Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the 11th of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, says the Bulls will be doing Highveld neighbours the Lions a humungous favour if they knock over the unbeaten Crusaders at Loftus on Saturday.
As things stand, the Lions lie second competition-wide to the ‘Saders, so a Bulls triumph - assuming the Jo’burgers have earlier safely disposed of the innocuous Rebels in Melbourne - could provide double cause for weekend delight amongst Johan Ackermann’s charges.
Here’s the big “but”, though ... what do the Sport24 gurus think are the Bulls’ chances of actually downing the seven-time champions?
The answer is fairly clear-cut: all of our regular-pundit staffers, as well as weekly columnist Mark Keohane, feel the home side won’t quite do it, despite their decent Loftus record against the Crusaders (no loss there since 2008).
*Rob picked the results of five out of eight of last weekend’s games correctly on SuperBru, giving him a season record thus far of 60/79 (76 percent).
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
BULLS v CRUSADERS, Pretoria
When: Saturday, 17:15
Referee: Nic Berry (Aus)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, light breeze
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Joel Stransky (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Background: With an agreeable nine years having passed since the Bulls last tasted Loftus defeat to the Crusaders, it is pretty tempting to suggest the home side are favourites on Saturday. Only the reality is that the Pretoria outfit are nothing like the consistently successful force of a few years back, under Heyneke Meyer and then Frans Ludeke’s tutelage. By contrast, the iconic Crusaders are right back on the rise, in line with the general buxom health of NZ rugby. As I suggested earlier in the week, the Bulls’ best chance of an upset is a bloody-minded physical effort, strangling the visitors’ hallmark running-rugby aspirations. It is NOT beyond them, although they will probably need their best performance of the season. A decent Loftus turnout would help, too, even if the local public often seem more aroused by derbies. Handre Pollard was man of the match when the Bulls beat the ‘Saders 31-19 at Loftus two years ago, and he is an inconvenient absentee here, but Messrs Nyakane, Strauss, Odendaal and Kriel all started that game and do so again.
Key head-to-head: Mighty Bulls sides of old used to revel in fielding a big, no-frills blindside flank; it was often the spot claimed by versatile Danie Rossouw when the Botha-Matfield lock combination was at its vintage best. So it’s a bit of a blast from the past, if you like, as the very direct and much-travelled JACQUES POTGIETER performs the task in this key encounter. He will need to make a bruising impact if the ‘Saders are to be subdued, and he certainly has the edge in experience over direct rival PETE SAMU, who is Australian-born and only sampling his second season of Super Rugby. At 101kg, he doesn’t command quite the beef of “Jackpot” but will try to eclipse him for mobility.
Last result between sides: March 28, 2015: Bulls 31 Crusaders 19 (Pretoria)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Crusaders by three; Garrin Lambley: Crusaders by six; Herman Mostert: Crusaders by three; Lloyd Burnard: Crusaders by 12.
SA GAME 2
REBELS v LIONS, Melbourne
When: Saturday, 07:00 (SA time)
Referee: Shuhei Kubo (Japan)
Weather outlook: Cool, chance of rain, moderate wind
SuperSport commentators: Australian panel
Background: So much seems loaded in favour of the Lions extending their unbeaten run to seven matches. Albeit slow to reach boiling point in their first tour game, the Lions eventually saw off the Force quite professionally and calmly and, if anything, should only be sharper and more Oz-acclimatised for the second. The Rebels, on the other hand, have had to cross the Indian Ocean to return home for this fixture, and rattled by a 44-3 humiliation in Port Elizabeth. They are going to have to play out of their skins to beat the Lions, who see a few rotational changes but mostly with good-quality infusions who know their systems mightily well. These foes haven’t locked horns in three years, but the Lions won by 17 points then in the Big Smoke, and I expect them to prevail by a fair bit more than one score again ...
Key head-to-head: With mounting speculation that Bismarck du Plessis will be among a probably fairly lean crop of overseas-based players summoned by Allister Coetzee for the Boks’ June Test series against France, the Lions’ similar-styled MALCOLM MARX can be expected to show mounting urgency in his own bid for the green and gold No 2 shirt. He has clearly worked hard at upping his lineout throwing, while being assertive in open play. It’s another nice examination of his mettle again here, as he opposes the Rebels’ JAMES HANSON, a 12-cap Wallaby who is swift on his feet.
Last result between sides: July 14, 2014: Lions 34 Rebels 17 (Johannesburg)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by 11; Garrin Lambley: Lions by 16; Herman Mostert: Lions by 12; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by 12.
SA GAME 3
SHARKS v FORCE, Durban
When: Saturday, 15:05
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (SA)
Weather outlook: Cloudy, warm, light breeze
SuperSport commentators: Andy Capostagno & AJ Venter (Eng), John van Rensburg & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Alfred Mzizi & Lungelo Payi (Xho)
Background: More than a few South African rugby-watchers probably shifted channels to the thrilling Klitschko-Joshua boxing as the Sharks were in the midst of battle in Buenos Aires last week ... which is a pity in some respects, as the Durban-based team put up a tigerish, cerebral showing to savour. Not widely tipped to succeed against the Jaguares, they even did so while depriving their hosts of a losing bonus point, and were good value for that very outcome. Now the time has come for the Sharks to allay fears they’re a schizophrenic side ... they do owe the Kings Park faithful an infinitely better showing than evidenced in the 9-9 Rebels match a fortnight back. The Force are fighting with every sinew they can muster to serve notice they deserve to stay in Super Rugby, and even in defeats this season it is seldom by a wide margin. Man for man, though, the Sharks should have the firepower to close this one out comfortably.
Key head-to-head: I am looking forward to seeing whether Thomas “Tank Engine” du Toit matches his thunderous performance in Buenos Aires, but perhaps the pivotal duel here will be the battle of unusually lofty No 5 locks. The Sharks’ 2.05-metre RUAN BOTHA, on this occasion, meets his physical match in the Force’s identically lanky ADAM COLEMAN. You might say they’ll have the best views on the park of this game, especially when they are off the ground for their intriguing lineout contest. Coleman is a little short of a gallop, mind, after a calf injury.
Last result between sides: March 28, 2015: Sharks 15 Force 9 (Durban)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Sharks by 10; Garrin Lambley: Sharks by eight; Herman Mostert: Sharks by 15; Lloyd Burnard: Sharks by 16.
SA GAME 4
HURRICANES v STORMERS, Wellington
When: Friday, 09:35 (SA time)
Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)
Weather outlook: Clear, chilly, gentle breeze
SuperSport commentators: NZ panel
Background: My midweek theory that the Stormers have more or less given up the ghost on this mercifully now-finishing NZ tour will be put to a bit of a test here ... although maybe their decidedly second-string looking combo will produce some really gutsy defiance for a protracted period. But for a full 80 minutes? That is hard to imagine. They have revamped their front row, the lock pairing, the loosies, and will have new halfback and midfield pairings into the bargain. It hardly seems a recipe for stopping the traditionally so fluid and attractive ‘Canes. You would like to think the Stormers might leave the trip with at least one lousy log point to show (there haven’t been any for them at all in three prior matches) but even finishing within seven looks a tall order against the 2016 champions. A shaft of light is that they managed a close result last time in Wellington, when it was 25-20 - and 3-2 in tries - to the Hurricanes. These callow Stormers, obviously without admitting it, might be prepared to bite your hand off for a carbon copy even of that reverse.
Key head-to-head: He is under a bit of scrutiny for the way he dashes off his defensive line to costly effect at times, but I have to agree with coach Robbie Fleck that you usually want little flier CHESLIN KOLBE in your XV because of his huge heart, fearlessness and X-factor. Still, he will have his work cut out in the Cake Tin as his modest 73kg frame has to cope with the Hurricanes’ explosive JULIAN SAVEA, who will be fully aware of the Stormers’ defensive woes in wide berths at present. The All Black “bus” has almost 35kg of superiority to Kolbe and entirely comparable speed ... but these are the sort of challenges the plucky Capetonian often relishes.
Last result between sides: April 3, 2015: Hurricanes 25 Stormers 20 (Wellington)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Hurricanes by 16; Garrin Lambley: Hurricanes by 28; Herman Mostert: Hurricanes by 20; Lloyd Burnard: Hurricanes by 20.
SA GAME 5
CHEETAHS v HIGHLANDERS, Bloemfontein
When: Friday, 19:00
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (SA)
Weather outlook: Cloudy, mild, light breeze
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Hanyani Shimange (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Ethienne Reynecke (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Background: The Cheetahs have an ever-swelling habit of putting a decent tally of points on strong opposition ... but also allowing their foes to assemble still more. You might say the penchant reared its head in the last meeting with the Highlanders in Bloemfontein two years ago, when the teams shared 10 tries ... but seven of them to the NZ outfit. The three Cheetahs dot-downs also came long after the horse had bolted, between the 65th and 72nd minutes. It is possible, regrettably, that history will only repeat itself in this Friday floodlit affair. Franco Smith’s charges are second-worst in the competition for try concession (42 after nine matches) and that is something only likely to get the tourists’ renowned attacking engine purring rather excitedly. Hardly helping is that the Highlanders have some pretty big athletes in wider channels ... and the Cheetahs generally don’t. Ouch?
Key head-to-head: All Black scrumhalf AARON SMITH is in the prime of his career at 28, and at the fulcrum of so much of the Highlanders’ more devilish attacking play. He must be a nightmare for his opposite number to police, and the task this week falls upon TIAN MEYER, the nuggety Cheetahs customer with roots in Maritzburg. Meyer tends to play second fiddle to Shaun Venter, but the latter shifts down to the bench this week after the heavy reverse at the hands of the Crusaders.
Last result between sides: May 16, 2015: Cheetahs 24 Highlanders 45 (Bloemfontein)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Highlanders by 13; Garrin Lambley: Highlanders by 16; Herman Mostert: Highlanders by 10; Lloyd Burnard: Highlanders by 20.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing