Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The very fact that it comes on day
one of Super Rugby 2018 shapes up as a potential ally for the Sharks in their
quest for a smash-and-grab at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday (17:15
Make no mistake, their visit to last
season's runners-up the Lions is a massive clash, considering the extent of the
belief among domestic pundits, it seems, that these two will be the main
challengers for SA conference-winning status.
There may be murmurs of dissent on that
note from Newlands and vicinity, but the Stormers are already labouring under
the weight of injuries to core players which may have helped sway conviction
that Johannesburg or Durban will boast the supreme outfit at the conclusion of
ordinary season on July 14 (when the Capetonians, incidentally, have a bye).
So if we are instead looking at a tense, two-horse
race for group bragging rights - with respect to the Bulls and Jaguares, they
are particularly unlikely winners - then both this Saturday and the return
meeting at Kings Park on June 30 could be extremely pivotal occasions.
Put it is this way: if either team manages
to win both derbies, the swing in log points terms will be enormous, and highly
likely to be decisive.
The sensible approach - though "sense"
doesn’t unfailingly prevail in sport - might be to anticipate the Lions edging
this weekend's opener, and the Sharks levelling things up bilaterally in
Durban, so we'd be back not very much the wiser about who will top the SA
In the Sharks' favour, I believe, is the start-of-season
scheduling of the first tussle: if they are found to have done their pre-season
training, game-time and strategic homework more smartly, they have an inviting
chance to catch their hosts "cold" in a game, let's face it, that the Lions are
under greater pressure to prevail in.
Both coaches, Swys de Bruin and Robert du
Preez, have made some interesting, slightly off-beat selections for their
starting line-ups for round one, which only adds to any sense that this one is
a near-lottery in win prediction terms.
SEE: Super Rugby - Weekend teams
Personally, I was leaning a little toward a
mild Sharks upset earlier in the week; closer perusal of the teams named on
Thursday just coaxes me back to believing the Lions will weather the onslaught.
Here are a few appealing direct positional
battles, however, that could have a big say in the outcome:
Mahuza (Lions) v Makazole Mapimpi (Sharks)
A true clash of predators on the wing; look
too deeply into your beer or biltong and you might miss a 30-metre, swerving
breakout by either whippet. This is Sharks left wing Mapimpi's Super Rugby
debut for his new employers; versatile marker Mahuza might have his hands full
defensively but he is also an enthralling ball-in-hand man.
Vorster (Lions) v Andre Esterhuizen (Sharks)
The cerebral Vorster getting the Lions'
inside-centre nod ahead of beefier Rohan Janse van Rensburg suggests the hosts
plan to use stealth and cunning more than brawn at times to outfox the Sharks.
But Vorster’s defensive resolve will be tested by the Sharks' extremely direct
No 12 bruiser Andre Esterhuizen.
Jantjies (Lions) v Robert du Preez (Sharks)
Lions fans will be praying their long-time
talisman at flyhalf, Jantjies, doesn't pick up an injury early on, as
alternatives at No 10 are in short supply with this match-day squad. But if he
goes the distance, expect an engrossing scrap with opposite number and ex-WP
dynamo Du Preez, who has the potential to become something of a "new Henry
Honiball" in that channel for the Sharks.
Whiteley (Lions) v Keegan Daniel (Sharks)
Well, the big positive in the Lions camp,
now stripped of the head coaching services of Johan Ackermann, is the return to
fitness after a long layoff of their treasured leader and fulcrum player
Whiteley. A mobile and rangy No 8, the Sharks combat those qualities by pitting
the veteran, speedy utility loosie Daniel against him, leaving big Dan du Preez
a little surprisingly geared for an impact presence later on.
Marx (Lions) v Franco Marais (Sharks)
Not much more needs to be said about the
booming qualities of No 2 muscle-man Marx, now right up among the top two or
three hookers in world rugby. If he gets straight into his stride in the season
opener, the Lions will automatically get some major go-forward. But all direct
rivals in South Africa will increasingly want to score points against the
heavyweight, and the workmanlike Marais presumably no exception.
van Rooyen (Lions) v Thomas du Toit (Sharks)
Still deeply ruing the loss of Coenie
Oosthuizen to long-term injury, the Sharks have dragged their "Tank Engine"
(not dissimilar in body shape or mass, mind) back across to the thorny
tighthead spot. If he cuts it there, it will see the Sharks' chances of a rosy
2018 soar. But Van Rooyen is hardly a shrinking violet in the Lions' No 1
jersey, so expect no special charity at scrum-time.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing