 years his junior at 25, visiting No 2 ROBBIE COETZEE will be trying hard to spoil the party. Coetzee seems to be re-cementing himself as the Lions’ first choice and was influential last weekend in the Jo’burgers giving the Stormers some set-piece angst. As usual, nevertheless, coach Johan Ackermann may wish to infuse the “Angry Warthog”, Armand van der Merwe, for run-around menace during the second half.
Last result between sides: March 15, 2014: Lions 39 Blues 36 (Johannesburg)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Blues by eight points
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