Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the sixth of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, senses a mouth-watering Johannesburg derby ... but with the Lions just doing enough to keep the Sharks behind the, um, waves.
His belief is shared by two of the three other staff pundits, as well as our weekly columnist Mark Keohane, who even gives it to the Lions by a pretty clear-cut 10 points; he says the Sharks aren’t quite strong enough to knock over this country’s most in-form unit.
The Stormers, meanwhile, traditionally carry just too many guns for the Cheetahs at Newlands, and that trend ought not to change in 2017.
As for the Bulls, last week’s evidence did so little to boost any confidence in their ability to genuinely challenge the Chiefs ... even a losing bonus point is appears unlikely for them in Hamilton.
*Rob picked the results of all eight of last weekend’s games correctly on SuperBru, giving him a season record thus far of 33/42 (79 percent).
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
LIONS v SHARKS, Johannesburg
When: Saturday, 17:15
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (SA)
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Joel Stransky (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Kaya Malotana (Xho)
Weather outlook: Fine, warm, light breeze
Background: This all-SA affair looked spicy anyway … and it got even more flavoursome with a glance at the rival XVs picked. There will be enthralling (at least on paper) individual match-ups right across the park, starting at fullback where the Sharks field the slight but mercurial utility factor Garth April against the home side’s increasingly compelling Andries Coetzee, who must have a stab at Springbok honours this year. Then how about that clash – perhaps quite literally – of brawny units at No 12, where Rohan Janse van Rensburg faces Andre Esterhuizen? But wait, there’s more! Jantjies v Bosch at No 10, Ackermann v Du Preez (J-L) at blindside flank, Mostert v Botha at No 5 lock, Marx v Ralepelle at hooker … and so it goes. Perhaps the most time-relevant duel, however, is featured just a bit below. Prediction? Well, it is difficult to resist Lions on their beloved Big Smoke patch, although the visitors are in with a big chance if some evidence from Bloemfontein last week is any yardstick. One thing I don’t expect is anything like a repeat of 37-10, the lopsided score (and 5-2 in tries) in the corresponding Jo’burg meet last season, when the Sharks were caught horribly cold early on and switched ends 0-27 down …
Key head-to-head: The one I’ve saved for special treatment is the showdown at scrumhalf between the Lions’ currently irked (you’d think?) FAF DE KLERK and the Durban outfit’s COBUS REINACH. It couldn’t come at a better time, given their contrasting fortunes in latest, extended Bok squad get-together plans. Allister Coetzee has conspicuously excluded blond dynamo De Klerk altogether, despite his generous 11 caps (nine starts) in turbulent 2016. Clearly there’s some claw-back required, with De Klerk probably under main pressure to show he can be a tactical “general” rather than simply nippy, tenacious and busy. Meanwhile Reinach, despite being overseas-bound later in the year, is in from the cold; the 27-year-old had earned the last of his 10 appearances in green and gold in 2015. He has been gutsy, alert and largely constructive for his franchise in early Super Rugby appearances, and showed he’s not scared to mix it with the big boys (though which No 9 isn’t, really?) when he took offence to Oupa Mohoje last weekend and they had a brief ding-dong. Being his 50th Super Rugby game for the Sharks is an additional motivator for him.
Last result between sides: July 2, 2016: Lions 37 Sharks 10 (Johannesburg)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by five; Garrin Lambley: Lions by three; Herman Mostert: Lions by three; Lloyd Burnard: Sharks by five.
SA GAME 2
STORMERS v CHEETAHS, Cape Town
When: Saturday, 15:05
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (SA)
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Hanyani Shimange (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Gary Boshoff (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Sindile Mayende (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, moderate wind
Background: Taken on an overall basis, the unbeaten Stormers’ performance in Singapore fell well below expectation. But you had to admire, nevertheless, the way they adapted their strategy in the second half to douse the initially perky Sunwolves’ fire. On that score, it seems pretty unjust that a key architect of that turnaround initiative, cerebral scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage, finds himself on the bench this week! But remember also that fit-again Jano Vermaak had been playing good rugby himself before his interruption. Robbie Fleck’s charges generally remain in a good space and the reinfusion for this derby of names like Marais, Kolbe, Malherbe, Etzebeth and Du Toit should only aid the quest to put the Cheetahs away fairly comfortably. For their part, the visitors put in an enormous shift to no avail against the Sharks (they were cruelly deprived even of a losing bonus point) and I suspect some legs may go at advanced stages of this battle on the lush Newlands grass. Still, they ran the Stormers to within seven points at the ground in 2016, so their hosts will have to be properly switched on. With desperately tough games ahead, they ought to be.
Key head-to-head: He has his detractors, but I still think the Stormers’ slightly short-fused Rynhardt Elstadt, now back on the long-term injured list, has more value as a physical presence at close quarters than some appreciate. But I’ll also admit that his red-mist, sometimes banishment-causing moments can be costly, so it will be interesting to see how callow COBUS WIESE fares in his first start seemingly at open-side flank (hardly a specialist role for him, mind) this weekend. The SA under-20 star hails from Upington, where they tend not to come too timid. A spirited carrier and defender, he’ll need to front up quickly, too, as opposite number PAUL SCHOEMAN is no shrinking violet in “grunt” aspects of rugby. Mind you, “Tier” is also well short of an out-and-out pilferer, so anything’s possible in the hunt for turnovers at Newlands …
Last result between sides: May 28, 2016: Stormers 31 Cheetahs 24 (Cape Town)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Stormers by 11; Garrin Lambley: Stormers by nine; Herman Mostert: Stormers by nine; Lloyd Burnard: Stormers by 12.
SA GAME 3
CHIEFS v BULLS, Hamilton
When: Saturday, 08:35
Referee: Nick Briant (NZ)
SuperSport commentators: NZ panel
Weather outlook: Cloudy, cool, near-windless
Background: Beaten almost (but not quite) to the point of slaughter by the Blues in their NZ opener, how could you possibly venture with any confidence that the Bulls are capable of upsetting the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium? I know I’m not, regrettably. They look strategically confused and, as I suggested in midweek, just don’t seem to “want it” enough right now as a unit. There has been brave talk from various players in their ranks about how they wish to belatedly please their supporters in this one. Seeing is believing. There are lethal match-winners in the Mooloo ranks, and it must be a little ominous that the last time they played those foes on their own turf (albeit in Rotorua two seasons back), the Bulls were well beaten by 14 points despite still having such seasoned customers as Victor Matfield, Deon Stegmann, Pierre Spies and Marcel van der Merwe in their midst. I suppose a minor “victory” would be avoiding things going really ugly on the scoreboard here? Even a losing bonus point seems a tall order if you look at our forecasts below.
Key head-to-head: There were some signs last weekend, in the otherwise indigestible showing against the Blues, that big Springbok pivot HANDRE POLLARD is beginning to banish injury-related rustiness at last. After all, he has developed a nice little line in shining against New Zealand opposition, whether franchise or international. If he has a sudden blinder, the Bulls’ chances of victory lift quite appreciably. No guarantees he bosses the channel, however … up against him is the slippery Chiefs co-captain AARON CRUDEN, a 47-cap All Black. They were direct rivals in Wellington in 2014, when Pollard experienced his first SA v NZ Test match (his fifth cap overall) and didn’t look out of depth at all in a tight 14-10 Rugby Championship defeat …
Last result between sides: May 22, 2015: Chiefs 34 Bulls 20 (Rotorua)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Chiefs by 16; Garrin Lambley: Chiefs by 12; Herman Mostert: Chiefs by 18; Lloyd Burnard: Chiefs by 20.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing