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    Stormers to clinch conference

    2015-06-05 12:33

    Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in round 17 of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, tips a lid to finally be slammed on the Lions’ feel-good playoffs challenge in 2015 at Newlands on Saturday.

    Nervously, though, he backs their Highveld rivals the Bulls to just edge out the Rebels in Melbourne to maintain a pulse for the final round of ordinary season.

    As for the Cheetahs, he gives them only the faintest of chances of getting the “General Franco” regime off to a triumphant start against the trophy-holding Waratahs.

    *Rob is currently lying 206th out of 1,712 tipsters in the Sport24 Super Rugby predictions pool on SuperBru, and 14,593rd out of around 192,000 contestants globally with a win success record of 66%.


    STORMERS v LIONS, Cape Town

    When: Saturday, 17:05

    Referee: Stuart Berry (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Bob Skinstad (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Lungelo Payi & Mahkaya Jack (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Clear, cool, gentle breeze

    Background: It’s thoroughly fitting that the Cape winter weather ought to agreeably benign and mild for this monster meeting of the two best South African sides, and the game that will determine whether the Stormers clinch the conference with one round to spare. I won’t lay on too thick my prior contention that core Lions players are on borrowed batteries by now; their unyielding spirit somehow keeps powering them along despite “load-shedding” surely not being too far away. There will be various epic positional battles, and scrum gurus ought to be especially in their element, but I have to go with Naas Botha when he reminded on Boots & All that when in some doubt, opt for the home team. Enhancing that wisdom from a record-books perspective is that the Lions have not previously beaten the Capetonians in their own noisy den in Super Rugby. This is virtually a repeat of the 2014 Currie Cup final, when WP won a cliff-hanger, and if anything the Stormers team looks a lot more beefed-up with big names from that occasion than their opponents for the latest showdown. The Lions aren’t infusing an Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen or Schalk Burger at the coalface; that could be a telling difference, couldn’t it? Still, neutrals will be secretly hoping the Lions’ fairytale isn’t going to end just yet ...

    Key head-to-head: Certainly we’re all looking forward to the monumental scrap between two high-quality packs, both in terms of the set-piece and more general play, but I fancy the real dictators of this outcome – in a game that could have many tense, Test hallmarks -- may be the respective No 10s, both of them in decent form. DEMETRI CATRAKILIS of the Stormers continues to be ruthless off the tee with a success rate of over 90 percent, whilst his defence has been courageous and his hand skills have contributed to some good tries in recent weeks. ELTON JANTJIES has been just a bit less dead-eye at the posts, going at a fraction under 80 percent, but he is a key element of the Lions’ pleasing “total rugby” and was an electric attacking presence in last week’s deserved disposal of the Waratahs.

    Last result between sides: February 28, 2015: Lions 19 Stormers 22 (Johannesburg)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Stormers by seven points

    SA GAME 2

    REBELS v BULLS, Melbourne

    When: Saturday, 07:30 (SA time)

    Referee: Nick Briant (NZ)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Australian panel

    Weather outlook: Cloudy, cool, gentle breeze

    Background: Last chance saloon for the Bulls, rocked by three overseas losses on the trot and with anonymity beckoning dangerously this year. It’s a KO game for them, and I’m going to grit my teeth on that basis and venture a narrow, slightly rejuvenating victory for Frans Ludeke’s charges. (That despite SuperSport pundit and former All Black coach John Mitchell saying the Bulls are just too conservative and unimaginative and may well come a cropper again.) But the Rebels making the long trek home from their fruitless SA leg is another reason to hope the Bulls can sneak this one. Not helping is the absence of Handre Pollard and Adriaan Strauss, but Victor Matfield will marshall the pack and if loosehead prop Dean Greyling can stave off his propensity for leaking scrum penalties, the Bulls may rumble their way to a closely-fought triumph.

    Key head-to-head: Bulls captain and No 8 PIERRE SPIES copped some flak from TV pundits for his perceived failure to muck in properly in the loss to the Brumbies last weekend. It seemed a fair enough call on the day, although in fairness the muscle-laden Bok doesn’t look too shabby in some of the stats columns for the season thus far: for instance, he is just outside the top 10 in the competition for tackles made (138) which may surprise some. But he needs to lead by example in this do-or-die encounter, where he opposes a contrastingly mega-consistent customer – home-town skipper SCOTT HIGGINBOTHAM who is never far from the ball.

    Last result between sides: July 11 2014: Bulls 40 Rebels 7 (Pretoria)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by three points

    SA GAME 3

    CHEETAHS v WARATAHS, Bloemfontein

    When: Saturday, 15:00

    Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)

    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Joel Stransky (Eng), Christo Olivier & Derick Hougaard (Afrik), Alfred Mzizi & Lonwabo Mtimka (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, chilly, gentle breeze

    Background: It’s the beginning of a new era in Bloemfontein as Franco Smith takes charge as coach. I guess starting at home is no bad thing ... but the desperate, defending champions coming to town quickly negates that advantage. The Cheetahs have leaked 40 points or more in each of their last three fixtures, so will the ‘Tahs seek a much-needed full house in this one? You bet they will. I reckon the Cheetahs simply denying them four tries would be a moral victory of sorts. Man for man, the Aussie outfit hold virtually all the aces, and the fact that their opponents blood callow flyhalf Neil Marais and No 8 Neill Jordaan hardly suggests “Cheetahs win” is being tipped with mass conviction --either here or Down Under. Still, some ray of hope comes from a reasonably good historical record against these foes, and knowledge they prevailed last time out, when Raymond Rhule dotted twice in Sydney in 2013.

    Key head-to-head: New tactical mastermind Smith has included a recall to the starting mix of fullback COENIE VAN WYK among his array of changes for the Cheetahs. He says he wants to restore some traditional joy and adventure to the hosts’ playing style, so presumably will urge Van Wyk, the former Maties dynamo, to express himself as much as possible. (At least until one Willie le Roux probably begins a comeback off the bench.) That said, the Waratahs will wish as much from their own No 15 ISRAEL FOLAU, who had a butter-fingered shocker by his dizzy standards in Jo’burg. I know I don’t count myself among those foolish enough to expect a similarly off-colour showing from the Wallaby game-breaker at Free State Stadium ...

    Last result between sides: March 15, 2013: Waratahs 26 Cheetahs 27 (Sydney)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Waratahs by 16 points

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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