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    Why Cheetahs will stay in hunt

    2013-05-09 11:39
    Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in his regular South African Super Rugby preview, predicts wins for the Cheetahs and Stormers, but further setbacks for the Sharks and Kings this weekend.


    CHEETAHS v HURRICANES, Bloemfontein

    When: Friday, 19:10
    Referee: Stuart Berry (SA)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: Hugh Bladen and Joel Stransky (Eng), Christo Olivier and Werner Swanepoel (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja and Makhaya Jack (Xho) 
    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, light breeze

    Background: The portents look pretty good for the Cheetahs not only to stay firmly in the playoffs picture, but also to have a crack at winning the SA conference (even if the Bulls are arguably strong favourites now in that regard). They’ve just had the vital refreshment of a bye, and tackle travelling New Zealand opponents who come off a real walloping at the hands of the Bulls. But portents don’t necessarily win you matches, of course ... seasoned Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske will know that only too well. The biggest danger here is some sort of concerted ‘Canes backlash after Loftus. But do they have the grunt upfront to do it, and won’t they badly miss Conrad Smith’s spark and leadership in midfield? If the Cheetahs can keep any complacency off the table, they should pull this one off – though I just fancy it’ll be a fluctuating, crazy-paced old scrap, not unlike the last “Bloem” meeting between the two in 2011, when the visitors incredibly edged it by the novel 50-47 scoreline.

    Key head-to-head: Not surprisingly, the Cheetahs have indicated their desire to target the ropey old Hurricanes set-piece, but for connoisseurs of running rugby it is also well nigh impossible to overlook the tantalising one-on-one between electric rival wings WILLIE LE ROUX on the home team’s right and the slightly troubled dynamo JULIAN SAVEA on the ‘Canes left. Given the history of high scoring when theses foes meet, both instinctive attackers could come into their own in a big way, couldn’t they?

    Recent history between teams: March 31, 2012: Hurricanes 38 Cheetahs 47

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Cheetahs by two points

    SA GAME 2

    REDS v SHARKS, Brisbane

    When: Friday, 11:40
    Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    Commentators: Australian panel
    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, light breeze

    Background: The Sharks are on a streak ... it’s just not a hot one. Four debilitating defeats on the trot: it’s hard to install them as favourites under those circumstances against the 2011 champions, who certainly have fresh title aspirations two years on. The Reds will also be on something of a redemption drive, as they were held to an 11-11 draw by the mediocre Force in Perth last time out, so will eye this home fixture as a chance for restoration of normal service. As for the Sharks, sizing up their third overseas tour obligation, this is probably last chance saloon as far as staying in the playoffs hunt is concerned. They still don’t look the Full Monty, understandably, considering the weight of injuries in their camp, but there are enough quality individuals in their midst to suggest a rousing win isn’t entirely out of the question in a city where South African teams all too often come a cropper, whether at Super Rugby or Test level. But even ardent Sharks fans will be uncomfortable about prospects here, and you can hardly blame them.

    Key head-to-head: Isn’t it time for the real PAT LAMBIE to stand up? The Sharks flyhalf has generally still been banging over his goals reliably, which will be pleasing to Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, but then so has Morne Steyn ... and the latter is exhibiting much more in the way of all-round sparkle at present. Perhaps standing opposite that wily, single-minded string-puller QUADE COOPER on Friday will stir Lambie’s known creative juices – after all, we are getting to the point where the Sharks need not just wins but a few bouts of four-try harvests as well.

    Recent history between teams: July 21, 2012 (finals series qualifier): Reds 17 Sharks 30

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Reds by six points

    SA GAME 3


    When: Saturday, 11:40
    Referee: Chris Pollock (NZ)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    Commentators: Australian panel
    Weather outlook: Mild, possible light rain, gentle breeze

    Background: Do the Stormers still believe a late, spectacular charge is possible, or has a fatal part of them given up belief that they can stay contenders this season? Saturday will provide key evidence in that regard – as with compatriots the Sharks, defeat really could scupper all hopes of cracking the playoffs. If Allister Coetzee’s charges can muster the same intensity they showed in defeat against the Blues, but with better decision-making and a smaller error count, then victory in Sydney is well within their grasp – after all, they are one of relatively few sides slowly returning to fuller strength, rather than the other way around. Throw in the fact that the ‘Tahs are returning from a flight across the Indian Ocean, and the Stormers could well be in business. Their key is not to be nearly so limp defensively as the Kings were in PE last weekend, when Israel Folau and company really just got helpful pats on their way to the whitewash. And you do not ordinarily associate the Stormers with limp defence. Yes, I am surprisingly bullish. Then again, I backed them to lose to the Hurricanes and they won, and tipped them to beat the Blues and they lost ...

    Key head-to-head: Fresh-faced Waratahs open-side flank MICHAEL HOOPER is, according to reports in the Aussie press, hell-bent on retaining his fetching spot for the Wallabies in the signature series shortly against the British and Irish Lions ... who wouldn’t? Of course the availability of old Brumbies campaigner George Smith for the Aussie cause has only raised the bar further for Hooper to excel, so the Stormers’ hard-grafting open-sider SIYA KOLISI – not without 2013 Test aspirations himself – will know he’s up against a supremely focussed foe in the pilfering battle on Saturday.

    Recent history between teams: May 19, 2012: Stormers 19 Waratahs 13

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Stormers by five points

    SA GAME 4

    KINGS v HIGHLANDERS, Port Elizabeth

    When: Saturday, 17:05
    Referee: Jason Jaftha (SA)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: Info awaited
    Weather outlook: Cloudy, cool, light breeze

    Background: The Kings are currently deflating - after promising Super Rugby beginnings - faster than a balloon making contact with a sizzling frying pan.  Not used to the relentless pace and physical toll of this competition, they are mentally spent at present and an urgent bye is still a week away. This dubious “headline” game in South Africa for Saturday (featuring as it does the very teams placed 14th and 15th respectively overall) also looks a tough prospect for Luke Watson and company because their opponents, the Highlanders, will have their tails up at last after grittily seeing off the Sharks for a maiden 2013 win last Saturday. Gates are dropping at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium parallel with the Kings’ gradual fall, and I fear the PE faithful who do pitch up for the wooden-spoon clash are set for further angst. Just pray that it not be 10-72, which it certainly shouldn’t ...

    Key head-to-head: That gnarly old No 2 ANDREW HORE gleefully led the Highlanders in their special, thrilling triumph over the Sharks in Dunedin last weekend ... a result that happily snapped their eight-game losing run. The much-travelled, 34-year-old farmer will aim to inspire the Otago outfit to another conquest against the currently fragile Kings, for whom BANDISE MAKU, given his own six-year Super Rugby experience at hooker, is due a really rip-roaring performance not only at the set-pieces but in broader play.

    Recent history between teams: Not applicable

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Highlanders by 11 points

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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