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    Lions v Sharks: 'Eight-point swing' game

    2018-02-15 19:17

    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 kick-off).

    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 table.

    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:

    Sylvian 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.

    Harold 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.

    Elton 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. 

    Warren 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.

    Malcolm 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.

    Jacques 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.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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