Your SA S15 preview: Week 1
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
BULLS v SHARKS, Loftus
When: Friday, 19:10
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
Long-range weather forecast: Partly cloudy, warm, gentle breeze.
Background: The Sharks, many judges’ tips for SA conference supremacy this year, go straight into two treacherous away fixtures – the Bulls this weekend, the Stormers next – that could have a critical impact on their aspirations. And they dangerously do so without three pivotal, ball-carrying forwards in Beast Mtawarira, Jean Deysel and Willem Alberts. It’s the sort of leveller the Bulls may well relish, given their own liking for a confrontational game. An ever-present hunch tells me the Bulls will fare rather better than many expect this year: they aren’t suddenly blooding a whole bunch of pimply youths to compensate for the mass exodus of seasoned Springboks. And they’d be silly not to try to pressure via Juandre Kruger and company an ongoing Sharks soft spot: their lineout.
Key head-to-head: Unquestionably, I think, the flyhalf duel between Morne Steyn and Patrick Lambie ... it is a tasty clash of styles with Steyn the established “dictator” of play if he’s on the front foot and peerless place-kicker. (He’ll also have taken heart from Bok coach Heyneke Meyer’s confirmation in an interview in the latest Sports Illustrated that he pretty much picks his kicker first!). Lambie, meanwhile, offers an altogether silkier, less predictable package, and ought to relish an expected solid run at No 10 now. Also look out for a good scrumming duel between Jannie du Plessis and Dean Greyling; the battle of the slippery No 9s, Messrs Hougaard and Michalak, will be worth keeping a beady eye on as well.
Recent history: Who can forget the epic corresponding clash in the last round of last year’s ordinary season in Super Rugby? It was a winner-makes-the-playoffs affair, with the Sharks breaking home hearts with a 26-23 steal of the honours – the result also snapped a gutsy late-season victory streak of six matches by the once ailing Bulls. It was during that charge that the men from Pretoria had won the Durban meeting: 32-23 with a 22-point kicking haul by eternally dead-eye Steyn. I suspect that a home side prevailing in this fixture is very due ...
Rob’s prediction: Bulls by six points.
SA GAME 2
STORMERS v HURRICANES, Newlands
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Marius Jonker
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
Long-range weather forecast: Sunny, moderate breeze
Background: Defeat in this game is just not an option if the Stormers want to quickly reassure their uneasy faithful that they retain the firepower (despite the maddening surrender of stalwarts like Francois Louw and Jaque Fourie) to be “last four” material at the very least for the third season on the trot. They believe they retain plenty of depth, via the careful nurturing of young guns, but the proof of the pudding ... you know the rest. This non-derby supposedly counts as a relatively “easy” fixture for the home side – some pundits reckon the Hurricanes, now minus several stellar names themselves, may be the weakest New Zealand franchise in 2012. The men from Wellington have a reputation for seldom fielding a truly gnarly pack; it probably only increases the likelihood of the Stormers getting off to a winning start.
Key head-to-head: The midfield duel holds special promise, with two seasoned Springboks – Jean de Villiers and relatively out-of-position Bryan Habana – up against at least one established All Black favourite in Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith. With Habana notably out of sorts for much of last year at his traditional left wing, there are people who wonder whether this opportunity at centre might just rejuvenate him and even be the start of more regular activity there. The Stormers duo will look to exploit possible rustiness in Smith, who has had an extended off-season and been on a worldwide “jolly”. Mind you, that may only make him a fresh, dangerous package ...
Recent history: The teams bypassed each other last season, the maiden year of the conference system. But they did meet fairly early in the Super 14 campaign of 2010, also at Newlands. Then the Stormers produced a rousing, high-tempo performance in which they ran in five tries in a 37-13 walloping of the ‘Canes. The visitors were punch-drunk in other respects: Cory Jane was knocked cold by a charging Sireli Naqelevuki (remember him?) en route to one of the home touchdowns, so the slippery All Black will wish for better fortunes this time.
Rob’s prediction: Stormers by seven points.
SA GAME 3
LIONS v CHEETAHS, Ellis Park
When: Saturday, 19:10
Referee: Mark Lawrence
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
Long-range weather forecast: Mild, chance of light drizzle, gentle breeze
Background: Never mind the mere “first game of the season” tension, the derby stakes are raised even further here by the politics of South African
Super Rugby: the Southern Kings will definitely be added to the mix next season, potentially endangering the status of the bottom-placed local franchise in 2012, so both of these old adversaries (traditionally strugglers in the competition) will be desperate to steal an early march on the other here. Expect plenty of bared claws, and a necessary strong hand from whistle-man Mark Lawrence, perhaps. The teams are closely matched on paper and it is a tough game to call, especially with no form yardstick yet.
Key head-to-head: This is another game where the flyhalf battle will be closely monitored by discerning critics: the Lions’s slightly more experienced (but essentially still youthful) Elton Jantjies comes up against Johan Goosen, embarking on his maiden full Super Rugby season. Expect the former to be as effective off the tee from short range, but the latter to have a clear-cut advantage at altitude if he gets some key penalty cracks from “distance”. The Lions No 10 may have an edge in option-taking nous at this stage. There’s potentially a good battle on the deck, as SA master fetcher Heinrich Brussow pits himself against a dual Lions threat of Messrs Minnie and Grobbelaar.
Recent history: In the corresponding game in the Big Smoke last year, the Lions suffered an extremely demoralising 53-19 defeat before their miffed faithful in the midst of a four-game winning streak by the Cheetahs. Still, it was a bit of a nadir for them because they then went on their overseas tour and upset both the Brumbies and Highlanders! The earlier Bloemfontein game curiously saw another win by the away team: the Lions ran out 25-20 winners, aided by two late Jantjies penalties.
Rob’s prediction: With little conviction, Lions by two points.