Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Remember being blindfolded at a juvenile party, spun around 10 times for deliberate extra disorientation and then being asked to pin the tail on the donkey? That is the best way to describe prediction of the opening weekend of results in Super Rugby 2020.
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You require a strong stomach to tip the outcomes of several matches on the roster - with South African-related ones no exception to the trend.
Forecasting events in the first round of many annual sporting “leagues” often presents novel challenges, of course, but this year’s Super Rugby is especially tricky because of the nearly non-existent pre-season and record early start to the competition.
A brutal beginning weather-wise, in late January, means that most outfits tournament-wide have not even fielded their premier XVs yet, preferring to use the unusually short lead-up (including some soft friendlies in “chukkas” against less than first-class opposition) to experiment with players and generally cotton-wool their prime assets until the competition-proper.
So just on those grounds, you may find that some teams hit the ground running at a far more acceptable pace than others who realise their conditioning and stamina possibly isn’t quite what it should be.
Probably the most high-profile pre-season exercise came on our shores, a fortnight ahead of the Super Rugby kick-off, with the second edition of Super Hero Sunday, this time at FNB Stadium and again featuring a double-header involving all four SA franchises.
Yet even there, the majority of the sides didn’t start with optimum personnel and the closeness of the outcomes (Stormers 21 Sharks 19, and then Bulls 40 Lions 35) only added to the dilemma over who’ll be hot and who’ll not just domestically this season.
In almost all of the widely scattered, participating countries, too, there has been an extraordinarily marked turnover of staff (both playing and in several instances coaching) since 2019.
Who responds quickest to the upheaval? It’s simply another “unknown” ahead of the action this year.
A personal view is that only two of the seven first-round fixtures can be tipped with any degree of confidence.
The ever-juggernaut Crusaders still have the nucleus of the troops who took them to the title for a 10th time in 2019 – they’re bidding for an unprecedented fourth title on the trot – and on those ground alone should see off the Waratahs quite convincingly in their Trafalgar Park, Nelson, opener.
I also believe, regrettably from a Lions perspective, that their young, rebuilding side will find the Buenos Aires hurdle against last year’s beaten finalists, the Jaguares, too tough to overcome – more especially because they upset the very same team there in round one last year, and the Argentineans will be seriously alert to any possibility of lightning striking twice.
But every other game on the Friday-to-early-Sunday bill? While you might get lucky, you could just as easily be laughing stock.
The two other SA-relevant matches are prime examples.
While the Sharks arguably deserve to be installed as favourites in the Friday night derby against the Bulls just on the basis of home advantage in the Durban humidity, and their backline attack is potent on paper, bear in mind that Pote Human’s charges were the best South African finishers last season and may not be in any mood to go belly-up one season onward simply because a raft of stalwarts have left Loftus.
Then to Newlands: so much is being made, naturally, of the Stormers still having the services of a handful of front-line, recently World Cup-winning Springboks, particularly in the key boiler room.
Yet most of them have been on the books there for a good while, and been part of several underwhelming campaigns: while they are well capable of downing the Hurricanes beneath an intense Capetonian summer sun, the visitors still have some dangerous game-breakers of their own and could well be top-four material again this year.
They won’t be intimidated by a South African audience; few New Zealand teams are …
Here, with no confidence at all, is my own stab at predicting the first-round results (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Blues v Chiefs, 08:05: Chiefs by five points; Brumbies v Reds, 10:15: Brumbies by three; Sharks v Bulls, 19:10: Sharks by seven. Saturday: Sunwolves v Rebels, 05:45: Rebels by nine; Crusaders v Waratahs, 08:05: Crusaders by 18; Stormers v Hurricanes, 15:05: Stormers by two. Sunday: Jaguares v Lions, 01:00: Jaguares by 11.
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