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    Sharks’ white-knuckle game!

    2015-02-20 11:00

    Rob Houwing - Sport24

    Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the second of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, fancies the Sharks to stabilise themselves this weekend at the expense of conference rivals the Lions - but only after an epic struggle in expected damp conditions.

    VIDEO: Friday's Super Rugby predictions

    VIDEO: Saturday's Super Rugby predictions

    He also thinks the Stormers, so impressive in their Loftus victory last time out, will extend their early-season thrust by beating first New Zealand challengers of the year, the Blues, at Newlands.

    The Bulls, meanwhile, should show enough bounce-back desperation to hold off the dangerous, free-running Hurricanes at Loftus, although it is again not said with special confidence ...


    SHARKS v LIONS, Durban

    When: Saturday, 19:10

    Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Aus)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & AJ Venter (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Kaya Malotana & Lungelo Payi (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Rain, warm, strong breeze

    Background: Let’s be honest, as Naas Botha might gratifyingly say in the SuperSport studio ... another defeat here would potentially be disastrous for the Sharks, even at this very early point of the campaign. After all, looking at the fixture list in pre-season, the Durban faithful would have though “Cheetahs and Lions at home first up? We should win these”. Well, one opportunity has already been bungled, so a second slip-up would be horror-show stuff for the new regime at Kings Park, especially with a first away foray to Loftus imminent. But will the Lions play willing dead? Hardly. They had great opportunities to beat the Hurricanes last weekend, only to fluff them either through poor place-kicking or some questionable option-taking. The visitors also pride themselves in their scrum, and it could be a useful weapon if the going is heavy, as anticipated. Warren Whiteley and company will also be acutely aware that the Sharks remain short of certain essential, experienced personnel and thus vulnerable in some departments. Still, the Sharks won both these derbies quite comfortably last season and mostly on that basis I back them to squeeze out this one ... not before some heart-stopping moments, mind.

    Key head-to-head: If consistent running rugby looks a forlorn hope due to the fickle KZN elements, then securing of healthy field position and accuracy in shots at the posts could be key factors in the outcome: and here rival flyhalves PAT LAMBIE (Sharks) and visiting counterpart MARNITZ BOSHOFF will obviously play pivotal roles. The latter is under pressure to restore his famed success rate after an unusually shaky showing in the Currie Cup final late last year and then also the Super Rugby opener of 2015. Boshoff, 26, is a one-cap Springbok – a late sub appearance against Scotland at Port Elizabeth last year – and he is edged for top-flight experience by Lambie, who has already amassed 40 appearances for his country despite being two years younger. It is just possible the Sharks man may be forced to show his all-round qualities behind a labouring engine room ...    

    Last result between sides: April 12, 2014: Lions 12 Sharks 25 (Johannesburg)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Sharks by one point

    SA GAME 2

    STORMERS v BLUES, Cape Town

    When: Saturday, 17:05

    Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Bob Skinstad (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Makhaya Jack (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Fine, cool, stiff breeze

    Background: I am a little surprised that 2014 standout Nizaam Carr cannot yet find a starting place for the Stormers, though presumably the medical and coaching staff know best about his recovery from pre-season illness and believe in filtering him back slowly via the bench. So instead of one of Michael Rhodes or Rynhardt Elstadt shifting to No 4 lock to fill the Jean Kleyn injury vacancy, there’s a demanding start offered to young Jurie van Vuuren in the second row – mind you, he showed encouraging signs in the second half at Loftus. The Stormers may need to repeat their collective desire exhibited in the derby for this one, as their opponents ran the Chiefs close in the first round and will believe a successful raid abroad is achievable. But Allister Coetzee’s charges will feel the love from the Newlands faithful in their first home game under likely clear skies, and should use the volume of support to decisive effect ...

    Key head-to-head: Well, I can’t wait to see how emerging Stormers tighthead factor Vincent Koch goes against serious All Black veteran Tony Woodcock at scrum-time, but as I just had to get that story angle off my, er, chest much earlier in the week, how about the No 8 scrap instead between two international heavyweights in rival captains DUANE VERMEULEN – making his 100th Super Rugby appearance here - and JEROME KAINO? They never get to start directly head to head at Test level, of course, because Kaino is mainly a blindside flanker these days as the great Kieran Read wears No 8 for New Zealand. But a positional duel is possible in this competition, and if Vermeulen is as dynamic and urgent as he was against the Bulls in Pretoria, I tip a mini home win in this particular jersey!

    Last result between sides: May 3, 2013: Blues 18 Stormers 17 (Albany)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Stormers by seven points

    SA GAME 3

    BULLS v HURRICANES, Pretoria

    When: Friday, 19:10

    Referee: Andrew Lees (Aus)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Joel Stransky & Owen Nkumane (Eng), John van Rensburg & Jaco van der Westhuyzen (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Alfred Mzizi (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, gentle breeze

    Background: If the Sharks have a nervy date in Durban, this one is that too for the Bulls. They were most disappointing despite their seemingly superior initial look on paper against the Stormers, and the dangerously unpredictable ‘Canes will certainly fancy their prospects of a prestigious SA-turf double to signal their intentions for the season. Who knows, if the Bulls are pressing for a playoffs place a few months onward, they would hate to have to think back to a home slip-up against these foes as a big reason for failing to make the cut. The Bulls need greater unity of purpose, for starters, this weekend and require seasoned characters like Victor Matfield, Pierre Spies (back as skipper), Adriaan Strauss and Deon Stegmann to lead the charge for key domination up front. If the Hurricanes instead boss proceedings there ... ouch, watch out. 

    Key head-to-head: Albeit behind a largely back-pedalling pack, Bulls inside centre JAN SERFONTEIN played fairly clear second fiddle to vibrant Capetonian opposite number Damian de Allende at Loftus last Saturday, and that was a bit educative as his more favoured No 12 berth is available for the first few Bok Tests of 2015, at least until captain Jean de Villiers makes his planned, desired comeback from serious injury. Serfontein could sharpen up both on defence and attack, frankly ... and that won’t be the easiest of tasks as he faces Hurricanes and All Blacks freight train MA’A NONU in the channel this time. Nonu is back from childbirth obligations to add further spark to a lethal-looking visiting back division on the Highveld. So it’s a fine chance for Serfontein to start ticking the right boxes again, if he can.  

    Last result between sides: April 5, 2014: Hurricanes 25 Bulls 20 (Napier)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by five points

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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