Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the 13th of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, expects too much urgency, cohesion and collective class from the Lions for Highveld rivals the Bulls to have a decent sniff at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday.
He fancies the Lions to make it 11 wins from 12 outings this year ... and by a margin of around 11 points, for good measure.
The “normal Lions service” view is shared by all the Sport24 staffers, whilst regular columnist Mark Keohane is even more confident the favourites will prevail in the derby, giving it to Warren Whiteley’s men by some 15 points and suggesting only “around 35 good minutes” initially from the embattled Loftus-based side.
There is surprisingly strong support for the Stormers to see off the Blues at Newlands, even if this tip was a real head-scratcher for most of us after their traumatic stint in New Zealand itself recently.
Continuation of the Kings’ renaissance in another SA-staged affair this weekend? The majority view, alas, is the Brumbies to snatch this one in PE.
*Rob picked the results of four out of seven of last weekend’s games correctly on SuperBru, giving him a season record thus far of 71/94 (almost 76 percent).
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
LIONS v BULLS, Johannesburg
When: Saturday, 17:15
Referee: Quinton Immelman (SA)
Weather outlook: Clear, cool, windless
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Joel Stransky (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Ethienne Reynecke (Afrik), Makhaya Jack & Kaya Malotana (Xho)
Background: Lions on an eight-game winning streak, Bulls coming off successive losses. That says so much about how contrasting the fortunes have generally been this year for the old Highveld adversaries. It also, inevitably, seems logical to back Johan Ackermann’s charges for another victory – especially as they simply have to keep believing the Crusaders will slip up some time to allow them the chance to push for first-place finish overall. A shock home reverse to the Bulls might well mean bye-bye to any hopes of a Johannesburg final. What price it happening, though? Well, let’s just say the Bulls seem as unlikely to win as the Kings did beforehand against the Sharks last weekend (and look what happened in that particular derby). Nevertheless, the Bulls XV running on at Emirates Airline Park has a slightly unsettled look to it, although Francois Brummer getting a fresh crack at flyhalf could spark a few things out wide. Continuity, however, largely remains a strong point of the Lions’ mix. Perhaps if they’re in a suitably “desperate” sort of mood, the Bulls may run their hosts close, and avoid the kind of grilling they got in the last meeting at Loftus in 2016; the Jo’burgers gleefully ran in seven tries that day for a full-house triumph.
Key head-to-head: The encounter at scrumhalf between the Lions’ blond bomber ROSS CRONJE and Bulls stalwart RUDY PAIGE comes at a fitting time, with contrasting reasons: Cronje is a telling invitee to the latest Springbok camp called by coach Allister Coetzee, and Paige just as conspicuous a cold-shoulder victim! It seems “all change” in Coetzee’s mind regarding his No 9 plans, after significant snags in the role last season. Paige is one of his sacrifices ... can the gritty little Bulls man pull out a blinder at Ellis Park to belatedly restore confidence in him? It won’t be easy against Cronje, the uncapped 27-year-old who has mostly been in fine 2017 form for the Lions - even if the final Oz tour game against the Brumbies last week wasn’t his best outing in red and white.
Last result between sides: May 28, 2016: Bulls 20 Lions 56 (Pretoria)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by 11; Garrin Lambley: Lions by 12; Herman Mostert: Lions by 13; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by 15
SA GAME 2
STORMERS v BLUES, Cape Town
When: Friday, 19:00
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (SA)
Weather outlook: Clear, mild, near-windless
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Hanyani Shimange (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Kobus Wiese(Afrik), Lungelo Payi & Mandisa Williams (Xho)
Background: I know I was not alone in finding this clash one of the great “uneasy” picks of the Super Rugby season thus far. It really looks as though it could go either way, and under the circumstances I did what they say you should … default to the home cause. Hopefully the Stormers will be chastened enough by their various, bump-back-to-earth batterings in New Zealand to respond fiercely at Newlands. But they also ought not to be misled by the Blues’ basement status in the cooking NZ conference; the Aucklanders would still expect to have the measure of most other outfits in the competition. “SBW mania”, among other things, will ensure that the visitors have some reasonably vocal support at the jaded but still atmospheric old venue. The unavoidable, frequent tinkering to the Stormers’ backline, which includes now a risky deployment of Dillyn Leyds at flyhalf - hopefully SP Marais cuts the mustard as likely main place-kicker - is offset by a renewed, hardened look to the home tight five, and this could just be the foundation for a nail-biting Stormers return to winning ways at last.
Key head-to-head: Is SIYA KOLISI possibly in with a shout as Springbok captain this year? Um ... is he even going to make the side? These are both tantalising questions, even if the combination of them may seem strange! What you could safely say is that a thunderous performance from the blindside flank berth in this game would probably help Kolisi’s cause a great deal as selection for the French Test series draws extremely near. Personally, I still insist he is better suited to No 6, and find hard nut Rynhardt Elstadt, so suited to the seven shirt, being confined to the WP team this week a little odd. But it is what it is, and at least Kolisi is tested on this hard-to-predict occasion by a quality customer on the Blues blindside ... the rugged All Black STEVEN LUATUA. With the Stormers on a losing sequence of four matches, Kolisi leading from the front and perhaps also eclipsing Luatua at close quarters could be vital to the outcome ...
Last result between sides: February 21, 2015: Stormers 27 Blues 16 (Cape Town)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Stormers by four; Garrin Lambley: Stormers by one; Herman Mostert: Stormers by three; Lloyd Burnard: Blues by six
SA GAME 3
SUNWOLVES v SHARKS, Singapore
When: Saturday, 13:55 (SA time)
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Aus)
Weather outlook: Warm, humid, chance of rain
SuperSport commentators: Provided
Background: Talk of “harsh words” in the Sharks camp after their shock loss in the Friendly City should mean no lack of commitment when they tackle the humble Sunwolves in Singapore, where the Japanese outfit enjoy nothing like the support prevalent in Tokyo. In fact, expect a good sprinkling of expats in slightly retro Sharks jerseys? But the Sharks do have fairly widespread absentee problems, making dates like this one potentially that bit more perilous than would ordinarily be the case. Bear in the mind that the Sunwolves have a habit of getting up for home games against SA foes ... remember Stormers last year (17-17) and Bulls this season (21-20)? If the Sharks get a head of steam early, though, they should be capable of pulling this one off with some gas left in the tank.
Key head-to-head: Minus the suspended Andre Esterhuizen and injured Jeremy Ward, the Sharks are being truly stretched in midfield, aren’t they? Suddenly LUKHANYO AM has become the senior figure at centre, where he will be partnered (in the inside berth) by the Super Rugby-raw but physically sturdy Namibian Johan Deysel. Still, why not entrust Am with greater responsibility at a time when he is edging ever closer to full Springbok honours? He continues to look resourceful at No 13 and to get his hands dirty impressively in turnover terms. His direct opponent in Singapore is RYOHEI YAMANAKA, the Sunwolves utility back with nine Japan Test caps, albeit mostly against second-tier foes like Korea and Hong Kong.
Last result between sides: July 15, 2016: Sharks 40 Sunwolves 29 (Durban)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Sharks by 12; Garrin Lambley: Sharks by 12; Herman Mostert: Sharks by 10; Lloyd Burnard: Sharks by 10
SA GAME 4
KINGS v BRUMBIES, Port Elizabeth
When: Saturday, 19:30
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, light breeze
SuperSport commentators: Andy Capostagno & Robbie Kempson (Eng), John van Rensburg & Gary Boshoff (Afrik), Alfred Mzizi & Lonwabo Mtimka (Xho)
Background: It is so tempting to suggest that the Kings (three wins in succession) are poised for another scalp as the once-premier Brumbies (four losses on the trot) visit the Eastern Cape for the first time. Yes, it could well happen. But the Aussie side are still fairly accomplished-looking on paper, and desperate to return to winning ways and strengthen their unconvincing “grip” on lamentable the Aussie conference. This should be a nail-chewer ... which would mirror their one and only prior meeting in 2013, the Kings’ debut season, when Cornell du Preez - now of high-level Scottish loyalties - scored a try after the siren in Canberra to earn the visitors a rousing draw.
Key head-to-head: Broad-shouldered Brumbies hooker JOSH MANN-REA has been talking up their set-piece this week, which suggests an engrossing scrummaging scrap: has he seen the video of the Kings giving the Sharks a good old shunt at times in that area last week? The veteran Mann-Rea, 36, is an interesting character who once gave up rugby and went coalmining; nowadays he’s a two-cap Wallaby. Up against him will be another pretty well-travelled No 2 in MARTIN BEZUIDENHOUT, who hails from a mining town himself (Orkney in the North-West) and has served several franchises or unions around South Africa spiritedly.
Last result between sides: April 5, 2013: Brumbies 28 Kings 28 (Canberra)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Brumbies by eight; Garrin Lambley: Brumbies by six; Herman Mostert: Kings by three; Lloyd Burnard: Brumbies by five
SA GAME 5
HURRICANES v CHEETAHS, Wellington
When: Saturday, 09:35 (SA time)
Referee: Nic Berry (Aus)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, chilly, fresh wind
SuperSport commentators: NZ panel
Background: The problem with the current lop-sidedness and too-swollen nature of Super Rugby is that teams like the Hurricanes can conveniently rest/rotate players liberally against obviously weaker opponents, reasonably safe in the knowledge they should still win comfortably. You get that sense with their line-up here. So might it represent a suitable bee-in-bonnet to get the underdogs fired up? Hmm, not so sure. The Cheetahs simply can’t find proper methods to plug their defensive “generosity”, and that will only invite further trouble against these free-spirited foes. The ‘Canes dotted nine tries the last time they entertained the Free Staters in the Cake Tin ... we can only hope it isn’t so gory this time. The Cheetahs are finding losing all too habitual, with eight in a row, even if they almost always provide some brilliance in patches before the dam wall cracks.
Key head-to-head: In a clear indication of that selection confidence already mentioned, the home side have opted to give slippery pivot BEAUDEN BARRETT a temporary (presumably) stint in slightly less heavy traffic ... at fullback. That shouldn’t change too much of his hand and foot trickery, of course, and he may even revel in the potential for greater space. The Cheetahs will boast a more settled, specialist figure in the last line of defence in CLAYTON BLOMMETJIES. Mind you, defence amongst the back three is a special area of concern for the men from Bloemfontein, so his tackling and positional game will come under harsh scrutiny; we know he is a threat going forward.
Last result between sides: March 15, 2014: Hurricanes 60 Cheetahs 27 (Wellington)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Hurricanes by 30; Garrin Lambley: Hurricanes by 24; Herman Mostert: Hurricanes by 30; Lloyd Burnard: Hurricanes by 35
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing