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    Why Bulls will end Sharks’ run

    2014-03-20 13:18
    Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing
    Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in his regular South African-geared Super Rugby preview, daringly (or is it daftly?) predicts victory for the Bulls over the table-topping Sharks at Loftus on Saturday night.

    But he does not envisage further SA wins for any of the Stormers, Cheetahs or Lions, even if the last-named team have proved him wrong a few times this season ...

    SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP

    BULLS v SHARKS, Pretoria

    When: Saturday, 19:10
    Referee: Mike Fraser (NZ)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce and Robbie Kempson (Eng), Hennie Koortzen and Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Kaya Malotana (Xho), Hanyani Shimange (sideline)

    Weather outlook: Fine, mild, light breeze

    Background: I fully appreciate that – not for the first time in my sportswriting career – this could be foot-in-it time. Much higher up the anatomy, I’m sticking with the noises in my head that are telling me the Bulls, fortified by a bye, will throw themselves at the Sharks on a revenge mission with glee. And pull it off! The Bulls have looked a different kettle of fish since their return to Loftus and home advantage – hopefully we’ll get a vibrant derby crowd in – could just tilt things their way again. Of course my prediction won’t find favour with every bookie, and nor am I casting any doubts on the Sharks’ real title prospects this year. But the longer a winning run goes on, the more difficult it is to sustain. My pro-Bulls sentiment for this one is also based around the big improvement in their set-pieces – especially scrum-time – whilst the fast-tracking of proven Super Rugby customer Dewald Potgieter to No 8 also gives their loose trio a stronger and more balanced feel. Psst, anyone think Jannie du Plessis will try to explain binding principles once more to Kiwi ref Mike Fraser?

    Key head-to-head: In the first-round meeting a few weeks ago, the credentials of exciting young JAN SERFONTEIN took a wee knock: he got a master v pupil (and he was the latter!) lesson from an uncompromising , who showed a combination of brute power and guile to get a key advantage at inside centre. A couple of times he simply bumped off his opposite number. To his credit, Serfontein has since bounced back with some aplomb, being an inspiring figure in successive Bulls victories at Loftus. I’d suggest he will more “ready” this time ...

    Recent history between teams: February 15, 2014: Sharks 31 Bulls 16 (Durban)  

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by two points

    SA GAME 2

    LIONS v REDS, Johannesburg

    When: Saturday, 17:05
    Referee: Stuart Berry (SA)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: Hugh Bladen and Bob Skinstad (Eng), John van Rensburg and Breyton Paulse (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja and Makhaya Jack (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Sunny, mild, light breeze

    Background: Tell you what, Lions fans ... because I so often suggest they’ll lose and they then do the very opposite, I’ll stick to the status quo: Reds to prove too strong! I do believe the Queenslanders, laden with keynote Wallabies, will improve on their slightly ill-disciplined loss to the Sharks and eye a full house of points on the fast and (if it’s not lashing down) hard Ellis Park surface. For one thing, I cannot see the Lions producing as sublime a first half as they managed against the Blues – and thank goodness for that 17-0 head start, because they were so nearly run off their feet after the break. Nevertheless, their young pack continues to impress for unity of purpose and Marnitz Boshoff should be a points-scoring factor again. But there’s also plenty of attacking ammo in the Reds ranks, and I will be very surprised if we get a 12-10 sort of result in this one. It could be more like 35-28, and I do tip the Lions to get the consolation of a losing “BP”.

    Key head-to-head: The Boshoff-Quade Cooper tussle just outside them has great appeal too, but I’m opting for the clash of the nippy No 9s as a potential high point of this game: the Lions emerging FAF DE KLERK, the 22-year-old from the Lowveld, gets to pit his skills against a proven old trooper of both international and Super Rugby in WILL GENIA. The local lad will surrender tons in experience, but that shouldn’t overly daunt one of the major figures in the unsung Lions’ relatively high ride thus far – I think De Klerk’s peripheral awareness is a particularly pleasing aspect of his armoury and might just interest Heyneke Meyer in a few weeks’ time.

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

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Reds by seven points

    SA GAME 3

    BRUMBIES v STORMERS, Canberra

    When: Saturday, 10:40 SA time
    Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: Australian panel

    Weather outlook: Cloudy (chance of shower), mild, windless

    Background: The Brumbies did very well to repel the previously unbeaten Waratahs’ second-half onslaught in their engaging Aussie derby last weekend, so they should be in good shape mentally for the challenge of the Stormers. They are slowly convincing everyone that there can be life after Jake White, aren’t they? The hosts must be branded favourites, even if a few Stormers players will have reasonably clear, pleasant memories of a drought-breaking 16-3 win at Canberra Stadium in 2011. Best weapon the Stormers have, maybe, is desperation: they know that the more they keep losing on tour, the harder it will be to stay in the playoffs running when they return for a longish run of fixtures back on SA soil and mostly at Newlands. For all their injury problems, the starting XV Allister Coetzee has mustered here doesn’t look too bad. They have a puncher’s chance but sadly will hit the canvas themselves, I reckon, even as they potentially bank a bonus point. Losing can become a tad too habitual ...

    Key head-to-head: Not only have the Stormers finally reintroduced street-wise PETER GRANT to the flyhalf spot, which ought to give them more natural “go-forward” ability in the channel, but he comes up against a player he would once have mentored when he was briefly in the WP fold ... the Brumbies’ now highly-rated Wallaby MATT TOOMUA. The last-named player was a callow teenager when he had a stint at Newlands in 2009, but the cerebral Melbourne-born pivot has clearly benefited from picking up some rugby and more general education abroad.

    Recent history between teams: March 23, 2013: Stormers 35 Brumbies 22 (Cape Town)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Brumbies by six points

    SA GAME 4

    BLUES v CHEETAHS, Auckland


    When: Saturday, 08:35 (SA time)
    Referee: Francisco Pastrana (Arg)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: New Zealand panel

    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, gentle breeze

    Background: When you have had a really atrocious first three outings (zero points out of a possible 15) preceding it, the last fixture of a tour must be quite some psychological bridge to cross. Can the leaky Cheetahs miraculously get up for the Eden Park encounter with the Blues? I have grave doubts, given the greater likelihood of one-foot-on-the-plane syndrome. Quite why the men from Bloemfontein have been so bad is a mystery, considering their three-wins-out-of-four feat abroad last season. It’s not as though the personnel changes subsequently have been vast (though Robert Ebersohn and Lourens Adriaanse are clearly missed, and Coenie Oosthuizen’s early flight home didn’t help). Rayno Benjamin as makeshift inside centre, and possibly up against a fit-again bruiser Ma’a Nonu at some stage in the fixture? All you can say is good luck! There is one ray of light: the Blues will be returning from their winless South African trek, so might be jet-lagged. But they also felt diddled by one or two refereeing calls in the Ellis Park loss to the Lions, so that could instead act as a home-town motivator ... and sadly will, by my book.  

    Key head-to-head: With respect, the fact that he is up against JAMES PARSONS – not the Blues’ first-choice hooker; All Black Keven Mealamu is still injured – is not a particularly relevant matter. But I have highlighted the duel between the No 2s because it is of the utmost importance to the Cheetahs’ slim hopes of winning, I feel, that skipper ADRIAAN STRAUSS produce a barnstorming, lead-by-example sort of performance if they are to collectively find some mojo. So far this season, the popular Springbok has been a rather subdued figure by his standards ... possibly feeling the effects of a couple of seasons of gross personal overload?

    Recent history between teams: July 6, 2013: Cheetahs 34 Blues 13 (Bloemfontein)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Blues by 20 points

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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