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    Sharks flirt with 2016 anonymity

    2016-04-21 22:00

    Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the next of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, fears that the Sharks could fall terminally from the playoffs radar if they suffer a fourth loss on the trot in Dunedin on Friday.

    The Highlanders are not Super Rugby champions for nothing, and come off a bye following their unexpected loss in Brisbane; the perfect opportunity to regroup smartly in what shapes as a key date for both sides, for differing reasons.

    Sadly the New Zealanders must be considered reasonably firm favourites, and if the Lions sweep to the wide-margin victory we all anticipate they will against the Kings in the Eastern Cape on Saturday, Africa Conference 2 could begin to take on ominous “one horse” proportions even at the halfway mark of ordinary season.

    The Sport24 rugby-monitoring team all believe the Stormers will see off the Reds at the Newlands, but have the Cheetahs coming up short in their first Aussie tour fixture in Melbourne. 

    *Rob lies 11,819th out of about 194,000 contestants for Vodacom Super Rugby predictions on SuperBru, with a current win success rate of 76%.



    When: Friday, 09:35 (SA time)

    Referee: Ben O’Keefe (NZ)

    TV: M-Net, SS1

    SuperSport commentators: NZ panel

    Weather outlook: Indoor venue

    Background: You are winless in four matches, in the midst of a tough overseas tour … and now run into the defending champions. That is hardly a harbinger of sudden good fortune for the Sharks, is it? Throw in the fact that only last season they were thumped by 33 points against the very same foes in Dunedin (seven tries to two) and you probably understand why Sport24’s tipsters, as evidenced below, unanimously predict further angst. Make no mistake, we will be willing the men from Durban to an upset: given the material they still have available on paper they cannot summarily be written off. But it will be vitally important that they don’t fall too significantly behind early on, because even if they plan a more up-tempo, riskier approach than they managed against the Blues – hopefully with much better field position at times, too -- current mental fragility may only worsen if they leak points too quickly and regularly on the scoreboard in this one. Like most NZ sides, the Highlanders love a head of steam. Gary Gold has shuffled his selection cards quite a bit, and while some changes make good sense it will be interesting to see whether the “forgiven” Coenie Oosthuizen, for instance, comes back breathing fire at tighthead or is exposed again at setpiece in his still-awkward transition to that side of the scrum …   

    Key head-to-head: The spotlight for the Sharks falls pretty intensely on GARTH APRIL, who makes his starting debut at Super Rugby level in one of the toughest settings imaginable in Dunedin, and also knowing how heavily the team’s supporters will be wishing him to offer some necessary creativity at flyhalf. There are no guarantees he will be able to achieve that objective immediately, but at the very least he may show signs of being a worthy understudy to Pat Lambie when he returns to battle soon. April comes up against the Highlanders’ solidly-built LIMA SOPOAGA, who has been active at this level since 2011 and is a popular, one-franchise Super Rugby man in New Zealand’s chilly deep south …

    Last result between sides: May 1, 2015: Highlanders 48 Sharks 15 (Dunedin)

    Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Highlanders by 10; Garrin Lambley: Highlanders by six; Herman Mostert: Highlanders by three; Lloyd Burnard: Highlanders by four.

    SA GAME 2

    STORMERS v REDS, Cape Town

    When: Saturday, 15:00

    Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1

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

    Weather outlook: Sunny, cool, light breeze

    Background: Robbie Fleck and his lieutenants must have found it pretty hard deciphering “which” Reds will pitch up at Newlands: the ones who upset the Highlanders, or the outfit who were grilled at Loftus only a week onward? One thing is for sure, though: just based on respective, contrasting fortunes in log terms this season, Stormers enthusiasts will be expecting nothing less than a clear-cut, stabilising home win after the relative disappointment in Johannesburg last time out. Frankly, the hosts should prevail with a bit to spare, even if a bonus point for sufficiently wide try margin may be a little trickier if the first major autumnal rains in the Cape have left the Newlands pitch heavy and slippery for Saturday afternoon. Although the Reds’ front row is decent enough, expect the Stormers to gradually dominate the forward exchanges … a platform, hopefully, for them to show off further some of the welcome hand-skills chutzpah evident in the lead-up to Siya Kolisi’s try at Emirates Airline Park.   

    Key head-to-head: Tenacious Stormers outside centre JOHNNY KOTZE probably knows that starts could soon become much more infrequent for him once the franchise are finally able to pair the fast-sharpening Damian de Allende with presently crocked Juan de Jongh in midfield. So Kotze must make hay while the sun shines … or at the very least, make sure he performs an alert policing job on the Reds’ No 13 stick of dynamite SAMU KEREVI, the 108kg youngster of Fijian origin who could be seriously dangerous from broken play if things get fast and loose at Newlands.

    Last result between sides: March 29, 2014: Reds 22 Stormers 17 (Brisbane)

    Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Stormers by 13; Garrin Lambley: Stormers by 13; Herman Mostert: Stormers by seven; Lloyd Burnard: Stormers by 20.

    SA GAME 3

    KINGS v LIONS, Port Elizabeth

    When: Saturday, 17:10

    Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (SA)

    TV: M-Net, SS1

    SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Joel Stransky (Eng), Christo Olivier & Derick Hougaard (Afrik), Makhaya Jack & Lonwabo Mtimka (Xho)

    Weather outlook: Sunny, mild, stiff wind

    Background: Harsh reality came back to bite the Kings in their last match, when the Bulls came to town and annihilated them 38-6, sending any pleasant, lingering memories of the lone triumph over the Sunwolves right out of the window. The Kings’ best hope of a shock result against even stronger-looking derby rivals, the Lions, is that they’re hugely rejuvenated after a week off and ready to get stuck into the possibly bruised, slightly weary limbs of some visiting players after their breathless – but ultimately successful -- clash with the Stormers. It will be the first time these teams meet since their promotion/relegation two-leg playoff in 2013, when the Lions squeaked through and elbowed the Kings out of the competition after one season. If anything, the Lions are better and more street-smart since then, and the PE side weaker. It doesn’t seem to bode too well for a close contest … but you never know.  

    Key head-to-head: He has been a “supersub” for much of the campaign so far, but with the neck injury to emerging Malcolm Marx, the low-centre-of-gravity AKKER VAN DER MERWE has an opportunity to prove he can an 80-minute type at hooker as well if need be. The Angry Warthog goes into battle against another No 2 who doesn’t always earn a Super Rugby starting gig, MARTIN FERREIRA: he must fill quite large shoes as Edgar Marutlulle is an inconvenient injury victim for the Kings after several rousing performances. At some 115kg, Ferreira will be required to put his weight to good use in halting the fierce surges of Van der Merwe.

    Last result between sides: No prior meetings in competition-proper

    Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by 22; Garrin Lambley: Lions by 24; Herman Mostert: Lions by 25; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by 25.

    SA GAME 4

    REBELS v CHEETAHS, Melbourne

    When: Friday, 11:45 (SA time)

    Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)

    TV: M-Net, SS1

    SuperSport commentators: Australian panel

    Weather outlook: Cloudy, cool, gentle breeze

    Background: I suppose that any side having posted 92 points in their “for” column as the Cheetahs did a week beforehand is going to be taken quite seriously by their foes in the next outing … so the Rebels ought not to fall into a complacency trap in Melbourne. They will also be aware that the tourists from Bloemfontein have only beaten one side, twice, in the competition this season, the labouring Sunwolves. For their part, the currently second-best Aussie team have earned four different scalps: Waratahs, Sunwolves, Reds and Force. That’s enough to make them favourites, even if home advantage against a moderate South African side might have ensured that status anyway. Still, this will be a good examination of just how far the Cheetahs have come in developmental terms under Franco Smith, and they have a puncher’s chance – the Rebels ain’t perfect, and have been hammered twice at home by New Zealand combos already. 

    Key head-to-head: The Cheetahs took a fair while to adjust to Heinrich Brussow’s departure from the open-side flank slot, and now Boom Prinsloo’s season-ending hamstring injury hardly helps their 2016 plans in the pilfering department. Into the void has stepped HILTON LOBBERTS, not the most natural fetcher but still a vastly experienced and combative loosie. The Paarl-born journeyman will be properly tested here in his direct duel with Rebels scavenger and Wallaby RWC 2015 squad representative SEAN McMAHON, only 21 but already in his third season of Super Rugby.

    Last result between sides: February 28, 2014: Rebels 35 Cheetahs 14 (Melbourne)

    Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Rebels by nine; Garrin Lambley: Rebels by three; Herman Mostert: Rebels by five; Lloyd Burnard: Rebels by six.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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