Why Sharks are the underdogs

    2014-05-09 07:54
    Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in his regular South African-geared Super Rugby preview, gives the Sharks a fighting chance but reluctantly leans toward the Brumbies edging the top-of-table clash on Saturday.

    He also thinks the Bulls will have too much derby oomph at Loftus for an injury-bedevilled Stormers combo especially vulnerable in the tight five, and backs a Cheetahs victory over the Force but another pretty emphatic tour loss for the Lions.


    BRUMBIES v SHARKS, Canberra

    When: Saturday, 11:40 SA time
    Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: Australian panel
    Weather outlook: Chilly, chance of rain, light breeze

    Background: Don’t get me wrong, the still pace-setting Sharks have a good chance at Canberra Stadium. On paper, these sides are hard to separate in most positions. But head should over-rule heart for red letter occasions like this one, and it is a cold fact that South African teams hold a sorry “one from 14” win record in Australasia this season. It is primarily on those grounds that you have to suspect home advantage could swing it the Brumbies’ way on what may be a wet and cold night. Yes, they come off a fairly clear-cut away loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch, but in their last home outing, perhaps more pertinently, they thrashed the title-holding Chiefs. That indicates just how tough the Sharks’ task is. Still, there is enough steel in the visiting ranks to produce a minor upset, and a Sharks win would be a timely reminder to Australian rugby in general that they shouldn’t get too cocky about their chances of eclipsing the Springboks in 2014.  

    Key head-to-head: In a high-stakes game between well-matched teams that may just be settled by a game-breaking moment, the presence in the Sharks No 8 jersey of the tearaway, strong-striding RYAN KANKOWSKI must be reassuring to fans of the visiting side. His ability to breach the advantage line, and also act as a backline-like linking factor, cannot be under-estimated. But the rangy Springbok comes up against a sturdy opponent in the shape of Wallabies stalwart and Brumbies captain BEN MOWEN, who is also a true “all-rounder” of the berth even if he is marginally less explosive in an athletic sense. This is a big opportunity for Kankowski, particularly with Pierre Spies sidelined, to get back close to Heyneke Meyer’s Bok plans this year with a strong personal performance. Keegan Daniel also getting a start means the Sharks hardly lack pace among the loosies.

    Last result between sides: March 16, 2013: Sharks 10 Brumbies 29 (Durban)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Brumbies by four points

    SA GAME 2

    BULLS v STORMERS, Pretoria

    When: Saturday, 19:10
    Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce and Joel Stransky (Eng), John van Rensburg and Jaco van der Westhuyzen (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja and Makhaya Jack (Xho)
    Weather outlook: Clear, mild, near windless

    Background: Looking at the respective tight fives, you have to suggest that if the Bulls can’t get firm ascendancy in that department on Saturday night, then they’re a pretty moderate crew indeed. That is said mostly because their great rivals from the deep south have had to do a major patch-up job just to get men onto the park in the slots! They are missing the services of some seven or eight of their potential lock stocks, both their two main loosehead props, whilst at tighthead the finally fit-again Pat Cilliers will be lacking in game sharpness for the clash in high-altitude conditions. So Victor Matfield and company in the rugged Bulls engine room should have a relative field day. Yet a Stormers upset cannot completely be ruled out, and the reason I have got them running the Bulls fairly close is that they are well versed, over the past few years, in defending stoutly and relying on turnovers to strike anyway – that has been a hallmark even at full strength. The fact that they have sharpened their ball-in-hand act subsequently gives them a fighting chance, and with the likes of Messrs Burger, Vermeulen and Carr still comprising a superior and more balanced loose trio to the Bulls’, that is an area they could cause difficulty. But just not enough, perhaps? Keep in mind that the hosts still harbour faint playoffs dreams ...

    Key head-to-head: There is a fair chance, given their afore-mentioned upheaval in the pack, that the Stormers will have to feed off scraps. So if some of their best scoring chances come from broken play or counter-attacks, that little torpedo CHESLIN KOLBE on the left wing could come into his own, even if the 20-year-old remains terribly raw at this level of combat. Kolbe has already shown in Currie Cup activity that he is not overly intimidated by bigger units in direct combat – he will concede around 10kg here to Bulls veteran AKONA NDUNGANE, some 13 years his senior. It is a clash of styles, given that the last-named player is no outright “express” but makes his tackles, is very sound in positional and anticipation terms and generally works hard for the Bulls’ cause.      

    Last result between sides: July 13 2013: Stormers 30 Bulls 13 (Cape Town)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Bulls by five points

    SA GAME 3

    CHEETAHS v FORCE, Bloemfontein

    When: Saturday, 17:05
    Referee: Chris Pollock (NZ)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane and Warren Brosnihan (Eng), Christo Olivier and Werner Swanepoel (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka and Lungelo Payi (Xho)
    Weather outlook: Cloudy, cool, light breeze

    Background: The return of Sias Ebersohn to the Free State Stadium in the Force’s blue strip, not to mention his head-to-head scrap at flyhalf with Johan Goosen, is just one reason to relish this game. But it is also a good ‘un because it pits a surprise package of last season – the Cheetahs – against a side punching very spiritedly above their own weight this time. It makes predicting a winner a hazardous call. Yes, it’s fifth at present (Force) against 15th (Cheetahs), but we all know that the men in white can beat absolutely anybody in Bloemfontein, and I have a fairly strong hunch that the home-towners will prevail. They’ve got an unbeaten 2-0 record against the Perth franchise (one home, one away) since the advent of the conference system, and will probably try in characteristic fashion to run them off their feet even if they leave some “holes at the back” as they do so.   

    Key head-to-head: The fact that he does not fit in with Bok coach Meyer’s “big back row” principle is well documented. Even so, plenty of critics believe HEINRICH BRUSSOW is simply too good to ignore. Who will ever forget how destructive he was in successive home Test victories over the All Blacks – not yet downed in the Meyer era -- in 2009? The tough little open-sider, revelling in his return to best fitness after several injury setbacks, has been encouragingly assertive and multi-dimensional for the Cheetahs in recent weeks. Nevertheless, on Saturday he goes head to head in what should be an enthralling pilfering battle with Force captain MATT HODGSON, a tireless, demonically-motivated factor for his franchise as well. Neutral, NZ referee Chris Pollock could have his hands really full deciding which of the nuggety pair is staying closer to the bounds of legality at the breakdown ...  

    Last result between sides: March 23 2013: Force 10 Cheetahs 19 (Perth)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Cheetahs by four points

    SA GAME 4


    When: Saturday, 09:35 SA time
    Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)
    TV: M-Net, SS1, SHD
    SuperSport commentators: New Zealand panel
    Weather outlook: Indoor venue

    Background: Sorry, Lions, but once again the dice seems loaded against you: the Highlanders are playing a sharp brand of rugby, have their sights healthily set on the finals series and will target a full-house triumph in Dunedin. I copped some stick for saying the Jo’burgers would crash by 32 points to the Chiefs in their first tour fixture and ... well, they lost by 30! There were signs, as ever this year, that the Lions’ spine has not entirely been snapped morale-wise, so I’ve cut the margin a bit for this one (see below) even if the Highlanders should still romp home with quite a lot to spare. A couple of factors can make the Lions just a little optimistic, one being the long haul back from South Africa just undertaken by the New Zealanders. Another, believe it or not, is that Warren Whiteley’s side do boast victory in the last meeting between these foes, even if it was three years ago (there’s been a bye and a season’s absence by the Lions since them). In 2011, now-retired Wikus van Heerden’s last-minute try sealed a famous Lions triumph at the old Carisbrook venue. Still, Derick Minnie will be the lone away-team starting survivor from that occasion on Saturday, and I can’t see lightning striking twice on the South Island.

    Key head-to-head: Yes, this is the second time in a week that exciting Highlanders outside centre MALAKAI FEKITOA enters this slot, but he is one of the hottest properties in Super Rugby right now, and has been a key element in the Highlanders’ surge to playoffs contention. Fekitoa was a major handful in both matches in South Africa recently, where his side came desperately close to doing a clean sweep over the Sharks and Stormers (the latter pipped them by one point at Newlands). The embattled Lions will do well to contain him at the Forsyth Barr Stadium, but some consolation is that his opposite number, LIONEL MAPOE, is a seasoned and often truculent campaigner with some tricks up his own sleeve ...  

    Last result between sides: May 28 2011: Highlanders 22 Lions 26 (Dunedin)

    Rob Houwing’s prediction: Highlanders by 19 points

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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