Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the ninth of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, sees the Stormers suffering a second successive reverse when they tackle the unbeaten Crusaders in their Christchurch stronghold on Saturday.
His belief is shared by all three other staff pundits, as well as weekly columnist Mark Keohane, although opinion varies on whether they will be competitive enough in their NZ tour opener to snaffle a losing bonus point.
If it is any source of hope to supporters of the Stormers, Houwing admits to ropey forecasting of their recent matches: he had them losing to the Chiefs and beating the Lions ... and the results went the other way around.
There is unanimity among our panel, meanwhile, that the Bulls will earn derby revenge over the Cheetahs, Lions keep advancing toward the knockouts at the expense of the Jaguares and Sharks comfortably see off the Rebels.
*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 49/63 (78 percent).
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
CRUSADERS v STORMERS, Christchurch
When: Saturday, 09:35 (SA time)
Referee: Paul Williams (NZ)
SuperSport commentators: NZ panel
Weather outlook: Clear, cool, light breeze
Background: For the limited amount it matters, there is no notably recent “form guide” between these foes to use as any gauge for what might happen on Saturday. Their last meeting was all of three years ago, also in Christchurch, and the Stormers put up a particularly plucky fight before succumbing 14-13. Since then, though, the visitors have had major personnel changes ... as evidenced by the fact that their starting XV (considering Springbok tighthead Frans Malherbe is curtailed to the bench this weekend) will be wholly different to the 2014 run-on combo in this fixture. Men like Deon Fourie, De Kock Steenkamp, Gio Aplon and Duane Vermeulen have long since left for alternative climes. Still, that’s not to suggest the Stormers have dwindled as a competitive force in the interim - last weekend’s home loss to the Lions was their first of the season, snapping a six-game winning streak. They are maximising their resources under the astute tenure of Robbie Fleck, and have enough collective spirit and intelligence to make life uncomfortable for the ‘Saders once again. Here’s another thought: the unbeaten home side haven’t played opponents of really major substance for a while, so might they be a tad undercooked? That said, it takes a very brave pundit to bet against the likes of Kieran Read, Ryan Crotty and Sam Whitelock in their beloved backyard ...
Key head-to-head: A slightly unexpected return to blindside flank rugby service by Pieter-Steph du Toit was a hallmark of the Stormers team named this week, and how the Springbok fares in the slot could be crucial to their hopes as underdogs. But I am especially looking forward to seeing how SIKHUMBUZO NOTSHE fares in the ultimate test of his No 8 credentials: up against likely world leader in the berth KIERAN READ. A much-decorated, 97-cap All Black, seasoned Read trounces Notshe for pure experience, but the 23-year-old Notshe is a wonderful athlete still with considerable potential to go one big step further than the SA ‘A’ honours he earned in 2016. We haven’t seen the best of him yet this season … but what a chance for a major tick here!
Last result between sides: March 8, 2014: Crusaders 14 Stormers 13 (Christchurch)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Crusaders by nine; Garrin Lambley: Crusaders by six; Herman Mostert: Crusaders by 10; Lloyd Burnard: Crusaders by 12.
SA GAME 2
LIONS v JAGUARES, Johannesburg
When: Friday, 19:00
Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Joel Stransky (Eng), John van Rensburg & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Sindile Mayende (Xho)
Weather outlook: Clear, mild, light breeze
Background: Give Johan Ackermann credit: he is a pretty single-minded and novel fellow when it comes to his team selections at times. Straight off their near demolition-job on the Stormers set-piece (and more) at Newlands, he has benched every member of his sturdy starting front row from that memorable victory. It may baffle the scrum-conscious Jaguares a little, but at the same time Lions fans have the comfort of knowing that in-form Messrs Marx, Dreyer and Van Rooyen can all trot on as the game progresses to either arrest any problems or (more likely, perhaps?) help turn some screws in this one. Backline oomph has been punctured a bit by the Rohan Janse van Rensburg long-term injury setback, but Harold Vorster is an excellent stand-in, albeit a slightly different-styled presence at No 12. The Jaguares weren’t great in losing to the Bulls last time out, and smart money suggests they will end this particular, three-game SA trek without a victory ... unless they play out of their skins at Emirates Airline Park. And that’s not out of the question.
Key head-to-head: With Malcolm Marx, as already mentioned, on the “splinters” for this one, popular understudy AKKER VAN DER MERWE has the chance to remind that he’s more than just the stereotypical supersub. Still, there will be pressure on the Angry Warthog (Nick Mallett’s nickname for him) to carry out his staple chores with aplomb, something Marx did very well at Newlands while rampaging ferociously in open play too. Van der Merwe will have his work cut out as his direct rival is the no-nonsense Jaguares captain and Pumas stalwart AGUSTIN CREEVY, who you sometimes feel is overplayed by the South American franchise, such is his extreme value to their cause.
Last result between sides: March 11, 2017: Jaguares 36 Lions 24 (Buenos Aires)
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 3
BULLS v CHEETAHS, Pretoria
When: Saturday, 17:15
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (NZ)
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Joel Stransky (Eng), John van Rensburg & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Alfred Mzizi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, light breeze
Background: The slow-moving Bulls machine is back firing on a bit closer to full cylinders, even if they continue to look some way short of the force of old and the game-plan is reasonably featureless. Expect the visitors not to lack belief in an upset, even if the breathless Chiefs game last weekend confirmed our worst fears: given their shaky defence, even a sizeable lead is no guarantee of triumph for them. Powered by unpleasant memories of the Bloemfontein first-round meeting, the Bulls will not wish to be caught off-guard anew and most of the Sport24 tipsters have them winning at Loftus by more than one score - after all, the Bulls know that they can close the gap quite dramatically on group rivals the Stormers if the Capetonians’ NZ trek turns into the tour from hell some fear it could. It is a little ironic that Trevor Nyakane has an enforced rest now, just a few days after his brightest showing at tighthead prop in some time against the Jaguares, sparking a collective showing of long overdue scrumming prowess by the Bulls.
Key head-to-head: It was refreshing to see JESSE KRIEL run with much of the energy and elusiveness of old at Loftus last week, even if he was doing so from fullback then. The Bok utility customer is back at No 13 for this encounter, and with the Cheetahs’ traditional fast and loose approach, there ought to be opportunities in broken play for him to attack with zest once more on a firm pitch. But with Bok Test places an increasing area of focus as June looms, the visitors’ captain FRANCOIS VENTER won’t exactly be prepared to simply play turnstile at outside centre ... remember that for all their collective woes last year, he is the incumbent in green and gold.
Last result between sides: March 4, 2017: Cheetahs 34 Bulls 28 (Bloemfontein)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Bulls by 14; Garrin Lambley: Bulls by six; Herman Mostert: Bulls by 10; Lloyd Burnard: Bulls by eight.
SA GAME 4
SHARKS v REBELS, Durban
When: Saturday, 19:30
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (SA)
SuperSport commentators: Andy Capostagno & Butch James (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Toks van der Linde (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Sindile Mayende (Xho)
Weather outlook: Clear, warm, light breeze
Background: Fresh off a bye and with their fairly unfancied opponents just having flown long-haul, the situation seems tailor-made for a routine Sharks win, doesn’t it? The Rebels (0/11 in all tussles in SA, remember) did finally break their 2017 tournament duck with a mild upset first victory in six starts against the Brumbies last weekend, but lightning really shouldn’t strike twice for them at Kings Park. It will be a surprise if the hosts have a dopey approach to this fixture, given the relentless pressure in their tight conference; they simply have to regard this match as a banker! Coach Robert du Preez might also be well advised to remind his charges that they were near-awful in the last Durban clash between these sides two seasons back - the Sharks had to cling on grimly for a scrappy win despite the Rebels having prop Laurie Weeks red-carded before the half-hour mark after landing a haymaker or three on that angelic doctor, Jannie du Plessis ...
Key head-to-head: The Rebels team was not known at the time of writing, but there seemed every chance of big, Tongan-born AMANAKI MAFI keeping his spot at eighth-man for the Rebels, thus placing him in one-on-one rivalry with the Sharks’ young DANIEL DU PREEZ. We should see an enthralling battle of forceful ball-carriers, as both men tip the scales around 112kg and don’t exactly shirk contact. Du Preez will know that a strong commitment to physicality will be especially necessary as his rugged twin brother and No 7 flanker Jean-Luc sits out this fixture with a niggle.
Last result between sides: May 29, 2015: Sharks 25 Rebels 21 (Durban)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Sharks by 12; Garrin Lambley: Sharks by 14; Herman Mostert: Sharks by 15; Lloyd Burnard: Sharks by 30.
SA GAME 5
WARATAHS v KINGS, Sydney
When: Friday, 11:45 (SA time)
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Aus)
SuperSport commentators: Australian panel
Weather outlook: Cloudy, mild, light breeze
Background: You get a strong sense that the plucky but limited Kings crew know they are on borrowed time in the competition. It has been a bit of a spur, in some respects, and the SA paupers have produced some attractive tries even in high-scoring defeats on tour thus far to the Force and Reds. Really, though, the point may have been reached where some semblance of fatigue and demoralisation sets in, and the ‘Tahs could be poised to cash in fairly handsomely in this tussle. The Sydney outfit have been no great shakes this season (two wins from seven ... under-achievement by their standards), but with names like Folau, Foley and Hooper in their ranks, still have the individual firepower to be able to do the business comfortably against the Kings. Nevertheless, the combo from PE should be capable of at least avoiding a truly humiliating repeat of their only prior clash with the Waratahs back in 2013, when they were blitzed 72-10 at home, and by 11 tries to one.
Key head-to-head: Effervescent wing MAKAZOLE MAPIMPI is in try-hungry mode on the Aussie tour, having dotted twice against the Reds and once against the Force, and with his six in total the 26-year-old is not far down the top try-scorers list after eight rounds. The flier from Mdantsane faces an acid examination of his mettle against a behemoth this time out: lying is wait on the Waratahs right wing is one TAQELE NAIYARAVORO, the 123kg Fijian who so badly “gored” Sergeal Petersen when the Boks played the Barbarians late last year. Here’s hoping the nippy Mapimpi, some 35kg lighter, has the opportunity to step around the heavyweight No 14 a few times?
Last result between sides: May 4, 2013: Kings 10 Waratahs 72 (Port Elizabeth)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Waratahs by 20; Garrin Lambley: Waratahs by 14; Herman Mostert: Waratahs by 20; Lloyd Burnard: Waratahs by 20.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing