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    Sharks machine to roll on

    2014-03-13 14:56
    Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in his regular South African-geared Super Rugby preview, predicts victory only by the Sharks this weekend - he sees all of the Stormers, Cheetahs and Lions being pipped by New Zealand opponents.

    SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP

    SHARKS v REDS, Durban

    When: Saturday, 17:05

    Referee:
    Lourens van der Merwe (SA)

    TV:
    M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce and Warren Brosnihan (Eng), Hennie Koortzen and Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja and Makhaya Jack (Xho)  

    Weather outlook: Sunny, warm, light breeze

    Background: The encouraging thing about the Sharks’ unbeaten run thus far is that they’ve not yet hit “sport mode”, if you’ll excuse the vehicular parlance. They are almost certainly capable of even better quality, more consistently, than we’ve observed in the three wins leading up to this appealing encounter. Could it come on Saturday? In their favour is that it is an early evening, and seemingly weather-friendly kick-off, plus the fact that just another world-class gamebreaker in JP Pietersen has rejoined their ranks. The absence of wonderfully in-form Paul Jordaan is a blow, but S’bu Sithole may just revel alongside the assured Frans Steyn in midfield. Jake White will strongly discourage complacency (the Sharks slipped up for the first time in game four last season) especially as the Reds are classy enough to have a fair win chance themselves. Cooper, Genia, Turner, Gill, Horwill, Simmons, Slipper ... this could come close to bilateral Test-match intensity. But if the Sharks stick to their template, and the increasingly healthier home gates play their part in cajolement terms, they really should extend their unbeaten record.

    Key head-to-head: Fully aware that veteran Victor Matfield is picking up a definite head of steam in his comeback, gifted Sharks No 5 lock Pieter-Steph du Toit would have been intent on retaining his own early-season appetite in the second row. But Du Toit’s exasperating midweek injury setback sees lanky STEPHAN LEWIES hastily drafted in ... and drawn straight into a taxing tussle with the Reds’ experienced captain and Wallabies stalwart JAMES HORWILL. I have a strange hunch that the 2.00m and 22-year-old Lewies, whose lineout competence always impresses me, will fill the Du Toit boots surprisingly decently. Yes, you heard it here first.  

    Recent history between teams: May 10, 2013: Reds 32 Sharks 17 (Brisbane)  

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Sharks by nine points

    SA GAME 2

    CHIEFS v STORMERS, Hamilton

    When: Friday, 08:35 SA time

    Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: New Zealand panel

    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, showers possible

    Background: The Chiefs must be considered pretty firm favourites here, especially given that the touring Capetonians have had a cruel, mere six-day turnaround from being squeezed out by the iconic Crusaders. If the champions happen to make a forceful start on the scoreboard, I also just wonder if the Stormers’ minds will begin to drift to their slightly less perilous Aussie leg? Not aiding the SA team’s cause is the catalogue of injuries wreaking havoc with their depth - it is making all-important continuity in combinations difficult. But hope springs eternal: the Stormers, buoyed by Jean de Villiers’s 100th appearance, have never actually feared overseas travel, and they have a staggeringly good away record against the Chiefs, with four wins from eight clashes in the territory of the Mooloo Men. There’s also that stubborn-as-a-mule defence of theirs ...

    Key head-to-head: Bobbing, weaving GIO APLON, not for the first time, could be a key figure among the outside backs if the Stormers are to maintain their determination to improve their offensive thrust. (It is not yet reflected on paper this year, as they boast only three tries from as many starts.) TIM NANAI-WILLIAMS is the similarly elusive and swift customer in the Chiefs’ No 14 jersey, who will be Aplon’s direct rival in this clash. A former NZ Sevens star, he always takes quite some policing ...

    Recent history between teams: March 9, 2013: Stormers 36 Chiefs 34 (Cape Town)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Chiefs by seven points

    SA GAME 3

    LIONS v BLUES, Johannesburg

    When: Saturday, 15:00

    Referee: Stuart Berry (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Hugh Bladen and Joel Stransky (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers and Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka and Kaya Malotana (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, almost windless

    Background: Let’s get this straight at the outset to diehard Lions fans: they have a fair old chance in this fixture. Johan Ackermann’s charges have been much more competitive than many of us expected, even as their record has slipped to “won two, lost two” after that flying start. Now comes their first non-derby of the campaign, so it will be interesting to see how they adapt to the demands of tackling free-running – not to mention quite fickle in this case - NZ foes. I have a suspicion that the Blues, irked by the Loftus loss last weekend, will be right up for this safari-finisher and perhaps just do enough to break Doornfontein hearts. But I say it with no special conviction, particularly if the unsung but seriously unified Lions pack comes to the party in a big way.

    Key head-to-head: Super Rugby rookie SCHALK VAN DER MERWE, 23, put up a particularly spirited scrummaging display against the Sharks’ gnarly Springbok tighthead Jannie du Plessis last weekend, and the good doctor generously admitted the Lions pack as a whole had been the best they’d encountered thus far in 2014. Now the Tzaneen-born loosehead encounters another rugged Test player in the Blues’ 130kg (about two of those kilos come in beard?) CHARLIE FAUMUINA. The Lions will be hoping Van der Merwe makes life so hard for Faumuina in the boiler room that the All Black doesn’t get to show his apparent “footwork of a ballerina” ...

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

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Blues by four points

    SA GAME 4

    HURRICANES v CHEETAHS, Wellington

    When: Saturday, 05:35 (SA time)

    Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: New Zealand panel

    Weather outlook: Cloudy, mild, chance of light rain, breezy

    Background: The Cheetahs have been my disappointments of the SA conference so far, even after they saw off the Bulls in the mud before their overseas trip began. There’s just something missing in the mental department, isn’t there? It’s almost as if they are still wallowing in their 2013 qualification for the finals series, and seem to believe they can just pitch up to make the fairytale happen all over again. With the Hurricanes hardly setting the New Zealand group alight, this could be the Cheetahs’ best chance of returning from their four-match tour with at least one triumph. But their defensive commitment will have to improve tenfold for them to dominate at the often windy old Westpac ...

    Key head-to-head: I am greatly looking forward to the flyhalf battle between two highly promising small-town boys: the Cheetahs’ Burgersdorp-born JOHAN GOOSEN and ‘Canes counterpart BEAUDEN BARRETT, who grew up on a farm in Taranaki. They have certain similarities in being young (Goosen 21, Barrett 22) and already Test-capped for their respective countries – the baby-faced New Zealander considerably more so, given Goosen’s bad luck with injuries thus far in his first-class career. But both have thrilling, match-winning potential, so cling tightly to your early-morning coffee mug back on SA soil, won’t you?

    Recent history between teams:  May 10, 2013: Cheetahs 34 Hurricanes 39 (Bloemfontein)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Hurricanes by 12 points

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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