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    Sharks to fire in Big Smoke

    2014-04-10 09:39
    Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing

    Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in his regular South African-geared Super Rugby preview, tips a Sharks win at Ellis Park to strengthen their hold at the top of the overall table.

    But again he envisages a close defeat for the Bulls in Dunedin, plus the wild-and-woolly Cheetahs being outfoxed by the Crusaders in Bloemfontein.

    SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP

    LIONS v SHARKS, Johannesburg

    When: Saturday, 19:10

    Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce and Bob Skinstad (Eng), Breyton Paulse and Hennie Koortzen (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja and Makhaya Jack (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, near-windless

    Background: I know they say byes can be more of a curse than a blessing in terms of the danger of taking a team off the boil, but a week off after the veritable “war” against the Waratahs at Kings Park was probably no bad thing for the log-leading Sharks. They’ll be suitably primed for derby battle with the Lions in the Big Smoke and it is difficult to see them being stopped. Jake White will have drummed in the importance of staying thoroughly focused for victories in each of the next three weeks (Lions away, then Cheetahs and Highlanders home). That scenario coming to fruition would ease the pressure on his charges to have to win all the time on their overseas tour – they’d certainly stay right in the title picture if they earned, say, two victories in the four starts in Australasia. Being at home, the Lions do have a 30-40 percent victory chance, especially given the true grit that has propelled them along so far. But I also suspect that rival outfits are better able to “read” them as we near the midway stage of ordinary season, and can plan more meticulously for what the red-and-whites will try to throw at them. And what they do hurl against the Bok-laden Sharks won’t be enough this weekend! Four tries for the visitors? Quite possibly.

    Key head-to-head: Monument High School product JULIAN REDELINGHUYS may not be the beefiest specimen ever to pull on a tighthead’s jersey, but from a technical point of view he seems to be developing in leaps and bounds in his maiden Super Rugby season for the Lions. Yes, some harsh lessons were also learnt along the way, but for good passages of last weekend the home pack gave as good as they got against the much-vaunted Crusaders scrum. Redelinghuys gave stalwart ‘Saders loosehead Wyatt Crockett – a nine-year veteran of the competition and oft-capped All Black – some awkward moments and this week he can have a crack at South Africa’s top-rated No 1 customer, the Sharks’ iconic TENDAI MTAWARIRA. I feel the tighthead situation beneath Jannie du Plessis at Bok level remains reasonably fluid, so the Lions youngster could tick some boxes in the mind of Heyneke Meyer if he resists the Beast well enough on Saturday. (*The Lions line-up was still awaited at the time of writing, though there seemed no reason for Redelinghuys not to play.)

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

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Sharks by 12 points

    SA GAME 2

    HIGHLANDERS v BULLS, Dunedin

    When: Friday, 09:35 SA time

    Referee: Rohan Hoffman (Aus)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: New Zealand panel

    Weather outlook: Indoor venue

    Background: Don’t get me wrong, the Bulls can win this one: the main reason why I have to reluctantly suggest they won’t is that there have been no South African victories abroad yet in 2014, so it just seems the smartest approach until the situation finally changes! I wrote earlier this week that the Highlanders are the NZ franchise most vulnerable historically to home defeat by South Africans, so hope spring eternal for the Bulls in this clash of mid-table sides – both have 50 percent records as things stand. Even given that Victor Matfield is reassuringly back in the playing mix, I’d feel a lot more comfortable about tipping a visiting triumph at Forsyth Barr Stadium if the Bulls had better balance in their loose trio. They are badly understaffed in open-siders now that Deon Stegmann has succumbed to fresh injury; I’d even go so far as to say more urgency was required in temporary recruitment terms to try to plug the specialist No 6 hole. The Highlanders’ own Shane Christie has been a tireless presence at the art this season. To win, the Bulls may need their set-piece to function particularly smoothly – and there’s a better chance of it happening in the lineouts than at scrum-time where the hosts have a pretty proud ethic.

    Key head-to-head: Although the clash of gnarly No 4 locks, Flip van der Merwe v Brad Thorn, has good appeal too, the pick is probably at scrumhalf where nippy, resourceful current All Black AARON SMITH comes up against a slightly “forgotten” Springbok in the form of FRANCOIS HOUGAARD. Considering that someone like Ruan Pienaar is in a race against time to be fit for the start of the Test season, a fresh gap in the Bok squad may exist at No 9, so this is an ideal opportunity for Hougaard to underline his comeback claims. He’s been looking a bit more like the feverishly-committed livewire of old this season, even if his clearance kicks at close quarters are perhaps still just a bit more susceptible to charge-down than they ought to be ...  

    Recent history between teams: May 18 2013: Bulls 35 Highlanders 18 (Pretoria)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Highlanders by three points

    SA GAME 3

    CHEETAHS v CRUSADERS, Bloemfontein

    When:
    Saturday, 17:05


    Referee
    : Glen Jackson (NZ)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Hugh Bladen and Joel Stransky (Eng), Christo Olivier and Werner Swanepoel (Afrik), Kaya Malotana and Lungelo Payi (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Sunny, warm, light breeze

    Background: I’m not sure we’ll see another “86-points fest” at the Free State Stadium this weekend, and of course it probably won’t be a draw, either. But the half-century mark may well be breached again, and I fear from a South African point of view that the improving, once-mighty Crusaders will be organisationally slick enough to pick up the bulk of those points on offer. They will be mightily wary of an early Cheetahs blitz, given what transpired last Saturday ... yet also back themselves, perhaps, to be the stronger finishers, as compatriots the Chiefs were at this ground. Highveld air? Pah, the New Zealand sides actually appear to embrace it! That’s not to say that the hosts won’t have a puncher’s chance. If they can marry last week’s 40-minute attacking panache with much more resilient defensive alignment and stamina, a first Cheetahs victory since February 21 (when they beat the Bulls in the rain 15-9) is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

    Key head-to-head: While we’ve still seen snatches of his sublime counter-attacking skills and uncanny awareness of what is going on around him, Cheetahs backline libero WILLIE LE ROUX has also suffered just a bit with his team’s broader decline this season. Similarly, it hasn’t been all plain sailing in 2014 for ISRAEL DAGG, his equivalent for thrill-factor among the Crusaders’ back three (Dagg was even demoted to the ‘Saders bench a few weeks back.)  Now these two crowd-pulling internationals come up against each other in what could well turn into a fast-tempo spectacle on a firm surface. Ahead of the Rugby Championship, it is also an opportunity for both men – the designated fullbacks on Saturday, though expect to see them pop up elsewhere, too – to serve notice that they’re very much back in the groove in good time for the year’s Test-match challenges between the mighty powers they represent ...

    Recent history between teams: No meeting last season

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Crusaders by seven points

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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