Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – It was a 1962 movie classic set in World War II, featuring a galaxy of stars like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery and Richard Burton.
But now The Longest Day looms again, in many senses … at least for the full range of South Africa’s Super Rugby 2019 teams.
For the first time this season, all of the quartet are in action in separate matches against overseas foes, on the same pretty elongated Saturday.
The SA sides are scattered far and wide, too, what the Lions visiting Singapore, the Stormers running out in Wellington and the Bulls and Sharks taking to their home pitches in Pretoria and Durban respectively.
Here is my assessment of each game ...
1. Hurricanes v Stormers, Wellington, 08:35 SA time
Prediction: Hurricanes by six points. While I believe the Stormers, suddenly on a winning roll after their ghoulish start, have a puncher’s chance in the Cake Tin, being minus their pack enforcer Eben Etzebeth slightly negates the likelihood (it’s still on the table, mind) of significant pack dominance. It is also not easy travelling across the Indian Ocean and playing your first Australasian tour fixture against seemingly the toughest of the four foes for Robbie Fleck’s charges on paper. Expect a more rounded, skills-driven game from the ‘Canes which should just about offset any danger of the hosts not seeing quite as much of the “pill” as they might like: the Stormers are yet to fire compellingly as a back division, moving a little too crab-like thus far.
Prime head-to-head: On the topic of their backs, flyhalf JEAN-LUC DU PLESSIS has a vital role in trying to coax some meaningful thrust out of them. Badly bedevilled by injury for a couple of years, Du Plessis still looks short of the dynamic figure he was earlier, his option-taking and execution of moves not always the best despite his good intentions. Still, what a great time this would be to boss a duel at No 10 … especially as his opposite number is that All Black excitement machine and the Hurricanes’ acting skipper, BEAUDEN BARRETT. The Stormers player is a fair bit down the current pecking order for Bok status in the position; a crisp, decisive all-round showing here would help revitalise the 24-year-old’s credentials in a big way.
2. Sunwolves v Lions, Singapore, 12:55 SA time
Prediction: Ooh, tough one ... but I’ve gone Lions by four, despite the obvious hazards here. The main one, of course, is the hot-off-press confirmation that the Japanese-based franchise will be booted from Super Rugby after 2020. What better way to psyche up the presumably smarting Sunwolves, then, for this encounter? Nevertheless, the injury-ravaged Lions boast a near-unique “gees” that can bring the very finest qualities out of them in adversity. Coach Swys de Bruin has had to take some fairly radical, experimental selection measures at loose forward in particular for this clash as he laments the current absence of at least four front-liners in that area. But there’s enough X-factor remaining in the Lions’ backline and that collective grit (last week was a reminder they never know when they’re beaten!) to get them over the line in a potential cliff-hanger - remember that the ‘Wolves are playing in their less favoured, far less-supported Singapore.
Prime head-to-head: It was a bit over-the-top recently when, as he starred in a famous Sunwolves victory away to the Chiefs, people started muttering about “another one we let get away” in reference to much-travelled wing GERHARD VAN DEN HEEVER. In truth, the former Bulls and Stormers man was never really touted as frontline Bok material and is now almost 30 anyway. Still, he has a good nose for the try-line … though the same applies to his Lions left-wing rival on Saturday COURTNALL SKOSAN. The latter got on the score-sheet in the dramatic fightback against the Rebels last Saturday and seems to have recaptured most of his in-darting zest and eye for a hole of two or three years back.
3. Bulls v Chiefs, Pretoria, 15:05 SA time
Prediction: Again after some fierce head-scratching, I opted for Bulls … by one point! This really could go either way: we know how deadly most New Zealand franchises can be on hard, fast Highveld pitches these days when they find some front-foot mojo. There is insistence from much of the Chiefs camp, it seems, that squad disharmony is no contributor to their unusual early-season pickle: zero wins from five outings. Maybe their rot-halting draw against the ‘Canes last week was a sign of rebirth, so the Bulls have at least been warned. But that said, Pote Human’s charges are looking a refreshingly formidable force thus far, Handre Pollard is an inspiring catalyst for much good stuff from pivot and they come off a bye - whereas the Mooloo Men step off a long-haul flight for this tussle. Home win just seems the fractionally more sensible pick.
Prime head-to-head: It isn’t that easy being a relatively makeshift lock at the best of times, but least of all when an immediate opponent soon after your “conversion” from the back row is blue-chip All Blacks meanie and Chiefs captain BRODIE RETALLICK. But that is the situation HANRO LIEBENBERG must deal with at Loftus. In terms of know-how in the middle of the boiler room, of course, there is simply no comparison: the hulking Retallick is a 75-cap Test specialist, whereas Liebenberg is much more renowned as a former SA under-20 eighth-man. But at least with his 1.97m, 110kg-plus frame, the Bulls customer is a reasonably good physical match and has looked solid and willing enough at lock during the franchise’s injury-induced predicament (no De Jager, no Snyman) in the role.
4. Sharks v Rebels, Durban, 17:15 SA time
Prediction: Pure gut feel (dangerously unreliable, admittedly) tells me that the Sharks are due to hit their straps again after one of their frustrating “dip” stints. Hence my confident suggestion of the hosts by 10 points in a relative romp. While Dave Wessels has got a commendable amount out of his Melbourne-based charges so far this season, they finally came short against the Lions last time out, and will still be a little shell-shocked, I fancy, about letting slip a 33-5 lead in the Big Smoke. The Highveld air may have taken something out of their legs and lungs in that humdinger, and that’s primarily why I feel the Sharks are primed to knock them over. That will be even more likely, of course, if they can stave off that occasional penchant for indelicate, clumsy bashing and start striking spiritedly again from all angles and berths ...
Prime head-to-head: REECE HODGE, the tall guy from Manly, is about as adaptable a backline character as you will find in the world – able to play with some comfort anywhere in a backline apart from scrumhalf, where his 1.91m height wouldn’t be the best of physical requirements for that chore. The 33-cap Wallabies star turns out on the right wing in Durban and, while he is no outright whippet there, his skills set includes sound positional sense and a booming boot, either off the tee or out of hand. Here he will oppose a slightly different foe in the sharp and hungry MAKAZOLE MAPIMPI, who is all about pace and penetration on the Sharks’ left side of the field and less of a “tactical” presence, generally speaking. It’s an intriguing little clash of styles.
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