Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the next of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, agonised unusually long and hard ... and then picked the visiting Lions to pip the Sharks in a Vodacom Super Rugby humdinger on Saturday.
But don’t despair, Sharks supporters: our quartet of Sport24 forecasters are split exactly down the middle over this tantalising, conference-topping derby at Kings Park, showing just how tense it might be.
Predictions are more unanimous in the other SA-related matches this weekend, with the Bulls expected to see off the moderately improving Kings at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium despite a pretty decent contest for long spells, and Stormers to secure a maximum five log points at Newlands when the basement Sunwolves provide the opposition.
*Rob lies 9 461st out of about 192 000 contestants for Super Rugby predictions on SuperBru, with a current win success rate of 73%.
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
SHARKS v LIONS, Durban
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Butch James (Eng), John van Rensburg & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, light breeze
Background: It’s been a while since I contemplated a South African derby with the level of enthusiasm I do this one: and not just because the Sharks (16 points) and Lions (14) comfortably head up Africa Conference 2. We should also get a strong sense of which side – both are diligently trying to evolve their playing styles, albeit in slightly contrasting ways – is really closer to challenging current NZ mastery of the Super Rugby landscape. Spicing the clash further is that both are under a degree of pressure, having come off respective defeats last time out … and in each instance at home to the Crusaders. So the losers may well find their title prospects downgraded a tad by pundits and require some mild internal soul-searching, even if that may seem cruel at this stage. The Sharks are combining pragmatism with an ability to strike fast and hard on the counter-attack, whereas the Lions are trying to play a constantly up-tempo and daring brand of rugby. If their forwards can ensure dominance of possession (no guarantee, I grant you), a gut feel is that the visitors’ attacking polish and desire may tilt things ever so slightly.
Key head-to-head: It may not look the most glamorous on paper of the variety of compelling one-of-ones awaiting us at Kings Park. But anyone who watched the Lions’ defeat to the ‘Saders would realise why the No 12 channel is very important this weekend. Sadly Howard Mnisi was off his best defensive levels and paid a price last Friday as a rampant Ryan Crotty gave the Lions repeated “punctures” in midfield. The task of shoring up the area for the Jo’burgers instead falls this time in the hands of ROHAN JANSE VAN RENSBURG, who has the physical dimensions (1.86m, 101kg) to adequately police the Sharks own muscleman at twelve, the 110kg ANDRE ESTERHUIZEN who has been responsible for a fair bit of go-forward this year. Both are recent SA U20 representatives, and will be well familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses from simultaneous squad selection in 2014.
Last result between sides: April 11, 2015: Lions 23 Sharks 21 (Johannesburg)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by two; Garrin Lambley: Sharks by five; Herman Mostert: Sharks by three; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by six.
SA GAME 2
KINGS v BULLS, Port Elizabeth
When: Saturday, 19:15
Referee: Shuhei Kubo (Japan)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Joel Stransky (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Alfred Mzizi & Lonwabo Mtimka (Xho)
Weather outlook: Clear, mild, moderate wind
Background: The Kings are on a slow, praiseworthy march toward respectability after being such broad laughing stocks – both boardroom and field – in pre-season and then soon after the start of the competition. There’s little doubt in my mind they remain underdogs against the Bulls, despite the recent pulse evident on the “corpse”. But as I speculated earlier in the week, it is not as though the higher-riding men from Pretoria are playing such an exhilarating brand of rugby that victory will be near-effortless in the Friendly City. Far from it: there are definite chinks in the Bulls’ armour, only reminding of their slightly painful rebuild, and if the Kings play out of their collective skins – the admirable Steven Sykes will exhort them to nothing less – an upset cannot wholly be ruled out. Expect the Kings to defend valiantly, even as the risk of fatigue creeps in this week, and battle like all hell on the deck where men like CJ Velleman, Edgar Marutlulle and recent supersub Chris Cloete could be a nuisance to a more upright-looking Bulls eight. All that said, solid enough Bulls win at the end of the day is our fancy.
head-to-head: The one area the Kings may believe
they can gain real ascendancy is at scrum time, an area where the Bulls played
increasing second fiddle against the Cheetahs whereas the PE-based outfit put a
strong, game-influencing shunt on the Sunwolves. Still, the visitors from
Pretoria are bound to have shed buckets of remedial sweat in the department at
training this week, and that unpredictable, low-centre-of-gravity Springbok
TREVOR NYAKANE will be out to re-establish his credentials at loosehead prop
after returning to starting favour. Jacobie Adriaanse looked the business for
the Kings at tighthead last weekend, but on Saturday the Kings will instead
have TOM BOTHA, more of a technical scrummager than out-and-out powerhouse,
endeavouring to provide a firm right shoulder against Nyakane.
Last result between sides: June 29, 2013: Bulls 48 Kings 18 (Pretoria)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Bulls by nine; Garrin Lambley: Bulls by 14; Herman Mostert: Bulls by 12; Lloyd Burnard: Bulls by 12.
SA GAME 3
STORMERS v SUNWOLVES, Cape Town
When: Friday, 19:00
Referee: Nicholas Berry (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Bob Skinstad (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Lungelo Payi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Clear, warm, gentle breeze
Background: A glance at the fixture list in pre-season would have convinced Stormers fans that this date was probably the biggest banker for them of the lot … and events in the first six rounds have done little to squash that perception. With the Sunwolves beaten even by the much-derided Kings last time out – albeit that they had glorious opportunities to steal it themselves – a shock Stormers loss here just seems unthinkable. Anticipate at least three-try supremacy into the bargain, for a full house by high-riding Juan de Jongh and company. The hosts have rested several crusty regulars from their starting line-up, but will be able to infuse them as the game develops if it becomes necessary. Much interest will surround the enforced debut at flyhalf by Jean-Luc du Plessis, son of Newlands legend Carel: with respect to the Japanese triers, this seems as favourable an opportunity as any for the rookie’s Super Rugby debut …
Key head-to-head: Robbie Fleck has done a fair bit of rotation of his loose forwards, and here veteran SCHALK BURGER returns to the No 8 jersey as Nizaam Carr experiences a spot of bench time. Burger’s vast experience and battle-hardened qualities will be necessary in the quest to resist complacency against the Japanese strugglers, especially as the hosts are suddenly missing (for several weeks) their key pack enforcer Eben Etzebeth. Burger directly encounters one of the steelier names in the Sunwolves XV, the 18-cap Argentina international TOMAS LEONARDI.
Last result between sides: No prior meetings
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Stormers by 26; Garrin Lambley: Stormers by 28; Herman Mostert: Stormers by 20; Lloyd Burnard: Stormers by 20.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing