Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the first of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, believes the Stormers just hold the aces for their campaign-opening cracker against old adversaries the Bulls here on Saturday.
But there won’t be much in it, as indicated by the particularly spicy second-row match-ups, including the opportunity for Springbok juggernauts Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager to grapple each other again.
If the Lions can immediately recapture the “spirit of 2016”, they will prove too strong for the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, but after agonising long and hard, Rob sees the Sharks losing by a desperately tight margin to the Reds - it can’t be easy to triumph in faraway Queensland, so often hoodoo territory for South African sides, in your very first game.
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
STORMERS v BULLS, Cape Town
When: Saturday, 19:30
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (SA)
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Hanyani Shimange (Eng); Gerrie Scheepers & Kobus Wiese (Afrik); Lungelo Payi & Mandisa Williams (Xho)
Weather outlook: Fine, warm, moderate to strong wind
Background: It was interesting hearing former Stormers captain and midfield stalwart Jean de Villiers say in midweek that he fancied the Bulls boasted best depth of the SA sides this year, and might go the furthest. Naturally that is no guarantee that the visitors from Pretoria will win this appealing first step in the marathon, against their time-honoured rivals at Newlands... but it should provide a fair barometer in bigger-picture terms. Predicting round-one tussles is hazardous, so home advantage as much as anything is my cue to slightly tip the Stormers for a winning start: after all, the Bulls last won at this venue six years back, in 2011. In Robbie Fleck and Nollis Marais respectively, both outfits have emerging, quietly ambitious coaches determinedly seeking to restore past glories and it is possible that amidst the inevitable derby grunt, we will see unusual levels of adventure and ball-in-hand devotion at times. That is enhanced by the instincts of the respective, 22-year-old flyhalves; it’s mightily good to see Handre Pollard back calling the shots for the Bulls whilst the Stormers favouring the mercurial Jean-Luc du Plessis over Robert du Preez also seems a signal of attacking intent on their part.
Key head-to-head: The respective benches contain some genuine impact presences (for example, two heavyweight props in Messrs Malherbe and Kebble and the loosie flair of Sikhumbuzo Notshe for the Stormers, and the Bulls infusing the likes of Lizo Gqoboka and Warrick Gelant), but it is hard to avoid for headline billing the enticing “rematch”, at No 4 lock, between Springbok pals-cum-adversaries EBEN ETZEBETH and LOOD DE JAGER. When they last encountered each other at Newlands in 2016 - De Jager still in Cheetahs colours - there was that remarkable, protracted wrestling match between them, way off the ball. Etzebeth may have to try to be more squeaky-clean now that he is the Stormers’ vice-captain, though that fact won’t douse natural competitive instincts too much in either party, I’m pretty sure. Pieter-Steph du Toit against hemelbesem RG Snyman completes a classic, perhaps pivotal second-row duel on Saturday...
Last result between sides: May 21, 2016: Bulls 17 Stormers 13 (Pretoria)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Stormers by four; Garrin Lambley: Stormers by five; Herman Mostert: Stormers by three; Lloyd Burnard: Stormers by eight.
SA GAME 2
CHEETAHS v LIONS, Bloemfontein
When: Saturday, 15:05
Referee: Quinton Immelman (SA)
SuperSport commentators: To follow
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, light breeze
Background: The policy at the Johannesburg-based franchise - and you can hardly blame them, in so many ways – is to allow various stars to effectively sacrifice an off-season, allowing them to take up lucrative Japanese deals but then still be available for the beloved red-and-whites. It’s better than “starting over”, as so many other SA teams do after losing handfuls of key performers more permanently to Europe. But it also means that managing workloads becomes a delicate issue for Lions coach Johan Ackermann, and the Cheetahs may take heart for this Highveld crunch from the fact that their squad overwhelmingly had proper conditioning and relaxation opportunities in the summer. That said, they probably won’t have quite enough oomph to knock over the visitors, especially with Currie Cup-winning captain Francois Venter sidelined and leaving a midfield hole.
Key head-to-head: The Lions have sadly surrendered - courtesy of that deflating, serious neck injury - popular tighthead anchorman Julian Redelinghuys. So it is critical for their quest to go one better than their fine 2016 campaign that RUAN DREYER steps up spiritedly in the No 3 jersey. The man from Potchefstroom at least boasts plenty of Super Rugby experience, stretching back to 2012, and can be a solid scrummager. Up against him at the set-piece in this derby is CHARLES MARAIS, capable of being a very destructive loosehead when he’s fired up, and chosen above the fast-emerging Ox Nche for this clash; expect the latter to feature with some voomah off the bench in the second half. Gritty Uzair Cassiem versus explosive-running Jaco Kriel in the clash of open-side flanks is another enthralling ‘un.
Last result between sides: March 19, 2016: Lions 39 Cheetahs 22 (Johannesburg)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by seven; Garrin Lambley: Lions by 13; Herman Mostert: Lions by three; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by eight.
SA GAME 3
REDS v SHARKS, Brisbane
When: Friday, 11:00
Referee: Nick Briant (NZ)
SuperSport commentators: Australian panel
Weather outlook: Fine, warm, gentle breeze
Background: The Sharks tend to embrace the travel factor, and there are also certain advantages to getting their main – and still only two-match - overseas leg out of the way extremely rapidly this year. Once they have played the Reds on Friday, and then moved on to play the Brumbies, their only remaining obligations abroad in ordinary season are once-off games against the Jaguares (Buenos Aires) and Sunwolves (Singapore). But at least one Kings Park hit-out might have been useful before going to Brisbane for this tussle, and a gut feel tells me they will find the task beyond them... by a whisker. The Reds are regrouping this year, and gnarly veteran recruits like billiard-ball Wallaby hooker Stephen Moore and fetching genius George Smith, a ripe old 36, won’t make the Sharks’ task any easier. Still, if their forwards are feisty and direct and the classy Reinach-Lambie combo serve as a good conduit for the outside backs, they are perfectly capable of leaving Brisbane victorious.
Key head-to-head: If the Sharks are to go a long way this season, it would help a great deal if a relative rookie has a particularly explosive “arrival” season at this level. For me the likeliest greenhorn on their books to do so is that slim, elusive fullback CURWIN BOSCH. Still a teenager until June, the former SA under-20 star got a taste of Super Rugby last season and a subsequent Currie Cup also helped fast-track his development. A bit like the Chiefs’ Damian McKenzie, Bosch is proof that skilful “little ‘uns” can still prosper at high levels of rugby. He still needs careful guidance and some protection, but there can be no doubting his X-factor. His direct opponent at Suncorp Stadium will be KARMICHAEL HUNT, the former Rugby League icon who shares Bosch’s positional flexibility and isn’t shy to spark unexpected moves...
Last result between sides: May 22, 2015: Reds 14 Sharks 21 (Brisbane)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Reds by one; Garrin Lambley: Sharks by one; Herman Mostert: Sharks by seven; Lloyd Burnard: Sharks by five.
SA GAME 4
KINGS v JAGUARES, Port Elizabeth
When: Saturday, 17:15
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Robbie Kempson (Eng); John van Rensburg & Gary Boshoff (Afrik); Alfred Mzizi & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, strong wind
Background: There was a quirky, 53-point swing when these foes met last season. First the Argentineans ran riot in Buenos Aires, winning 73-27, but then only four weeks later the Kings avenged that heavy loss with a 29-22 victory at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. It is one reason to give them hope for this pipe-opening meeting at the same venue, although it must be remembered that in the eventful 2016 clash the Jaguares collectively lost their disciplinary composure - they suffered two crippling red cards in the first half, and at one point had an unusually challenging 12 men on the park in the second due to a yellow. The Kings have picked up a couple of useful enough “journeyman” acquisitions since last year, but may not have quite enough class or nous to see off a Pumas-laden visiting combo.
Key head-to-head: If the Kings are to get their campaign off to a successful start, a moment of opportunism or blinding pace from broken play may be required to edge out the tough Argentineans, who will back their ability to dominate in the boiler-room and by extension rule the territorial roost too. In that regard, someone like lightweight but sometimes lethal left wing Uitenhage express MALCOLM JAER (trust he’s been eating his meat and veg in the off-season?) could be important as a game-cracker. If Jaer gets into suitable space, it’s bye-bye. Not that he will find the going easy against direct rival and 21-cap international right wing MATIAS ORLANDO - even if still more accustomed to midfield - who is just as likely to wish to have a stab at the Kings’ sometimes less-than-adhesive defence...
Last result between sides: May 27, 2016: Kings 29 Jaguares 22 (Port Elizabeth)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Jaguares by six; Garrin Lambley: Jaguares by eight; Herman Mostert: Jaguares by five; Lloyd Burnard: Jaguares by eight.
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