Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the next of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, pretty confidently tips the Sharks to register a fourth successive triumph when they tackle the hot-and-cold Bulls at Loftus on Friday night.
Their strong Africa Conference 2 challengers the Lions, meanwhile, will keep up the pressure by seeing off the limited Cheetahs in another derby on Saturday.
But he fears the in-form Brumbies could have too much quality across the board for the Stormers at Newlands, taking advantage of lingering attack limitations behind the scrum by the home side even if the forward scrap is a titanic, well-matched one.
As for the Kings’ prospects in Christchurch … er, just don’t ask?
*Rob lies 5,604th out of about 189,000 contestants for Super Rugby predictions on SuperBru, with a current win success rate of 79%.
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
BULLS v SHARKS, Pretoria
When: Friday, 19:00
Referee: Glen Jackson
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Butch James (Eng), John van Rensburg & Jaco van der Westhuyzen (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Alfred Mzizi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, windless
Background: If the Bulls are properly switched-on for the full duration, they are capable of halting the Sharks’ near-runaway start to the season -- especially knowing that their foes have had a speedy turnaround from another all-SA bruiser at Newlands last Saturday. That said, was a bye, by contrast, the right medicine for Adriaan Strauss and company last weekend? Perhaps not, given that they fell away markedly in the later stages of both of their first two fixtures (Stormers, Rebels), raising just a hint that their conditioning and general match sharpness may not be quite where they should be. The Sharks, meanwhile, have been a resurgent force partly because they look collectively lean, hungry and durable. Gary Gold has the luxury of being able to rotate players quite generously given the solid depth in many positions, and did so for this Pretoria showdown, although if they come a cropper, inevitably some pundits may ask why they interrupted continuity! The Bulls knocked over the Sharks both times in 2015 … but I firmly believe revenge is imminent, even if we get a domestic battle royale under floodlights.
Key head-to-head: The physical commitment and general high work-rate of ANDRE ESTERHUIZEN in the important No 12 channel greatly aided the triumph over the Stormers at Newlands, and the Sharks will wish for more of the same from the Potchefstroom-born, 110 kg powerhouse in another demanding derby. But is no shrinking violet at inside centre for the Bulls, either, so the ground may shake when these men collide. Lighter on his feet than he looks at first glance, Odendaal continues to curtail highly-touted Jan Serfontein to the wider berth, partly due to his creative and elusive qualities which make him a good deal more than mere “basher”.
Last result between sides: April 18, 2015: Sharks 10 Bulls 17 (Durban)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Sharks by six; Garrin Lambley: Sharks by one; Herman Mostert: Bulls by three; Lloyd Burnard: Sharks by seven.
SA GAME 2
STORMERS v BRUMBIES, Cape Town
When: Saturday, 19:15
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Butch James (Eng), Kobus Wiese & Gerrie Scheepers (Afrik), Kaya Malotana & Lungelo Payi
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, gentle breeze
Background: I spotted the sponsored car of Stormers flyhalf Kurt Coleman outside the Newlands branch of “Vida” early on Friday morning … hopefully a suggestion that their backline plans to be wide awake and sporting an overdue cutting edge against the Brumbies? Against a wily, classy outfit like the pace-setting Brumbies, equality or even superiority in the “grunt” areas is unlikely to be enough for the home side to automatically come out on top. They are under mounting pressure to show that they can convert favourable field position – something often enough commanded against the Sharks last time out, without great benefit – into precious tries. Trouble is, the Brumbies tend not to allow their defence to be breached easily, and are also mindful that they had a ball with six touchdowns in their favour the last time they played at Newlands. It tells you plenty about the task the Stormers face in trying to dismantle this outfit. Sorry, I find myself a bit bleak about the prospects of this happening. I’d love to be shown well wide of the mark after the 80 minutes, of course.
Key head-to-head: It had been suggested in some sections of the local media this week that “senior citizen” Schalk Burger be benched this week. While it is true that the veteran Springbok has not yet found his optimal form in 2016, his experience and street wisdom were too valuable to sideline for a tough date like this one. Besides, it was not through any serious collective fault on the part of the Stormers loose trio that they lost last weekend, and Robbie Fleck deserves kudos for sticking to the status quo here. Under his watch, NIZAAM CARR has begun to much like to his old self this year and that is encouraging as he attempts to counter Wallaby whizz DAVID POCOCK in the battle of the open-siders. Mind you, an intensely committed shift from the entire Stormers pack in the rucks and mauls will be needed if they are to find a route to victory against these impressive foes.
Last result between sides: June 20, 2015: Stormers 19 Brumbies 39 (Cape Town)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Brumbies by four; Garrin Lambley: Brumbies by four; Herman Mostert: Stormers by three; Lloyd Burnard: Brumbies by six.
SA GAME 3
LIONS v CHEETAHS, Johannesburg
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Stuart Berry (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & AJ Venter (Eng), John van Rensburg & Jaco van der Westhuyzen (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Clear, warm, light breeze
Background: They finally have a win to their name from three attempts, but the Cheetahs’ late fightback to pip the tourney-novice Sunwolves hardly contained widespread signals of true quality in Singapore. Cerebral coach Franco Smith is working industriously to extract the best from a moderate bunch of players, and at least Bok heavyweight Lood de Jager is back at his lock post for the visit to the Big Smoke – his duel with that admirably ceaseless scrapper Franco Mostert should be a good ‘un. But the Lions have shifted to a superior level both in terms of team unity and enterprise and intelligence to their game-plan, and it is hard to imagine the visitors will have enough to register a shock result. Still, if they do, pool rivals the Sharks wouldn’t exactly be distraught, would they?
Key head-to-head: Although the seasoned Springbok No 14 JP Pietersen looks a hungry customer in early-season, Lions right wing RUAN COMBRINCK is creeping ever more closely toward international recognition: he constantly endeavours to be constructive, looks for work and has lethal finishing skills. The Lions’ “total rugby” is clearly right up the alley of the 25-year-old from Vryheid, although his defensive game will have to be up to scratch as he comes up against Cheetahs gas-man RAYMOND RHULE here. The last-named player can be a little fitful in his involvement, but whenever room suddenly becomes available in broken play, he explodes into life with his big-striding pace.
Last result between sides: May 23, 2015: Cheetahs 17 Lions 40 (Bloemfontein)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by 14; Garrin Lambley: Lions by nine; Herman Mostert: Lions by 10; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by 15.
SA GAME 4
CRUSADERS v KINGS, Christchurch
When: Saturday, 08:35 (SA time)
Referee: William Houston (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: NZ panel
Weather outlook: Partly cloudly, warm, chance of shower
Background: Sheer mathematical logic only seems to confirm the magnitude of the labouring Kings’ task in Christchurch: if you can leak around 100 points in two early home games, what price any meaningful likelihood of prevented the dam wall from bursting at the New Zealand stronghold of one of the tournament’s most iconic sides? The most optimistic prediction you can make, really, is that the side from the Eastern Cape may repeat their trend of hanging on tenaciously for the first half hour or thereabouts. They look more lightweight in so many ways … although on that note, as human freight trains like Nemani Nadolo lick their lips for likely mayhem in the try column, maybe the Kings will garner some broad strength of their own from the courage shown in the competition thus far by the scrawny but lion-hearted Malcolm Jaer in the tackle. The 73kg wing probably isn’t best advised to confront certain rampaging giants head-on, but expect him to go in low and resolutely from behind …
Key head-to-head: It is painfully difficult to find areas where the Kings may find parity – never mind any pronounced supremacy -- with the seven-time champion Crusaders. But in the second row, one part of the engine room where an avalanche of quality possession to the hot favourites could at least be curtailed, visiting skipper STEVEN SYKES can summon almost 10 years of Super Rugby experience in his unenviable tussle at the front of the lineout and as “enforcer” lock with 22-cap All Black LUKE ROMANO, part of a seriously top-notch alliance in the middle of the scrum with that rangy lineout maestro Sam Whitelock. It will also be part of Sykes’ duty on Saturday to ensure that several callow members of his team aren’t excessively unnerved by this fixture which many pundits, let’s face it, fear could blow out embarrassingly on the scoreboard.
Last result between sides: March 23, 2013: Crusaders 55 Kings 20
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Crusaders by 29; Garrin Lambley: Crusaders by 34; Herman Mostert: Crusaders by 40; Lloyd Burnard: Crusaders by 40.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing