Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the tenth of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, tips contrasting fortunes for conference rivals the Lions and Sharks.
He feels Warren Whiteley and company will have a relatively stress-free victory against the Force in their tour opener, but the Jaguares prove a bit too hot to handle in Buenos Aires for an increasingly makeshift-looking Sharks combo … thus widening the already eight-point gap between the two on the table even further.
There is unanimity among the Sport24 staff, as well as weekly columnist Mark Keohane, that the Highlanders will pip the Stormers in New Zealand’s deep south in another pretty high-stakes fixture, although the Capetonians seem much more likely to make a minor gain this week by at least ending within seven for a bonus point.
*Rob picked the results of six out of eight of last weekend’s games correctly on SuperBru, giving him a season record thus far of 55/71 (77.46 percent).
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
JAGUARES v SHARKS, Buenos Aires
When: Saturday, 21:40 (SA time)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
Weather outlook: Clear, mild, gentle breeze
Background: Is it good or bad that the Sharks were so appallingly blunt in that drawn snore-fest against the Rebels last weekend? Certainly they should be a chastened bunch for this tough follow-up in often hostile Buenos Aires, and that fact alone might help power them over the line. Might! The flip side is that the Jaguares will be a fairly amped bunch themselves, after their three-game winless excursion to SA, including a narrow reverse in the Durban leg against the Sharks. They have to be branded slight favourites, especially as the Sharks have lost a vital source of go-forward with heavyweight No 12 Andre Esterhuizen’s disciplinary folly. I’m afraid I see a difficult day at the office for the tourists, reshuffled in several other areas than just midfield. But they have a puncher’s chance, especially if they can neutralise the Jaguares at their oft-loved scrum-time and someone like heavyweight Thomas du Toit (in at loosehead after Beast Mtawarira was rested at the last minute) comes notably to the fore back in a No 1 shirt ...
Key head-to-head: Big change for the Sharks as Tera Mtembu drops to the bench for this one and PHILIP VAN DER WALT returns not only to the fetcher berth but also as new captain. It seems to indicate just how irked coach Robert du Preez would have been after the Rebels draw, and Van der Walt has the on-field job of sparking fresh urgency among the troops. His direct rival individually is RODRIGO BAEZ, a 16-cap Pumas international who has been in the Test wilderness since late 2014 and presumably seeks a way back ...
Last result between sides: April 8, 2017: Sharks 18 Jaguares 13 (Durban)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Jaguares by four; Garrin Lambley: Jaguares by six; Herman Mostert: Jaguares by three; Lloyd Burnard: Sharks by three.
SA GAME 2
FORCE v LIONS, Perth
When: Saturday, 13:55 (SA time)
Referee: Mike Fraser (NZ)
Weather outlook: Clear, warm, light breeze
Background: The Force are fighting with all the limited might they can muster to remain a Super Rugby franchise; many SA teams would rue stopovers in sunny Perth suddenly disappearing from their Australasian rosters! But that doesn’t mean the ambitious Lions will be prepared to offer any special charity in this one. As mentioned earlier in the week, they remain in with a good shout at overall top-placed finish, with all the benefits that can bring. A defeat here would be a genuine setback in that quest, and frankly it ought not to happen as the Lions seek a fitting start to their three-game Aussie roster. Johan Ackermann has put out a strong starting XV, avoiding some of his occasional quirky picks, and the Lions have the all-round game to prevail with a bit to spare if they’re properly switched on. The Force losing Wallaby Dane Haylett-Petty, for instance, is a big blow to a pretty low-budget outfit; journeyman stand-in Marcel Brache is not exactly a routine fullback.
Key head-to-head: The Lions are without pacey, in-form open-sider Jaco Kriel for a few weeks, but they are quite fortunate to have a potentially very capable replacement in SA Sevens dynamo KWAGGA SMITH. His tussle with the Force’s eternally gnarly captain MATT HODGSON in pilfering and other terms could be a critical aspect in determining the outcome. If the Lions find their running rhythm, expect Smith to relish the chance to get involved in hand-to-hand stuff, whereas Hodgson tends to glue himself more to no-frills, close-quarters donkeywork. Mind you, he notched two tries when the Force last played the Jo’burgers in a 2014 victory in the same city.
Last result between sides: May 24, 2014: Force 29 Lions 19 (Perth)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by 11; Garrin Lambley: Lions by 12; Herman Mostert: Lions by 10; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by 10.
SA GAME 3
HIGHLANDERS v STORMERS, Dunedin
When: Friday, 09:35 (SA time)
Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)
Weather outlook: (Indoor venue)
Background: I suggested it in midweek and will repeat: the Stormers may well have “not targeted” the taxing, tour-opening date against the Crusaders, and be that bit more fired-up to return to winning ways, after back-to-back losses, in this one. That doesn’t make Robbie Fleck’s charges favourites, mind! The home side are under pressure to pick up a win as they have some ground to make up - from fourth - in the ridiculously dominant NZ conference. Still, it is quite possible that on paper the Dunedin-based team will be the “easiest” foe on the Stormers’ present travels, and they must produce a suitably bloody-minded performance to try to cash in. I fancy that will occur, putting the Capetonians into losing bonus point territory (unlike last weekend) ... but alas not quite seeing them actually prevail. It will be essential, I feel, that the Stormers don’t leak a couple of early tries because catch-up isn’t their favourite mode, especially when on overseas safari. If things stay tight throughout, yes, a minor upset is possible.
Key head-to-head: Considering how many of the Stormers’ defensive woes against the ‘Saders came from wide areas of the park, their back three will be under firm scrutiny here. In that context, getting regular fullback SP MARAIS back into the mix again is gratifying considering his 2017 form thus far, even if much of that has been in an attack capacity. He will need to shine in all departments given the massive calibre of his opposite number, the Highlanders’ ever-slippery skipper BEN SMITH. How another Stormers wide man who prefers going forward, Dillyn Leyds, copes as an obstacle, when required, to chunky wing rival Waisake Naholo will also be important to the visitors’ broad competitiveness.
Last result between sides: March 28, 2015: Highlanders 39 Stormers 21 (Dunedin)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Highlanders by five; Garrin Lambley: Highlanders by eight; Herman Mostert: Highlanders by seven; Lloyd Burnard: Highlanders by seven.
SA GAME 4
CHEETAHS v CRUSADERS, Bloemfontein
When: Saturday, 17:15
Referee: Federico Anselmi (Arg)
Weather outlook: Clear, warm, light breeze
Background: The big problem with the Cheetahs crew of 2017 is the glaring inability to produce “80-minute” showings. And that is a killer drawback when you play New Zealand opponents, most of whom will feel a three-try blitz, say, in 15 minutes against relative SA paupers is always attractively on the cards. Remember how Franco Smith’s troops buckled against the Chiefs in the very same Bloemfontein after running up a gaping lead pretty recently? That it is all the ammo the wily, unbeaten Crusaders need to realise that they should win here regardless of how much kitchen sink is hurled their way initially. And if the men from Christchurch, by contrast, get over the chalk on a few early occasions themselves … well, “eina” may be the only relevant word in likely final scoreboard terms. Remember that the Crusaders put 50-plus on the Cheetahs in their last clash two years back on NZ soil, with eight tries to two. Mind you, the visitors were hardly helped by yellow cards then for both Willie le Roux and Coenie Oosthuizen; keeping really sound discipline will be important if there is to be any, unlikely home-town heroism on Saturday evening.
Key head-to-head: Whether scrumming ascendancy either way will have a particularly profound impact on the outcome of this match is doubtful; it’s the kind of fixture likely to be fast and loose and possibly high-scoring. But if the Cheetahs do get some traction in the engine room, it will make them feel better more broadly about sensing a giant-killing. This is an acid test of the scrum quality of charismatic home loosehead prop OX NCHE; the 21-year-old is already renowned for his tackling and ball-carrying zest, but 90-Test All Black OWEN FRANKS may well prove his most formidable foe yet when it comes to the set-piece. If Nche does well there, it will be a big fillip for his future green-and-gold aspirations.
Last result between sides: March 21, 2015: Crusaders 57 Cheetahs 14 (Christchurch)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Crusaders by 22; Garrin Lambley: Crusaders by 14; Herman Mostert: Crusaders by 13; Lloyd Burnard: Crusaders by 15.
SA GAME 5
KINGS v REBELS, Port Elizabeth
When: Saturday, 19:30
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (SA)
Weather outlook: Clear, warm, fresh wind
Background: This is hardly the sexiest Super Rugby fixture you will ever see, and many critics would argue that that’s a major reason for glaring shortcomings in the competition these days. But all that said, we may see a decent enough, extremely closely-contested match in PE. The Rebels are under pressure to produce greater vibrancy, but would still have been thrilled to bits to earn a draw at Kings Park last time out, so confidence in their ranks will not be low. Similarly, the Kings were more gutsy and dynamic than might have been initially imagined on their three-game Aussie trip, culminating in the fine upset of the Waratahs in Sydney. Now can they back it up with a follow-up triumph back on home turf, which would just begin to make some people in the corridors of SA Rugby and elsewhere wonder whether it is cut and dried that they earn the chop from the competition? With a slightly heavy heart, I’ve opted for a narrow Rebels win, even taking into account that in the lone prior meeting in 2013, Alan Solomons’ then-charges clinched a ding-dong affair in Melbourne. Mind you, all their points that day came from players who have subsequently left the franchise: tries by Ronnie Cooke, Shaun Venter and Wimpie van der Walt, and all successful kicks at goal coming from Demetri Catrakilis.
Key head-to-head: He is incredibly widely-travelled for a still only 27-year-old, but LIONEL CRONJE is arguably producing some of his cleverest rugby in the colours of the Kings, and revelling also in his role as acting captain of the imperilled team. So much so, that some pundits have even been talking him up as a Springbok possible, given the fluidity in that spot and long-term injuries to key contenders. I wouldn’t go that far personally, even if many of Cronje’s creative touches are very easy on the eye - his defence remains too inconsistent, for one thing. Nevertheless, being adhesive in this game, where he comes up directly against anticipated opposite number JACK DEBRECZENI, would only add some ticks to boxes, wouldn’t it?
Last result between sides: April 13, 2013: Rebels 27 Kings 30 (Melbourne)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Rebels by two; Garrin Lambley: Kings by three; Herman Mostert: Kings by five; Lloyd Burnard: Kings by five.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing