Sharks in need of a miracle

    2013-04-25 12:00
    Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in his regular South African Super Rugby preview, tips weekend victories for the Bulls and Cheetahs but early setbacks abroad for both the Stormers (albeit desperately narrowly) and Sharks.


    CHIEFS v SHARKS, Hamilton

    When: Saturday, 09:35
    Referee: Chris Pollock (NZ)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    Commentators: New Zealand panel
    Weather outlook: Clear, mild, moderate wind

    Background: Perhaps the strongest incentive that can be mustered for the injury-decimated, generally rattled Sharks is for John Plumtree to suggest that triumph against the defending champions would amount to one of their most famous victories yet on the road! It really is difficult, after all, to see them staving off a third defeat in succession, given the traditional hazard of this being the first tour fixture off a long-haul flight, plus the fact that the Sharks are likely to be at sixes and sevens strategically because of the constant stream of withdrawals from their ranks. Nor will opponents the Mooloo Men be lacking urgency, coming as they do off two losses themselves (to Australian foes). It is also a haunting thought for the visitors that on their last visit to Waikato Stadium, they were downed by 31 points in last year’s final. A losing bonus point would be a mini-triumph, and sadly I don’t even envisage that occurring.

    Key head-to-head: With an element of uncertainty stalking both camps at present, selection shake-ups have come almost dime a dozen for this clash. The key slot of scrumhalf is a case in point: the Sharks are giving Cobus Reinach a “rotational break” which means that CHARL McLEOD gets a chance to recapture the snap and crackle he boasted a couple of years back. He will boast a clear edge in experience over 23-year-old opposite number AUGUSTINE PULU, who is in only his first full season at Super Rugby level and replaces All Black Brendon Leonard, paying the price for perceived recent sloppiness.  

    Recent history between teams: August 4, 2012 (final): Chiefs 37 Sharks 6; April 21, 2012: Sharks 12 Chiefs 18

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Chiefs by 14 points

    SA GAME 2

    BULLS v WARATAHS, Pretoria

    When: Saturday, 17:05
    Referee: Francisco Pastrana (Arg)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    Commentators: Hugh Bladen and Joel Stransky (Eng), Hennie Koortzen and Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja and Mzwandile Stick (Xho)
    Weather outlook: Clear, cool, light breeze

    Background: I would have installed this as the prime SA attraction for the weekend, had the Chiefs-Sharks fixture not been between the respective 2012 finalists. The game pits two in-form teams against each other, the Bulls having hit their straps beautifully at times in handing a 34-0 reality check to the Kings, whilst the ‘Tahs pipped the champions from Waikato in Sydney. The home team ought to have the edge in freshness, given that the Aussie outfit have just made the long trek here, and will also pin customary hopes on gasping less for breath in the Highveld air in the vital last 20 minutes or so. Pierre Spies’s combo will be aware that recent encounters have almost always gone the Bulls’ way - including in Sydney last season - although a word of caution might be that the ‘Tahs often enough run them pretty close at Loftus. It was 48-38 in the helter-skelter 2010 meeting, and 23-17 a year later at the same venue. I believe the Waratahs will succumb, but again finish within seven ...   

    Key head-to-head: Not only will hefty hooker TATAFU POLOTA-NAU be earning his 100th cap for the Waratahs, but the seasoned Wallaby stated this week that winning at Loftus was “definitely something I want to tick off” – a reminder that the Aussie combo have a hoodoo at the venue in recent years and are collectively hungry to rectify it. If in-form Springbok CHILIBOY RALEPELLE, who ought to have an edge in fleet-footedness, can douse Polota-Nau’s fire in the No 2 battle, the Bulls should be well on their way to handing out more heartbreak to their guests from NSW.

    Recent history between teams: May 11, 2012: Waratahs 24 Bulls 27

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by six points

    SA GAME 3

    CHEETAHS v KINGS, Bloemfontein

    When: Saturday, 19:10
    Referee: Jonathon White (NZ)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    Commentators: Matthew Pearce and Bob Skinstad (Eng), Christo Olivier and Breyton Paulse (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka and Makhaya Jack (Xho)
    Weather outlook: Clear, mild, near-windless

    Background: Those of mischievous inclination will be dying to see how the Kings front up in “Bloem” with Andries Strauss back as skipper and Luke Watson confined to the bench after his off-the-pace comeback in the role against the Bulls in PE. Will we see a resumption of the (then Luke-less) overseas spirit they showed? I wouldn’t bet too much dosh against it, although whether they have enough “gees” to shock the high-riding Cheetahs is quite another matter. Best ally for the visitors, perhaps, is knowledge that Naka Drotske’s tiring charges are desperate for their first bye – it finally comes next weekend – and may have one foot subconsciously in the hammock. Still, the Cheetahs have stayed relatively injury-free thus far and ought to be just too steely on paper.

    Key head-to-head: There’s a nice battle of behemoths in the front row here: Aussie commentators were quick to admire the physical proportions of Kings tighthead KEVIN BUYS (121kg, 1.91m) during their prosperous trip through that country. But if he’s potentially an irresistible force at the setpiece, facing him on the Cheetahs’ loosehead side is the immovable object of one COENIE OOSTHUIZEN (127kg and 1.87m)! After a stint as an impact player off the bench on the “wrong” side of the scrum for him, the latter is back at his more familiar No 1, and the Springbok will be mindful that fit-again Trevor Nyakane is breathing down his neck for a return to the starting lineup. 

    Recent history between teams: Not applicable

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Cheetahs by nine points

    SA GAME 4

    HURRICANES v STORMERS, Palmerston North

    When: Friday, 09:35
    Referee: Steve Walsh (Aus)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    Commentators: New Zealand panel
    Weather outlook: Cloudy, cool, possible light rain, moderate wind

    Background: I wonder whether I was alone in finding it hard to suppress some cynicism when certain pundits started talking about the Stormers seriously reigniting their stuttering campaign by being the first SA side to experience an all-wins overseas tour? With respect, a team that has already tasted a dangerous four losses from seven starts in 2013 hardly seems best equipped to jump that high hurdle. Frankly, three wins abroad would be a great return ... and a nagging gut feel tells me the Stormers are going to suffer a wee bit of further angst in a Palmerston North nail-biter before any turnaround quest kicks in! (Stormers fans can take heart from the fact that my predictions have been notably wonky this year.) Still, the ‘Canes unpredictability and use of a relatively backwater venue could act as an extra motivating device for the tourists, who are slowly welcoming back some seasoned customers from the sidelines. For all my strange pessimism, of course the Stormers do have a good shout in this one ... 

    Key head-to-head: If being measured against the very best is a key barometer for Test selection, then outside centre JUAN DE JONGH could hardly wish for a better opportunity to tick some further boxes in the mind of Heyneke Meyer. With some quality candidates around to challenge Bok incumbents De Jongh and his seasoned Stormers partner Jean de Villiers – Robert Ebersohn and Jan Serfontein quickly come to mind – the slippery No 13 would do his chances of 2013 retention the power of good if he gives a sound account of himself against the eternally impressive Hurricanes captain and All Black favourite CONRAD SMITH. Easier said than done, of course.

    Recent history between teams: February 25, 2012: Stormers 39 Hurricanes 26

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Hurricanes by two points

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

    HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you agree with Rob Houwing's predictions for this weekend's matches? Wins for the Bulls and Cheetahs, losses for the Stormers, Sharks and Kings? Send your thoughts to Sport24.

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