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    It’s Lions... if they’ve learnt lessons!

    2016-07-22 09:59
    Johan Ackermann and Lionel Mapoe (Gallo Images)

    Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the next of his regular South African-focused Vodacom Super Rugby previews this year, believes the Lions have it within their capability to get past the ever-cunning Crusaders in their quarter-final at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday.

    Johan Ackermann’s charges have made some mistakes along their otherwise enterprising trek to the knockout phase, but tended to learn diligently from them, and if they have fully realised their errors from the ordinary-season thriller between the sides (a fast and furious 37-43 defeat at the same venue) can march onward to the semis.

    But Rob and the others in the Sport24 rugby punditry team, while agreeing on the Lions’ outcome, also sing from the same song-sheet, alas, in feeling that the Stormers may very narrowly find the twice-champion Chiefs too hot to handle at Newlands, and that the Sharks will find the going even tougher on their short-notice visit to blustery Wellington.

    *Rob currently lies 5,301st out of around 196,000 Super Rugby tipsters on SuperBru, with a win success rate of 77%.

     SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP

    LIONS v CRUSADERS, Johannesburg

    When: Saturday, 16:30

    Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1

    SuperSport commentators: Hugh Bladen & Joel Stransky (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Derick Hougaard (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Makhaya Jack (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Clear, chilly, light breeze

    Background: Let’s be frank about this: if the Lions bow out of the competition following this one, their coaching panel’s decision to rest virtually all first-teamers from the Jaguares game in Buenos Aires last weekend could fairly be said to have bombed. But if their best customers, supposedly refreshed from their stay-at-home weekend, play out of their socks – you’d think they have to? – to down the seven-time champions and secure another home date in the semis, then the move will inevitably look rather more inspired. When these sides met in Jo’burg earlier in the season, a cracking good contest, the Lions got a little over-excited in their quest to “out-New Zealand”, if you like, the Crusaders for running relish. As a result the ruthless visitors cashed in on some gift breakdown presentations or wild Lions passes, to counter-attack with devastating effect. The whole Lions team will need to be more composed and smarter this time around … and they don’t lack for grey matter. Yes, travel to South Africa is no longer such a big deal for Australasian teams, but the fact remains that the ‘Saders have flown long-haul to the Highveld while the cream of the Lions’ crop should be beautifully primed to meet them. On these grounds, I see the Rooibontes being the likeliest side, provided they hunt as the cohesive and revved-up unit we expect, to do SA proud this weekend … 

    Key head-to-head: The last time these teams locked horns, it was Howard Mnisi’s job to police Crusaders inside centre RYAN CROTTY … and you have to say the latter earned bragging rights as he romped over for three tries. But Crotty has switched to the No 13 channel for this one, as David Havili grabs the twelve jersey. That means Crotty now goes head to head instead with Springbok LIONEL MAPOE, and the Lions combatant (who also crossed the whitewash once in the earlier ‘Saders meeting) could do with a powerful showing as he didn’t tick all the boxes emphatically in the recent home series with Ireland. But his Super Rugby form ahead of the June window had been superb; what a time this would be to regain that sparkle.

    Last result between sides: April 1, 2016: Lions 37 Crusaders 43 (Johannesburg)

    Sport24 predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by four; Garrin Lambley: Lions by one; Herman Mostert: Lions by three.

    SA GAME 2

    HURRICANES v SHARKS, Wellington

    When: Saturday, 09:35 (SA time)

    Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)

    TV: M-Net, SS1

    SuperSport commentators:  NZ panel

    Weather outlook: Cool, rain likely, strong wind

    Background: It’s some comfort, if you’re a Sharks diehard, to know that the team has enjoyed some notable success against the Hurricanes in recent times. Then again, commanding wins in 2014 (27-9) and earlier this season (32-15) were both achieved at Kings Park, and in between stands a 32-24 ‘Canes victory in the Cake Tin in 2015. It is not an easy place to play, especially when you have just come off a timezone-crossing flight, and prospects of a fairly wet ‘n wild night weather-wise do little to suggest the team from more tropical climes can register an upset. I wrote earlier this week that ducks have suddenly lined up more nicely than they would have dreamt for the hosts, who topped the ordinary-season overall log right at the death, and that they are unlikely to botch this QF. That pessimism hasn’t really altered. Still, Tendai Mtawarira and company have a puncher’s chance; I don’t think the ‘Canes tight five is too formidable and much of their expected artistry will come from more “open” positions. Nevertheless, it is a shame the Sharks have sacrificed specialist tighthead Lourens Adriaanse to paternity leave at this juncture, meaning they are less likely to be able to assert themselves fully at scrum-time. Murderous, unrelenting commitment in the tackle and at the breakdown will be required if the visitors are to have any chance of preventing the likes of Ardie Savea, Beauden Barrett and Cory Jane from causing carnage on attack. Also, I wonder how Julian “The Bus” Savea will be feeling about his curtailment to the bench here? He may not lack for zest once let loose later on in the clash …

    Key head-to-head: Speaking of buses, the Sharks do boast a diesel people-carrier of their own, if you like, in the shape of blindside flank dynamo JEAN-LUC DU PREEZ, who has been tremendously powerful at close quarters all season. A few knock-back early tackles from the 20-year-old, not to mention his penchant for bulldozing carries near or over the try-line, could be just the spur for a collective Sharks display of heroism. Mind you, the man in the role opposite him, BRAD SHIELDS, is renowned for his physicality too, and barely less formidably-built than Du Preez. In his fifth season of uninterrupted service in Wellington, Shields will be among many ‘Canes players desperate to finally land that elusive title after falling agonisingly at the showpiece hurdle last year.

    Last result between sides: May 7, 2016: Sharks 32 Hurricanes 15 (Durban)

    Sport24 predictions: Rob Houwing: Hurricanes by 10; Garrin Lambley: Hurricanes by seven; Herman Mostert: Hurricanes by 13.

    SA GAME 3

    STORMERS v CHIEFS, Cape Town

    When: Saturday, 19:00

    Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1

    SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Hanyani Shimange (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Alfred Mzizi & Lungelo Payi (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, cool, light breeze

    Background: This may well prove to be the most nail-biting of the last-eight clashes, especially as a likely heavy pitch – though a much lesser prospect of rain now – and cold nocturnal conditions could play into the hands of the Stormers and their (realistic?) bid to gain general forward ascendancy. The trouble is, we have seen before that even pack mastery and a firm territorial foothold isn’t always enough to be able to land a KO blow to smart, skilful NZ sides. I teetered crazily in my forecast for the Newlands game, but eventually a gut feel just told me “Chiefs”, particularly as the loss of the gradually blossoming Jean-Luc du Plessis from the flyhalf channel is an irksome one for the Stormers who have had appalling injury-related upheaval in the berth this year. Nevertheless, egged on by their strong support base, the home side could tilt things their way with a blood-and-thunder effort to pleasingly prolong Schalk Burger’s swansong period. It’s interesting, for example, that Stephen Donald, more accustomed to flyhalf, has the stiff task for the Chiefs of marking a seemingly rejuvenated (and bigger-framed) Damian de Allende at inside centre. The Stormers clearly plan a major pack blitzkrieg, given their daring 6-2 bench split, and will inject big specimens like Rynhardt Elstadt, Oli Kebble and Frans Malherbe during the second half.  

    Key head-to-head: I fancy the scrums to be pretty influential on Saturday night … and in the all-important starting tighthead berth VINCENT KOCH (like Burger, soon Saracens-bound) has chosen the ideal time of the season to hit peak personal form for the Stormers. The blond muscle-man and willing ball-carrier was tremendous in the last meeting between the sides at the same venue, and KANE HAMES (ex-Highlanders, and Maori All Black) should have his hands full against Koch at the set-piece. The Chiefs will hope Hames stands his ground at No 1 better than Pauliasi Manu did last time … although, in fairness, they overcame their engine-room issues to outfox the Stormers anyway. They will believe a repeat is extremely feasible even if the scrum goes backwards.

    Last result between sides: March 14, 2015: Stormers 19 Chiefs 28 (Cape Town)

    Sport24 predictions: Rob Houwing: Chiefs by two; Garrin Lambley: Chiefs by three; Herman Mostert: Chiefs by three.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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