Why Bulls have Durban edge

    2012-07-06 08:16
    Cape Town - Rob Houwing, in his South African Super Rugby Round 17 preview, believes the Bulls have the continuity to pip the Sharks in their own den on Friday.


    SHARKS v BULLS, Durban

    When: Friday, 19:10
    Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    Long-range weather forecast:

    Clear skies, mild, light breeze.

    What is it about these teams and end-of-campaign “eliminators”? This game comes in the second-last round so there are still some interesting permutations ahead, regardless of who wins here -- but the result ought to be massively influential to both team’s onward prospects in 2012, nevertheless. Last season at Loftus, when the Sharks edged a thriller, it was in the very final round and dumped the Bulls out of the finals series. Two factors possibly count against a Sharks win: the absence of Willem Alberts in the engine room and Pat Lambie behind it, and the fact that rustiness is a possibility – they had a bye last weekend so couldn’t climb straight back on the Super Rugby bike after the Test window. That said, if the derby factor can’t pump them up, nothing will! 

    Key head-to-head:
    When these teams met in that decisive match in Pretoria at the end of last year’s ordinary season, FREDDIE MICHALAK’s flair and unpredictability on the day (those last three words always a consideration with the Frenchman!) played a key role in the Sharks nipping into the playoffs at the expense of their opponents. If he delivers to that calibre once more, the Sharks will feel less gloomy about Lambie’s untimely absence from the backline. But Springbok MORNE STEYN is probably feeling a bit better in the Bulls’ flyhalf channel after an improved showing in the mostly ruthless disposal of the Cheetahs at Loftus and, in his slightly different way, will be a big factor if the visiting pack gets a head of steam.

    Recent history:
    In the first round of the 2012 campaign, the Sharks visited Loftus and were downed 18-13, Steyn greedily bagging all the home team’s points via his trusty right boot. But the Sharks boss overall Super Rugby meetings between the two 10-7, and hold a 5-3 advantage at Mr Price Kings Park. The last meeting there in 2011, mind, was clinched by the visitors 32-23.

    Rob Houwing’s prediction:
    Judge the Bulls’ current form, I feel, on their sweeping into a 40-0 lead against the Cheetahs, not their concession of 24 points late on! I suspect that the non-presence of big Willem Alberts will rob the Sharks of valuable “go forward” in what ought to be another bone-crunching SA derby; they’ve also had some second-row disruption so gifted young Pieter-Steph du Toit faces a taxing start against the Bulls’ Bok pairing of Flip van der Merwe and Juandre Kruger. It’s a tricky pick, this one, but a gut feel says that not even the incumbent Test front row for the Sharks will be quite enough to keep the Bulls out – the visitors by three points, perhaps?

    SA GAME 2

    CHEETAHS v STORMERS, Bloemfontein

    When: Saturday, 15:00
    Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    Long-range weather forecast:
    Chance of rain, gentle breeze.

    The Stormers will be well aware that any visit to the Free State Stadium in Super Rugby is a potential banana-peel affair ... the Cheetahs are just that sort of side, and have been for many years. Coach Allister Coetzee insists his charges will not be too distracted by what happens in the log-influencing earlier (both Friday) games between the Chiefs and Crusaders and Sharks and Bulls, but let’s just say the visitors are sure to be especially “up for it” if the pace-setting Chiefs have been taken down a notch at Waikato Stadium. Perhaps it’s foolhardy to suggest Naka Drotske’s charges have “momentum” simply because they scored 24 unanswered points after the horse had nastily bolted on them in Pretoria? 

    Key head-to-head:
    Considering their sometimes glaring woes in this department against the Lions, the conference-leading Stormers having STEVEN KITSHOFF back at loosehead prop after a very necessary break is a comfort of note at scrum-time. Mind you, we have to remember that the nuggety redhead is also still learning the trade, and there is no guarantee he is going to simply pitch up and dominate the Cheetahs’ back-in-favour No 3 WP NEL, doubtless chuffed to crash over the chalk twice in the rearguard action at Loftus last weekend. He also has a reasonably low centre of gravity so scrummaging monitors ought to enjoy this duel.

    Recent history:
    The unusual (for these sides) mass punch-up was probably the most “exciting” aspect when the teams met in the Newlands fixture back on May 12 ... for the record, the Stormers edged a true bore-fest 16-14. The visitors will be heartened by what happened in the corresponding Bloemfontein fixture last season: it was also played late in the campaign and the Stormers prevailed 44-34. Why, they even got a four-try bonus point ...

    Rob Houwing’s prediction:
    Don’t discount the upset! But all things considered, the Stormers – at least fielding a full-strength backline despite their ongoing injury woes at loose forward – ought to be smart enough to get over the line even if rare, possible mid-winter rain at the rock-hard venue acts as some kind of leveller. Stormers by seven.

    SA GAME 3

    LIONS v REBELS, Johannesburg

    When: Saturday, 17:05
    Referee: Francisco Pastrana (Arg)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD

    Long-range weather forecast:
    Sunny, cool, gentle breeze.

    Now here’s an unlikely candidate for “main feature” of the South African weekend! But yes, the low-lying Lions and Rebels have the honour of last domestic kick-off of the round at Coca-Cola Park. It could be a decent battle, actually, with the 12th-placed Rebels three rungs higher on the overall table than the basement Lions, but the latter’s Highveld home advantage surely a factor. Josh Strauss and company, spirited at Newlands last time out, also have the incentive of victory perhaps lifting them off bottom spot, and the absence of Messrs Beale and O’Connor in the touring party robs the Rebels of much of their limited sting.

    Key head-to-head:
    The Rebels, just a little irritatingly, had not named their side at the time of writing, so any influential one-on-one comparison could not safely be made. Psst, does it matter a whole heap anyway?

    Recent history:
    These teams skirted each other last season, the Rebels’ first in the competition, so a maiden clash awaits us.

    Rob Houwing’s prediction:
    Perhaps we saw enough from the now Mitchell-less Lions, who came much closer to a seismic upset against the Stormers last week than some may realise, to suggest that they just about deserve the mantle of favourites here. With little at stake, it may be ding-dong and high-scoring. Hmm, Lions to nail it by five?

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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