Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the 12th of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, believes the Bulls will push enough “bounce-back” buttons after the close-shave loss at Newlands to overcome the Lions at Loftus on Saturday.
He also backs the conference-leading Stormers, though not without some difficulties along the way, to see off the Cheetahs in their own backyard.
But even the restoration of rugged Bismarck du Plessis to the fulcrum of the Sharks pack will not be quite enough to propel them to victory over the Highlanders, with their probably superior all-round game, in Dunedin ...
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
BULLS v LIONS, Pretoria
When: Saturday, 19:10
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Robbie Kempson (Eng), John van Rensburg & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Kaya Malotana & Kaunda Ntunja (Xho)
Weather outlook: Clear, mild, light breeze
Background: With five successive victories beneath their belts since a 34-6 beating from the Crusaders back on March 14, the Lions (though rueing the inconvenient absence of in-form Lionel Mapoe in midfield) will not enter this attractive Highveld derby short of optimism. And if they do extend the trot to a half-dozen, their playoffs prospects will simultaneously soar. But this is also a “crossroads” match for the Bulls in terms of their own top-six aspirations, which should make them dangerous and grimly determined at home. They know they had opportunities to beat the Stormers last weekend, even if their scrum was a decisive area of weakness, whilst they will also harbour memories of arguably doing enough to beat the Lions in the Johannesburg first-round meeting a few weeks back ... but then taking their eye off the ball right at the death to allow the Angry Warthog (otherwise known as Armand van der Merwe) to bulldoze his way over for a game-swaying try. I fully expect the Lions to go toe to toe once more, but this time with the hosts learning their lesson and closing the tussle out their way.
Key head-to-head: Regular Bulls captain Pierre Spies had been in need of a break, which explains his restriction to the bench for this one. What it does, however, is open up an enticing, rare opportunity for versatile ARNO BOTHA to don the No 8 jersey in a potentially workmanlike loosie alliance with Jacques du Plessis and Lappies Labuschagne. Perhaps this combo has been assembled by Frans Ludeke in the very knowledge that it will be have to be hugely industrious against celebrated Lions dynamos WARREN WHITELEY (Botha’s direct rival at eighthman), Warwick Tecklenburg and Jaco Kriel ... it may well be among this six that the battle is ultimately determined.
Last result between sides: April 4, 2015: Lions 22 Bulls 18 (Johannesburg)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by five points
SA GAME 2
CHEETAHS v STORMERS, Bloemfontein
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Joel Stransky (Eng), Christo Olivier & Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, near-windless
Background: Last Saturday in the Big Smoke, the injury-hit Cheetahs served notice that they don’t intend to simply see out the season lethargically, sharing eight tries with the Lions in a crowd-pleaser even though they finished on the wrong end of things ... again. Given their ability in recent years to knock over the Stormers in their Bloemfontein stronghold, expect them to throw the kitchen sink this time too, albeit with the reduced firepower at their disposal. The fact that the Stormers are resting certain key pack figures is another reason to believe the conference leaders could just slip on a banana peel. But there is healthy forward depth among the Capetonians at present – especially in the front row, where Oliver Kebble wins a deserved start – and once again their scrum should get them out of trouble if they’re even in it. In what should be perfect, benign kicking conditions, Demetri Catrakilis’s accuracy off the tee may also tilt this one; I reckon his general game has also lifted a notch or two of late. Stormers to do the business ... but perhaps not with a four-try “BP”.
Key head-to-head: With the Cheetahs statistically boasting the smoothest-firing South African lineout in Super Rugby, you have to think Windhoek-born TORSTEN VAN JAARSVELD is doing something right on the throw-in front. It’s pleasing for them if so, given the huge void left this season by the exit of long-time former skipper Adriaan Strauss to Pretoria. The Stormers continue, for the time being, to prefer ex-Bull BONGI MBONAMBI to Scarra Ntubeni (just a tad surprisingly?) in their own hooker’s role and he was less than “dartboard perfection” against the visitors from Loftus last week. Indeed, the Stormers should be faring rather better in the phase with some quality jumpers at their disposal, so Mbonambi is under the microscope in Bloem ...
Last result between sides: May 24, 2014: Stormers 33 Cheetahs 0 (Cape Town)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Stormers by six points
SA GAME 3
HIGHLANDERS v SHARKS, Dunedin
When: Friday, 09:35
Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
SuperSport commentators: NZ panel
Weather outlook: Not applicable (indoor venue)
Background: They’ve come off a very overdue bye, but is that enough to have sorted out the Sharks’ problems? We should get an idea pretty quickly in the Forsyth Barr Stadium, where they open their overseas tour, sadly already highly unlikely to make the playoffs. You could say certain “refreshment” steps have taken place, like the restoration of lanky young Stephan Lewies to the second row for the first time in the competition this season and the decision – supposedly by the player himself – to return the available-again Bismarck du Plessis to rank-and-filer from the captaincy. This is his chance to claw back lost ground in the race not only to be Springbok first-choice hooker, but also stake fresh claims for mantle of world’s best No 2. Unfortunately, with slippery Paul Jordaan still not quite deemed fit enough for the rigours of Super Rugby, the Sharks continue to lack a certain something in X-factor, and if they do upset the Highlanders, it will probably have to be achieved by a bludgeoning approach. Triumph cannot completely be ruled out, but I still quite strongly tip the home side, back at pretty close to full strength after the (costly, if you look at the scoreboard?) resting of a handful of All Black playmakers in Canberra last time out.
Key head-to-head: If the Sharks have not looked very easy-on-the-eye this season, it has not been the fault much of scrumhalf COBUS REINACH, one of few in their ranks to snipe and dart his way consistently up to or over the advantage line. His stealth will be needed once more, especially as he comes directly up against a player of similar elusiveness in the shape of All Black No 9 AARON SMITH, returning from a mandatory break. Reinach’s attacking qualities are particularly necessary when you consider the ongoing absence of Pat Lambie as his halfback partner, and the fact that the Sharks’ loose trio here (Messrs Alberts, Bothma and Coetzee) is more about brute force than sweet stepping and jinking acumen ...
Last result between sides: July 19, 2014: Sharks 31 Highlanders 27 (finals series first round, Durban)
Rob Houwing’s prediction: Highlanders by nine points
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