Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the third of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, backs the Stormers to stay on a winning course and arrest the Sharks’ own progress in Saturday's appealing Newlands derby.
As much as he would love to see the Lions pull off a second consecutive stunner in New Zealand, he sticks to tipster common sense and believes champions the Highlanders will prevail against the much-altered visitors after a spirited enough scrap in Dunedin.
The Cheetahs will subdue the Sunwolves in Singapore to belatedly open their 2016 account, but the Kings face a near-almighty backlash from the Chiefs in PE...
*Rob lies 13,484th out of about 187,000 contestants for Super Rugby predictions on SuperBru, with a win success rate of 76%.
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
STORMERS v SHARKS, Cape Town
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Mike Fraser (NZ)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Gavin Cowley & Bob Skinstad (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Kaya Malotana & Lungelo Payi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Sunny, mild, gentle breeze
Background: A particularly imperious showing by the Stormers’ scrum paved the way for the home team’s comfortable 29-13 victory in the equivalent game in Cape Town last year. Hardly surprisingly, the now Euro-based loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff was player of the match (he gave Matt Stevens a truly torrid time), although the Stormers remain very well-stocked in the berth through JC Janse van Rensburg and Oli Kebble and probably fancy another crack at meaningful dominance in the area. When these sides met again right at the end of ordinary season, there was a 38-point swing, if you like, as the Sharks won 34-12 at Kings Park – but the Stormers fielded a particularly second-string team because they had a known playoffs game against the Brumbies the next weekend. I like the remedial strides the Sharks have made so far this year, and if they can keep the hosts’ renowned tight five and pack as a whole sufficiently at bay, have a calibre of all-round game that could topple the still not exactly flair-oozing Stormers in their own backyard. Could … but my suspicion remains “won’t”, in a fairly typical all-SA arm wrestle.
Key head-to-head: They are skippers of their respective teams – albeit that one is a “co-captain” – but also the incumbents of the Springbok loosehead and tighthead prop positions. So what’s not to like among the scrumming aficionaros about the imminent grapple between TENDAI MTAWARIRA and FRANS MALHERBE? Both were the starting front-rankers in the successful bronze playoff against Argentina at RWC 2015, and although the Beast sports significantly greater Test experience (75 caps versus 12), his set-piece rival on Saturday had already displaced veteran Jannie du Plessis from the Bok No 3 jersey during the major tournament and looks set for a sound period of tenancy now himself. Malherbe, even while less than fully fit, was excellent in two appearances as a substitute in the opening rounds of Super Rugby, so will relish this first start of 2016 against a man who tends to rise to occasions like this one.
Last result between sides: June 13, 2015: Sharks 34 Stormers 12 (Durban)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Stormers by six; Garrin Lambley: Stormers by four; Herman Mostert: Stormers by three; Lloyd Burnard: Sharks by four.
SA GAME 2
HIGHLANDERS v LIONS, Dunedin
When: Saturday, 08:35
Referee: Chris Pollock (NZ)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: NZ panel
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, cool, gentle breeze
Background: It is just possible that the Lions, with a stellar two overseas tour wins from two starts and just one obligation to come before the long-haul flight back, will know deep down that they must keep something in the tank for the derby against the Cheetahs next weekend ahead of a bye … and thus be reasonably prepared to take a hit from the defending champion Highlanders if it comes to that. It may go some way to explaining several changes to Johan Ackermann’s starting XV, although some are injury-forced and he is also a shrewd rotator. But that doesn’t automatically imply that the Lions won’t give it a full tonk early on to see if another NZ giant-killing is feasible. They have an admirably united squad and some players are quite seamlessly interchangeable in their berths. But the Highlanders come off a stabilising, tight victory over the Hurricanes – a repeat of last year’s final – and must be deemed clear favourites.
Key head-to-head: Blond Lions bomber at scrumhalf FAF DE KLERK is already earning rave reviews this season and thus right among the favourites to become regular replacement for the likes of Fourie du Preez and Ruan Pienaar at No 9 for the Boks. His alliance with Elton Jantjies was instrumental in the famous toppling of the Chiefs in Hamilton, and he does look the real deal for X-factor if not necessarily yet ticking all boxes for astute game-management. What a test for his international credentials here as he locks horns with slippery, multi-talented All Black halfback AARON SMITH. Blink and you might miss a lethal little snipe … by either.
Last result between sides: May 9, 2015: Lions 28 Highlanders 23 (Johannesburg)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Highlanders by nine; Garrin Lambley: Highlanders by two; Herman Mostert: Highlanders by three; Lloyd Burnard: Highlanders by five.
SA GAME 3
KINGS v CHIEFS, Port Elizabeth
When: Saturday, 15:00
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Warren Brosnihan & Gcobani Bobo (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Derick Hougaard (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Mostly sunny, warm, gentle breeze
Background: The worst thing happened from a Kings point of view last weekend: while they had an early bye, their first non-South African opponents of the year were turned over in their own Waikato backyard by a fast and frenzied pack of Lions. It’s taken a long trek for the Chiefs to seek a ruthless, immediate bounceback, but there’s a good chance the vulnerable Kings will feel that angry force. Considering that they lost their first PE game of the season by 35 points to the Sharks, some of the Sport24 tipsters (see below) are reasonably generous, really, in their appraisals of the margin of victory they forecast for the New Zealanders; few envisage a proper rout. The Kings still have a sprinkling of their gutsy class of 2013, and those players might do well to remind any raw colleagues around them that they didn’t disgrace in the only previous clash between these sides, surrendering by a respectable 11 points although Chiefs wing flier Lelia Masaga (now Japan-based) registered a hat-trick of tries. A Kings win on Saturday? It would be way more jaw-dropping than what happened last week to the Mooloos … call that an incentive.
Key head-to-head: The Chiefs’ international flyhalf AARON CRUDEN mixed some sublime touches with fits of sloppy eccentricity against the Lions, so will seek greater consistency this time around. The 27-year-old All Black remains a crucial playmaker for the Chiefs, so if his influence can somehow be muzzled the Kings may be in for a slightly less stressful 80 minutes than they imagine. Up against him is LOUIS FOUCHE, making his first Super Rugby appearance for the Kings after missing the Sharks opener through injury. The Pretoria-born pivot at least boasts some three years of experience at this level in the Bulls camp, so shouldn’t be too overawed by the challenge. He’ll need not to be.
Last result between sides: March 15, 2013: Kings 24 Chiefs 35 (Port Elizabeth)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Chiefs by 18; Garrin Lambley: Chiefs by 17; Herman Mostert: Chiefs by 15; Lloyd Burnard: Chiefs by 15.
SA GAME 4
SUNWOLVES v CHEETAHS, Singapore
When: Saturday, 12:50 (SA time)
Referee: Quinton Immelman (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Owen Nkumane (Eng), John van Rensburg & Jonathan Mokuena (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Alfred Mzizi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudly, warm, chance of shower
Background: Cheetahs coach Franco Smith has only really been able to study the round-one video of the Sunwolves’ losing Super Rugby debut against the Lions in Tokyo for any decent information on this week’s foes. He will drum into his charges, desperately seeking a first win after two pretty narrow home losses, that the Japanese outfit were competitive for a good passage of the Lions game before succumbing 26-13. Not helping the Sunwolves is their transfer to the debatable “second home” of Singapore for the Cheetahs game – you may even find that there are some noisy expats there willing on the South Africans. It could be another closely-fought affair, but my gut feel is that Free Staters will break their duck, even though shorn of biggest-name forward Lood de Jager.
Key head-to-head: Speaking of intelligence on the opposition, the Sunwolves have a useful bit of their own as much-travelled fullback RIAAN VILJOEN (he will turn 33 on April Fools’ Day) was based with the Cheetahs at this level between 2009 and 2011 and knows their culture extremely well. He comes up against an experimental direct rival in the No 15 shirt – another globetrotter in the shape of SIAS EBERSOHN, an enigmatic character who blows either hot or cold and is more accustomed to flyhalf but replaces Clayton Blommetjies in the last line of defence.
Last result between sides: No prior meetings
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Cheetahs by six; Garrin Lambley: Cheetahs by 11; Herman Mostert: Cheetahs by six; Lloyd Burnard: Cheetahs by six.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing