Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the seventh of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, sees no repeat of last year’s rare Newlands massacre but still has a gut feeling the Chiefs will just pip the Stormers in the keenly-awaited meeting of unbeaten sides on Saturday.
His belief is shared by all three other staff pundits, although weekly columnist Mark Keohane bucks the trend, freely admitting heart slightly eclipses head - he has the Stormers taking it by five to seven points.
Meanwhile a full house sees the Sharks doing the business against the Jaguares - they’ve not yet tasted Super Rugby defeat to the Argentineans, even if meetings always tend to be tension-filled - and the Bulls completing their overseas tour with an overdue triumph in Tokyo.
No such luck for the travelling Kings, even though they saw off latest opponents the Western Force back in their maiden sampling of the competition (in PE, 2013).
*Rob picked the results of all seven of last weekend’s games correctly on SuperBru, giving him a season record thus far of 40/49 (82 percent).
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
STORMERS v CHIEFS, Cape Town
When: Saturday, 17:15
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Gavin Cowley (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Lungelo Payi & Siyabonga Mangweni (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, gentle breeze
Background: Almost indisputably, pleasing things are happening at Newlands where good, honest rugby people are atoning for the unedifying pre-season shenanigans at administrative levels. The Stormers have done everything (and a bit more?) that might have been expected of them in their first five matches, but now comes their most testing period of the competition thus far. By coincidence, the Chiefs were their first New Zealand opponents of last season’s campaign (ouch, look what happened in the quarter-final) and are first Kiwi foes in 2017 too, even if this is at a significantly earlier stage. Robbie Fleck and company seem immensely better prepped this time around, and I will say this much: if the Stormers play with the same level of confidence, innovation and authority displayed in grilling the Cheetahs last weekend, yes, they can win here! But their defence will come under pressure on enough occasions from the similarly unbeaten Mooloo Men to suggest sustained periods of trouble, and I reluctantly have the visitors edging it, despite the drawback of their long passage to Cape Town. But the Stormers have a puncher’s chance, especially if their pack are really fired-up and unified and Etzebeth/Du Toit can eclipse Retallick/Bird in an enormously enthralling second-row general tussle. But of course even set-piece dominance isn’t always a ticket to victory over wily, hard-to-fluster NZ outfits...
Key head-to-head: The important scrap between the respective lock combos already having been touched on, it is possible so evenly-matched (well, potentially at least) a contest will be decided by a moment of fleet-footed individual magic. If that is the case, there must be at least a fair chance it will come from either of the slippery fullbacks, the Chiefs’ grinning wunderkind DAMIAN McKENZIE or the major revelation of the Stormers’ season, once-nomadic SP MARAIS. The latter almost looked like... OK, McKenzie, really?... as he stepped and jinked his way through the flummoxed Cheetahs defence at will last Saturday, and is clearly a man infused with confidence right now. But the blond little whippet in the Chiefs’ ranks has an array of devilish strings to his bow as well, and when he’s running off some of the bigger units in their arsenal or making advances from deep on his own he is a serious handful.
Last result between sides: July 23, 2016: Stormers 21 Chiefs 60 (Cape Town)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Chiefs by two; Garrin Lambley: Chiefs by four; Herman Mostert: Chiefs by three; Lloyd Burnard: Chiefs by eight.
SA GAME 2
SHARKS v JAGUARES, Durban
When: Saturday, 15:05
Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)
SuperSport commentators: Andy Capostagno & Butch James (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, moderate wind
Background: If the Sharks thought they could have a relative breather (or read: comfortable fixture) after their spirited exertions in vain in Johannesburg last weekend, there is no such luck, in reality. The Jaguares are earthy, increasingly tough-to-topple foes either at home or on the road and this is another date where the home side will need to be switched-on from start to finish. Still, Robert du Preez’s charges may still be smarting after losing such a close, slightly controversy-stained one to the Lions and be right up for another big scrap hot on its heels. It is the first of two meetings between these foes in April - both naturally key in Africa Conference 2 terms - and maybe home advantage just tilts this one the Sharks’ way. In the short history of tussles between them, things have always been nail-biting: the Sharks squeezed out last year’s Durban fixture 19-15, and in Buenos Aires were indebted to the accurate boot of currently absent Pat Lambie (seven successful strikes out of eight at the posts) to earn a 25-22 outcome in their favour there. Mind you, a certain Curwin Bosch, currently at No 10, is hardly struggling for either kicking or more general form, is he?
Key head-to-head: The Springbok outside centre berth continues to look seriously up for grabs this year, and under those circumstances I must admit to being increasingly taken in by the showings at No 13 of the Sharks’ determined LUKHANYO AM, who is not only a slippery foil for rugged Andre Esterhuizen in midfield, but also does his commendable share of pilfering work over the ball at ruck time. He gets a good further examination of his mettle in this match, as he goes eyeball to eyeball with the Jaguares’ Tucuman-born MATIAS ORLANDO, who has played 21 times for his country and tasted victory over the Boks in Salta last year, when the Lions’ Lionel Mapoe was his opposite number.
Last result between sides: May 14, 2016: Jaguares 22 Sharks 25 (Buenos Aires)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Sharks by three; Garrin Lambley: Sharks by six; Herman Mostert: Sharks by three; Lloyd Burnard: Sharks by eight.
SA GAME 3
SUNWOLVES v BULLS, Tokyo
When: Saturday, 07:15 (SA time)
Referee: Will Houston (Aus)
SuperSport commentators: Provided
Weather outlook: Cloudy, cool, moderate wind
Background: To be perfectly blunt, defeat is just not an option for the Bulls if they want to remain at the playoffs races this year. As it is, they are a massive 17 points behind the Stormers in Africa 1 after five games each, but they must believe they can prevail in Tokyo, while secretly hoping the Stormers finally trip against the Chiefs. There will be a right old furore back in Pretoria if the Sunwolves outsmart the three-time past champions. So much grittier even in defeat against the Waikato outfit last weekend, this is the opportunity for the Bulls to build on that by adding some spice to their attacking play and possibly even putting the Japanese side away fairly comfortably - more so than managed in the Loftus earlier clash? My instincts are to remain conservative and suggest the Bulls WILL win, but again without quite doing enough to make it a bonus-point romp. With a bit of luck, the absence for varying reasons this week of Springboks Handre Pollard, Lood de Jager and Jesse Kriel will galvanise the remaining troops to stave off that dreaded banana peel.
Key head-to-head: With De Jager sidelined by a niggle, the Bulls get the chance to reunite their trusty (and still pretty young) lock firm from last season, RG Snyman and JASON JENKINS. The latter has a special reason for wanting to put in a big showing in Tokyo: remember his little dot-down blunder in the first-round encounter at Loftus? Jenkins is a brawny unit who is hard to stop when he gets up to maximum pace with ball in hand, and if he manages a suitably industrial, stamina-laden showing here, it will go a long way to thwarting the Sunwolves’ desired fast and loose formula. Jenkins’ direct opponent will be the experienced LIAKI MOLI, who concedes a few kilos but isn’t likely to be too fussed about that... they probably don’t nickname the Aucklander “monster” for nothing.
Last result between sides: March 17, 2017: Bulls 34 Sunwolves 21 (Pretoria)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Bulls by seven; Garrin Lambley: Bulls by 18; Herman Mostert: Bulls by 14; Lloyd Burnard: Bulls by 15.
SA GAME 4
FORCE v KINGS, Perth
When: Saturday, 07:15 (SA time)
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (SA)
SuperSport commentators: Australian panel
Weather outlook: Sunny, warm, light breeze
Background: There’s a strong scent of nostalgia to this match, and it has everything to do with the Kings’ baptism in Super Rugby in 2013. The Force were their maiden opponents in Port Elizabeth, and a crowd of almost 32 000 - remember that, Friendly City public? - turned out to witness a stirring 22-10 triumph for the men then under Alan Solomons’ charge. It is a sign of how “south” the Kings have tumbled since, in several respects, that there will be absolutely no survivors in their XV from that encounter when the teams lock horns again four years onward. They are rather more vulnerable now... and the Aussie crew, running out at home this time, will know it. Just as endangered by the threat of axing from the competition, the Force are unlikely to be lethargic for this one. Remember it is only their second Perth match in the 2017 campaign, and the first was a heartening victory over the Reds back on March 2.
Key head-to-head: The breakdown battle between the Force’s stalwart Matt Hodgson and the tourists’ Chris Cloete promises some fireworks, but just as important if the Kings are to register a mild upset will be the efficiency of their set-pieces. In that respect, over to you at hooker MIKE WILLEMSE, the former Stormers/WP man, who comes up against a big slab of humanity at No 2 in the shape of TATAFU POLOTA-NAU. Soon to turn 32 and perhaps a bit past his prime, the former Waratahs favourite and 68-cap Wallaby nevertheless is an anchoring factor in the Force pack and a significant scrumming aid to his props...
Last result between sides: February 23, 2013: Kings 22 Force 10 (Port Elizabeth)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Force by nine; Garrin Lambley: Force by nine; Herman Mostert: Force by six; Lloyd Burnard: Force by 15.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing