Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the next of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, says any Springbok 2016 aspirants from the Lions could do with humdingers against the Stormers on Saturday to convince new national coach Allister Coetzee of their worth.
Some of the Capetonian visitors having blinders in the big ‘un at Emirates Airline Park would do their own Bok causes no harm, of course, but Coetzee’s strong Stormers heritage means he may already be subconsciously inclined toward favouring them in the fledgling phase of his tenure.
Almost all Bok coaches in recent times have started out with a varying degree of bias toward customers they’re most familiar with through prior provincial or franchise affiliations: think Heyneke Meyer (Bulls), Nick Mallett (Stormers/WP) Kitch Christie (the former Transvaal) and Ian McIntosh (Natal Sharks), among others.
So certain Newlands-based players may have head starts, like it or not, in the battle for positions in the national side.
In what amounts to a handy, early “Bok trial” sort of occasion for Coetzee as the respective Africa conference leaders lock horns, it will be up to ambitious Lions personnel to put a spanner in the works by noticeably edging any relevant areas of play on Saturday.
Our resident forecasters unanimously (and perhaps that’s a bit of a surprise?) see home advantage tilting things slightly the Lions’ way …
*Rob lies 6,015th out of about 193,000 contestants for Super Rugby predictions on SuperBru, with a current win success rate of 75%.
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
LIONS v STORMERS, Johannesburg
When: Saturday, 19:15
Referee: Stuart Berry (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Butch James (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Werner Swanepoel (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, light breeze
Background: The timing is perfect for this quality clash, not just because of the aforementioned Springbok issues at stake but also the premier respective conference positions of the protagonists. Both meetings in 2015 were desperately close, with the Stormers a little fortunate to leave the Big Smoke with a 22-19 win, and then clinging on for a draw at the tail-end of the competition at Newlands. Expect a similar phenomenon here, I feel; the game may well be decided right at the death. All areas of the forward battle look truly engrossing; it is interesting that Robbie Fleck has shuffled his loosie cards again to accommodate Nizaam Carr as open-side flank and have the athletic Sikhumbuzo Notshe at seven in preference to the more confrontational Siya Kolisi against the mobile and industrious Lions trio. But if this is a high-stakes SA derby that unexpectedly opens up to a profound extent, the Lions look more culturally geared at present to making key metres with ball in hand. Use of the benches could be influential: both Fleck and counterpart Johan Ackermann have some strong game-crackers to let loose when they feel it necessary.
Key head-to-head: Hard yards up front may well be pivotal to the outcome of this one, and in that respect the Stormers could start to feel more fully the impact of Eben Etzebeth’s sit-out for several weeks. The gargantuan second-rower gets right up for occasions like this one, and his No 4 replacement JD Schickerling is a different – not to mention considerably less experienced -- type of player. It only increases the onus on Etzebeth’s co-Springbok PIETER-STEPH DU TOIT to front up in the muscular stakes in the second row, where he must counter the Lions’ yeoman workhorse and fearless rucks-hitter FRANCO MOSTERT. We learned very recently that Mostert will regrettably be lost to Lyon after this season, so that is an extra spur for him to want to power the Lions as close as possible toward the 2016 Super Rugby honours.
Last result between sides: June 6, 2015: Stormers 19 Lions 19 (Cape Town)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by two; Garrin Lambley: Lions by two; Herman Mostert: Lions by three; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by five.
SA GAME 2
BLUES v SHARKS, Auckland
When: Saturday, 09:35 (SA time
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: NZ panel
Weather outlook: Cloudy, mild, moderate wind
Background: The Sharks have a buxom record against these opponents, and should take some psychological comfort from the fact that they beat them away two years ago, albeit in the more “outskirts” setting of Albany. Expect the tourists to throw everything at this fixture, given what an ominous signal it would be for the remaining dates against the Highlanders and Chiefs if they crash at the first hurdle. That said, it could still be a tall order, based on evidence from the last two defeats in Durban, where we were served some painful deja vu of the Sharks’ bluntness last season. Also, who is going to get through a pile of donkeywork in the tight-loose now that Marcell Coetzee has been laid low for the season? Only if the Sharks have regained proper, collective zest and appetite will they overcome the bottom-placed NZ franchise, and the Sport24 panel are fairly bleak about that occurring. Now prove us wrong, Sharks!
Key head-to-head: Admirable, adaptable professional JOE PIETERSEN had been serving the Sharks with aplomb as Pat Lambie’s flyhalf stand-in during earliest matches this season, until he started going off the boil … perhaps since that costly late place-kick booboo at Loftus? Things reached a head when he had a particularly error-prone outing in the home loss to the Lions, and Gary Gold will be praying he recovers his confidence and verve in the first NZ tour match. Pietersen directly opposes the Blues’ IHAIA WEST, the former NZ under-20 and Maori All Blacks star who currently lies second to Damian McKenzie for most points scored in the competition. This game could be close, and possibly decided by fortunes off the tee …
Last result between sides: May 23, 2014: Blues 23 Sharks 29 (Albany)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Blues by seven; Garrin Lambley: Blues by six; Herman Mostert: Blues by three; Lloyd Burnard: Blues by five.
SA GAME 3
BULLS v REDS, Pretoria
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Derek Alberts & Joel Stransky (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Jaco van der Westhuyzen (Afrik), Alfred Mzizi & Kaya Malotana (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, warm, gentle breeze
Background: I would have suggested a more clear-cut Bulls triumph in this one, had it not been for the Reds’ revitalising, upset victory over the Highlanders last weekend. That suddenly makes the Aussie outfit, now off the bottom of their conference, more dangerous opponents … they will believe that the Bulls are beatable in their own backyard. Still, Adriaan Strauss and company come off a rollicking win at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and several of their players will have still-fresh memories of thumping the Queenslanders by six tries to four at the very Loftus only last season. The Bulls will win if they replicate the greater levels of concentration and more consistent shape they exhibited last Saturday, against a Reds team that looks tidy in certain areas but much more vulnerable in others (like the second row, where fit stocks are currently thin).
Key head-to-head: Part of the reason that the Bulls disposed of the Kings by a much wider margin than some of us expected in Port Elizabeth was the livewire, constructive performance last Saturday from LAPPIES LABUSCHAGNE, stationed at open-side flank for the visitors. He may need to stay in top gear there, knowing that veteran fetcher Deon Stegmann is fit again and lurking on the bench for this one. It won’t be too easy as the Reds have a quality open-sider of their own in LIAM GILL. The 23-year-old would have more than 15 caps (all as a sub thus far) for just about any other country by now, but for the fact that Australia are so blessed with specialist pilferers like David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
Last result between sides: April 11, 2015: Bulls 43 Reds 22 (Pretoria)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Bulls by four; Garrin Lambley: Bulls by eight; Herman Mostert: Bulls by 12; Lloyd Burnard: Bulls by 10.
SA GAME 4
CHEETAHS v SUNWOLVES, Bloemfontein
When: Friday, 19:00
Referee: Nic Berry (Aus)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Warren Brosnihan (Eng), Christo Olivier & Derick Hougaard (Afrik), Alfred Mzizi & Kaya Malotana (Xho)
Weather outlook: Clear, warm, gentle breeze
Background: If there’s any threat of the Cheetahs entering this game complacent against their nought-from-six Japanese foes, they would do well to remind themselves that in the first-round meeting in Singapore, the Sunwolves had opened up a 31-13 lead early in the second half and seemed headed for victory. The Cheetahs dug deep, however, to eventually nick that game by a point. Logic suggests that they should secure a “double” on home soil, although there was something about the Sunwolves’ durability, even on a Newlands night when they conceded seven tries to the Stormers very recently, to suggest they will offer stern resistance in Bloemfontein. It helps that Tusi Pisi is back to take charge of their tactical plays at flyhalf. But the Japanese side are unfamiliar to high altitude, and that could spell trouble for them in the final quarter.
Key head-to-head: The Cheetahs are likely to seek pronounced scrumming dominance, and Franco Smith has opted to start here with Maks van Dyk as tighthead anchorman and the fast-emerging CHARLES MARAIS providing the left shoulder. Much-travelled, Paarl Boys’ High-educated Marais has looked very compelling at set-piece time this year, with some pundits even touting him as a Bok possible at some point. He will hope to dominate the Sunwolves’ No 3 TAKUMA ASAHARA, an occasional Japan Test player who will concede a bit on the scales to Marais.
Last result between sides: March 12, 2016: Sunwolves 31 Cheetahs 32 (Singapore)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Cheetahs by four; Garrin Lambley: Cheetahs by 16; Herman Mostert: Cheetahs by 13; Lloyd Burnard: Cheetahs by eight.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing