Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in his regular South African-geared Super Rugby preview, tips another Sharks win against the Highlanders – though less likely for the slightly tiring log-leaders is a four-try bonus point.
Bravely, he brings himself to back the Bulls for a belated victory in their final overseas tour game against the Force, while suggesting the Stormers will just pip the Cheetahs in the “wooden spoon” battle in Bloemfontein.When:
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
SHARKS v HIGHLANDERS, Durban
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce and Owen Nkumane (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers and Vlok Cilliers (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja and Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, light breeze
Background: Again, this may not be pretty from the Sharks, who will go into the Friday-nighter deeply aware that they’ve got to step shortly afterwards onto a long-haul flight for their overseas leg. It is for that reason that I suspect they may “do enough” but not necessarily sparkle against the New Zealand south islanders, and find the four-try bonus point elusive. That said, there is good scope in this Sharks back division for some welcome fleet-footedness: the back three of in-form Lwazi Mvovo, fit-again JP Pietersen and S’bura Sithole (shifted from midfield) has rich promise on paper, and Paul Jordaan resumes his centre alliance with Frans Steyn after a stint on the crocked list. Of course it would be crazy to under-estimate the Highlanders, who have quietly slipped right into playoffs contention in eighth overall, but with a game in hand over every side above them that could effectively see them soar several spots if they won it. Still, they were downed 28-16 in their last Durban visit two years ago, look noticeably light on big-name All Blacks in the pack, and an away triumph again looks just beyond them, I think ...
Key head-to-head: I have already mentioned the name of LWAZI MVOVO and the Sharks’ gasman at the back might again come into his own for sizzling, defence-splitting bursts if the home team manage to establish a decent overall tempo. He is perhaps still not the ideal all-round fullback, though not been too exposed yet either in positional terms or for the array of defensive responsibilities that go with the job. His opposite number will be another slippery, attack-conscious character in the Highlanders’ “co-captain” (with No 8 Nasi Manu) BEN SMITH. The New Zealander is a joy to watch on his mazy, inventive runs ... except if you support the other team, of course.
Last result between teams: May 4, 2013: Highlanders 25 Sharks 22 (Dunedin)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Sharks by six pointsSA GAME 2WESTERN FORCE v BULLS, Perth
When: Saturday, 11:40 SA time
Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Australian panel
Weather outlook: Cloudy, warm, gentle breeze
Background: Do the Bulls still have enough petrol in the tank, both mentally and physically, to win their final fixture abroad and break their duck? I have a sneaky feeling they’ll be right up for achieving just that ... and have put money where mouth is in my risky prediction! Much will depend on whether they can prevent the Force getting a head of steam early in a game of critical playoffs importance for both protagonists (and particularly the gradually slipping Bulls). Should the home outfit get ahead on the board rapidly, as happened when the Waratahs’ Israel Folau dotted down so early against the Highvelders in Sydney last weekend, there is always the risk of one-foot-on-the-plane syndrome setting in among the Bulls players. But with a fiery collective performance from the visiting pack, four or even five precious points is not out of the question. Psst, have the Force been punching a tad above their weight in 2014? Use it, don’t use it ...
Key head-to-head: You have to feel for poor JONO ROSS, no specialist open-side flanker ... and sadly it has often shown in the many Bulls matches this season where Deon Stegmann has been sidelined. His name is highlighted here not so much because of any stellar personal performances in the No 6 shirt, but because once again he will be desperately urged to up his “fish out of water” game in a key encounter. Life will not be easy, once more, as his direct rival for the Force is a tried-and-trusted fetcher in the form of 32-year-old veteran MATT HODGSON, also the Perth team’s captain and a stalwart since their debut in Super Rugby back in the 2006 season. Ross cannot be expected to scavenge and slow down matters on the deck alone for the tourists, of course ... he’ll need good support from the likes of mobile hooker Bongi Mbonambi if the Bulls are to rectify a chronically weak area.
Last result between teams: March 2, 2013: Bulls 36 Force 26 (Pretoria)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by three pointsSA GAME 3CHEETAHS v STORMERS, Bloemfontein
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Hanyani Shimange and Warren Brosnihan (Eng), Christo Olivier and Werner Swanepoel (Afrik), Kaya Malotana and Lungelo Payi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, gentle breeze
Background: If you’d suggested at the start of the season that this mid-campaign, Bloemfontein-staged derby would have dreadfully little relevance in the playoffs race, someone might have suggested you have your head read. But it is indeed a basement scrap, rather summing up how the two relative “mighties” have fallen in 2014. Picking a winner is a difficult exercise: the visitors look fractionally stronger on paper, by my calculation, and do come off a reasonably heartening overdue win against the Lions at Newlands. But the Cheetahs were, at the very least, less porous in their Durban loss to the Sharks, so if the defence is slowly sorting itself out, it may also be a catalyst for raised attacking confidence too. This truly could go either way. Eeny, meeny ...
Key head-to-head: Yes, I know the mecurial WILLIE LE ROUX has featured a couple of times already in this slot. But with not a huge amount to lose for either labouring side in this dubious Saturday evening “showpiece game” in South Africa, we might just be treated to some adventurous, high-risk rugby – something of more than passing interest to the single-minded Springbok, I’m sure. He is at left wing for the Cheetahs here, and comes up against a Stormers No 14, DAMIAN DE ALLENDE, who has been one of the brighter, more consistent performers in the miserable Stormers’ campaign. They’re trying to restore some snap, energy and unpredictability to the Cape side’s mix, and the rugged but skilful and hard-running De Allende will likewise find that quest to his liking. He will also know that tackling is not the otherwise outrageously gifted Le Roux’s favourite suit.
Last result between teams: June 29, 2013: Stormers 28 Cheetahs 3 (Cape Town)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Stormers by one point
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