Lions v Stormers: Returning Ruan to rule Raymond?
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The two best South African teams from last year’s competition finally lock horns in Super Rugby 2018 on Saturday, as the off-colour Lions entertain a similarly fragile Stormers outfit at Ellis Park.
It is a critical encounter for both, given that the hosts, 2017 and 2016 runners-up, have had a pronounced wobble in recent weeks – three losses in four outings – whilst the Stormers could slide toward the outer fringes of the tournament radar if they get beaten again.
Robbie Fleck’s charges, under that scenario, would have subsided to a record of three wins out of eight (at their halfway mark in ordinary season) and under increasing risk of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
The Lions quite comprehensively won the lone meeting between the two, at Newlands, by 29-16 last season, knocking their hosts off stride with a very physical general approach and key dominance of collisions.
Here are some one-on-ones that should help influence the outcome on Saturday …
Ruan Combrinck v Raymond Rhule
What to make of the 2018, rehoused Rhule? On the front foot, the much-maligned former Cheetahs stalwart has made a bright start to his Stormers career with several thrilling raids, exploiting his pace off the mark and eye for a gap. But defensively, many of the shortcomings that marked his Springbok stint last year have remained all too apparent – it appears new Bok mastermind Rassie Erasmus may be contemplating bypassing him. Rhule continues to miss some key tackles, sometimes just going to ground too early, even as he puts himself about with greater intensity on defence. Still, he could avoid being shown up further at this point, given that Combrinck (making a highly welcome return from long-term injury, don’t get me wrong) is still very short of a gallop at this level after months of dormancy. The popular Lions figure needs to make up ground pretty smartly if he is to enter the Test picture for June, and the journey starts here.
Elton Jantjies v Damian Willemse
The infinitely more experienced Lions pivot, Jantjies, had some touching advice for wunderkind Willemse earlier this week: “Feed off the guys around you, because it is a 15-man game.” It almost seemed his shrewd way of trying to muzzle Willemse’s dangerous, often solo-inspired instincts. Be that as it may, we are set for an enthralling match-up at the string-pulling berth of No 10. Jantjies, a Super Rugby veteran of eight years including a short spell in the Cape, has a clear edge in street-wisdom at this level, but his teenage opponent has already shown during 2018 that he is no special respecter of reputations. He has also been something of a surprise package off the kicking tee, looking like an unflappable old pro a lot of the time in that area. This being a fierce, all-SA affair, who kicks better at the posts could have as much bearing as any individual exploits in general play from the respective, always attack-conscious flyhalves …
Kwagga Smith v Siya Kolisi
Every loosie tussle has appeal in this fixture, including tearaway young athlete Hacjivah Dayimani keeping his ticket at No 8 this week against seasoned, now English Premiership-hardened Nizaam Carr, and Cyle Brink duelling pack yo-yo man Pieter-Steph du Toit at blindside flank. But the breakdown, as always, will be a big area of focus and here the different styles of Smith and Kolisi go into combat. As well as in the pinching department, the more mobile former will be expected to get involved in slick linking play, whilst the Stormers captain is likelier to be tasked with a more industrial, bone-jarring role … although he also enjoys the odd, attack-sparking offload and gallop. With Test season fast approaching, Kolisi will be well aware of the need to confirm he is the right fit again for the Bok No 6 jersey. I’d submit he’s been more “decent” than earth-shattering in Super Rugby so far. Fair call, or not?
Ruan Dreyer v Steven Kitshoff
For someone desperately aspiring to unseat veteran Tendai Mtawarira from his long-held berth at the front of the Springbok loosehead prop pecking order, Kitshoff seemed rather off his broad A-game in last week’s Loftus derby defeat. The Bulls’ Trevor Nyakane held firm against him at scrum-time, and there wasn’t as much “fiery red” as is customary in general play from the burly Stormers man. Still, the Capetonians are 80 minutes away from a much-needed bye round, and Robbie Fleck is likely to implore Kitshoff to put in one more rousing effort ahead of it. He scrums down against occasional Bok tighthead Dreyer, who has made a conscious effort to be less penalty-prone at the set-piece: a good day for him against highly-touted Kitshoff could help resurrect his own international aspirations in 2018.
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