Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the next of his regular South African-focused Vodacom Super Rugby previews this year, believes the Lions will get back on the “bike” after their bloody recent fall to knock over the Blues at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday.
He also sees advances for increasingly gap-closing conference rivals the Sharks against the Jaguares (perhaps only just), the Stormers against the Sunwolves, and Cheetahs in the lone local derby against the Kings.
But the Bulls will do very well to get the better of the Waratahs, who are gathering a threatening head of steam, in Sydney.
*Rob lies 7,803rd out of about 195,000 contestants for Super Rugby predictions on SuperBru, with a current win success rate of 75%.
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
LIONS v BLUES, Johannesburg
When: Saturday, 19:15
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Andy Capostagno & Bob Skinstad (Eng), John van Rensburg & Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Cool, strong rain chance, gentle breeze
Background: They may remain the least productive New Zealand franchise, but bear in mind that the Blues still boast a better record than many other teams tourney-wide this year and won’t pitch up in the Big Smoke to simply play rollover. There is also the danger that the Lions, coming off a bye, may be lacking in some sharpness despite the rest; it’s something than can afflict any side in Super Rugby. But my fancy is that Warren Whiteley and company (also chuffed to see scrum anchorman Julian Redelinghuys back in business) will be powered by enough urgency to winkle this one out, and thus go a long way to burying memories of the Hurricanes hammering. There is no motivation quite like knowing that an in-form compatriot team, the Sharks, are banging hard at the door at the top of their conference. But the Aucklanders could nick a losing “BP” …
Key head-to-head: Apart from the vital reappearance of Redelinghuys, the compact No 3 is also rejoined in battle by a fit-again MALCOLM MARX, the hooker who was playing with much of the power and belligerence of a Bismarck du Plessis until his enforced time off. He has been missed, as Akker van der Merwe somehow looks so much better suited to an impact role at present, doesn’t he? Not that Marx will have matters all his own way against JAMES PARSONS, who is the Blues’ skipper and a one-cap All Black with almost five seasons of no-nonsense Super Rugby exposure.
Last result between sides: March 7, 2015: Blues 10 Lions 13 (Albany)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by seven; Garrin Lambley: Lions by six; Herman Mostert: Lions by 10; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by eight.
SA GAME 2
WARATAHS v BULLS, Sydney
When: Saturday, 11:45 (SA time)
Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Australian panel
Weather outlook: Clear, mild, windless
Background: This is not just the last of the Bulls’ three games on Australian soil, but perhaps also the one that will best tell us how much quality they really possess. Excellent against the Force and then close to limp against the Brumbies, in what mental shape will they pitch up here? It could be important for the Bulls to get their noses in front early on if they are to sustain high energy levels for the full 80 minutes before the trip home. Sadly, I think the ‘Tahs are on enough of an upward curve (three wins from three) to make home advantage count in their favour. Also, just how much will the Bulls’ minds already be on that far from unimportant Loftus derby against the Stormers a week on? The Bulls have a puncher’s chance, and I keenly await the Beale-Folau v Serfontein-Kriel humungous midfield scrap, but the Sport24 crew unanimously tip a Waratahs victory.
Key head-to-head: Lanky lock RG SNYMAN could do with the sort of fire-in-belly performance that marked his outing against the Force a fortnight back, given that he opposes the behemoth WILL SKELTON in the scrap between the No 5s. When the 140kg Waratahs specimen started out in Super Rugby three or four years back, you almost got the sense he was picked primarily because he was such a formidable lump of flesh. But he’s developed into a lot more than that, putting his physicality to increasingly productive use and being a regular thorn in the Stormers’ side during the ‘Tahs fine win at Newlands recently. Snyman has to do his bit to prevent Skelton getting too much go-forward in the tight-loose, as well as contribute to a general quest by the Bulls pack to be less passive than they were in Canberra.
Last result between sides: April 19, 2014: Waratahs 19 Bulls 12 (Sydney)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Waratahs by nine; Garrin Lambley: Waratahs by seven; Herman Mostert: Waratahs by three; Lloyd Burnard: Waratahs by eight.
SA GAME 3
SUNWOLVES v STORMERS, Singapore
When: Saturday, 13:55 (SA time)
Referee: Paul Williams (NZ)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Unavailable
Weather outlook: Cloudy, warm, windless (venue has retractable roof)
Background: The Sunwolves’ limitations were so painfully evident again last week when they were thrashed at home even by the humdrum Western Force. Clearly complacency is going to be main – only? – stumbling block to a sizeable Stormers triumph in the sticky heat of Singapore. The Capetonians ought to prevail even more comfortably if they’ve fixed some of their uncharacteristic defensive shortcomings during their bye period: even the Sunwolves breached them three times in try terms during a 46-19 reverse in the first-round clash at Newlands. Robbie Fleck’s charges should be candidates for an important full house of log points if they keep their wits about them, although bear in mind that the Bulls only saw off the Japanese outfit by three points at the same ground earlier in the campaign.
Key head-to-head: Two scrumhalves who are pretty used to being “next in line”, albeit at slightly different levels of the game, lock horns here. The Stormers are giving a start to LOUIS SCHREUDER, more often behind Nic Groom in the pecking order at No 9 this season – but a lively presence on several occasions off the bench, and one of the stars of the earlier encounter in Cape Town. Meanwhile the Sunwolves field the experienced ATSUSHI HIWASA, who at international level tends to play second fiddle these days for Japan to the eternally cheerful-looking, Highlanders-based Fumiaki Tanaka. He was his deputy in the famous Brighton upset of the Springboks, but does sport more than 50 caps for his country.
Last result between sides: April 8, 2016: Stormers 46 Sunwolves 19 (Cape Town)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Stormers by 19; Garrin Lambley: Stormers by 25; Herman Mostert: Stormers by 12; Lloyd Burnard: Stormers by 20.
SA GAME 4
JAGUARES v SHARKS, Buenos Aires
When: Saturday, 22:40
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Hugh Bladen & Joel Stransky (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Bennie Nortje (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Alfred Mzizi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Cool, chance of rain, gentle breeze
Background: This is the SA-related fixture that probably gave me the biggest prediction head-scratcher of the week, to be honest. I eventually settled on a tight Sharks win in Buenos Aires (as did my colleagues) but this could go the other way if the visitors are suffering from jetlag – they have done an obscene amount of travelling recently – and cannot emulate their marvellous physical commitment evident in the handsome roasting of the ‘Canes in Durban. Hopefully, thoughts of just how damaging a loss could be will keep the Sharks ticking over properly, though there WILL be bruises from this one! The Jaguares must be desperate to knock over a big team, and that 70-plus tally against the Kings recently is a signal of what is possible if there are bees beneath their collective bonnets.
Key head-to-head: Although Gary Gold is sensibly employing rotation tactics, considering the gruelling workload and time in aircraft endured by his charges at present, it surprised me a little that he restored COENIE OOSTHUIZEN, still experiencing certain “growing pains” in his conversion to tighthead prop, for a game against an Argentinean side at the expense of the recently sturdy Lourens Adriaanse. While it is true that the Jaguares haven’t got a Bajada going that menacingly this season, a destructive scrumming performance is seldom too far away in their rugby culture, is it? Still, Oosthuizen will have bulk on his side, at 128kg, when he packs down against Jaguares loosehead SANTIAGO GARCIA BOTTA, who will concede almost 20kg, and Gold probably wishes for Oosthuizen to do some ball-in-hand damage as well.
Last result between sides: March 5, 2016: Sharks 19 Jaguares 15 (Durban)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Sharks by three; Garrin Lambley: Sharks by one; Herman Mostert: Sharks by three; Lloyd Burnard: Sharks by five.
SA GAME 5
CHEETAHS v KINGS, Bloemfontein
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Federico Anselmi (Arg)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Wim Visser (Eng), Christo Olivier & Gary Boshoff (Afrik), Lungelo Payi & Kaya Malotana (Xho)
Weather outlook: Chilly, chance of rain, gentle breeze
Background: As if they haven’t got enough woes already, the Kings suddenly appear a bit like the Liberian soccer team of yesteryear must have looked whenever the legendary George Weah – their standout player by a mile -- was absent. There is no Steven Sykes at the fulcrum of their engine room or for leadership in “Bloem”, and to greatly add to the disadvantage, both of those hard-grafting loosie dynamos Chris Cloete and CJ Velleman are also on the crocked list now. That hardly suggests the Kings are up for engineering a surprise against a Cheetahs team greatly reinforced in their front five for this one after back-pedalling so much against the Waratahs. Our predictions are all for a 15 points-plus home win...
Key head-to-head: He hails from Humansdorp so it must be a little galling to long-suffering Eastern Cape rugby folk to see that SERGEAL PETERSEN – a member of Alan Solomons’ rather more competitive 2013 team – is making renewed, encouraging strides in the colours of the Cheetahs these days. Petersen (six) currently has more tries than any other South African in the 2016 competition. Incredibly still only 21, the wing flier doubtless fancies a couple more against a Kings defence that, statistics suggest, misses a higher percentage of tackles than any other Super Rugby team. The job of directly keeping him in check on Saturday falls to Kings left wing LUZUKO VULINDLU, the much-travelled utility back.
Last result between sides: May 25, 2013: Kings 22 Cheetahs 34 (Port Elizabeth)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Cheetahs by 15; Garrin Lambley: Cheetahs by 26; Herman Mostert: Cheetahs by 30; Lloyd Burnard: Cheetahs by 20.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing