Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the next of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, suspects that the Crusaders may just have too much nous for the Lions in their mouth-watering Johannesburg clash.
That said, opinion on the outcome is notably divided among our resident experts, even as they all concur the Bulls will avenge last year’s Loftus defeat to the Cheetahs by winning the Saturday night derby in Pretoria – perhaps even with a degree of comfort.
But the all-minnow meeting (for the first time) between the Kings and Sunwolves at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium is another game that could go either way, and it is reflected in our hesitant tips.
*Rob lies 9,464th out of about 191,000 contestants for Super Rugby predictions on SuperBru, with a current win success rate of 76%.
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
LIONS v CRUSADERS, Johannesburg
When: Friday, 19:00
Referee: Stuart Berry (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Joel Stransky (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Werner Swanepoel (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Clear, warm, light breeze
Background: This would be a strong candidate for match of the round, were it not for the hugely spicy Saturday match-up between Aussie conference leaders the Brumbies and New Zealand equivalents the Chiefs in Canberra. But it is the most appetising fixture on paper in South Africa, that’s for sure – especially with the Sharks and Stormers on byes. Was the Lions’ fabulous away victory over the otherwise rampant Chiefs a flash in the pan? This home date with the legendary Crusaders should provide an answer; if Johan Ackermann’s exciting, highly motivated charges can outsmart the seven-time champions, it will confirm that his commendable “total rugby” approach is bearing serious fruit. But a setback for the Highvelders would also spark a fresh sense of unease about the ability of SA rugby generally to live with the still-undisputed world champion New Zealanders. The Lions do have the ability to prevail here, especially if they choose their moments for attack judiciously and don’t get too carried away by a daring spirit, but at the same time the Crusaders made a major statement by raiding Kings Park last weekend and I see them just edging this one, alas. Still, our Sport24 tipsters are split right down the middle …
Key head-to-head: There are other intriguing one-on-ones, like emerging Lions wing flier and Test wannabe Ruan Combrinck up against the less subtle but ever-dangerous freight train Nemani Nadolo. But this is a clash where the respective captains, WARREN WHITELEY and KIERAN READ, will be vital heartbeats of their teams, and their direct duel at No 8 has all the ingredients for a thriller. If the rangy, hard-running Whiteley holds his own (or then some?) against the multi-skilled All Black heavyweight, he will have cranked up his case for possible inheritance of the vacant Springbok captaincy, even as a certain, now French-based Duane Vermeulen won’t exactly be ready yet to surrender a spot amongst a Bok loose trio.
Last result between sides: March 14, 2015: Crusaders 34 Lions 6 (Christchurch)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Crusaders by four; Garrin Lambley: Crusaders by one; Herman Mostert: Lions by three; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by four.
SA GAME 2
BULLS v CHEETAHS, Pretoria
When: Saturday, 19:15
Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Joel Stransky (Eng), John van Rensburg & Jaco van der Westhuyzen (Afrik), Kaya Malotana & Alfred Mzizi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, very warm, light wind
Background: The Bulls retained their frustrating penchant for patchy effectiveness as they staved off the limited Sunwolves with some measure of angst last time out. They may find that there is little charity for sloppiness or lack of focus from their domestic rivals on Saturday. The Cheetahs weren’t disgraced in their home loss to the Brumbies on a heavy Bloemfontein pitch, and with the going tipped to be much firmer at Loftus, may sniff an upset with their ability to run the ball from deep. But the Bulls will know that they can greatly increase the daylight between themselves and the men in white in Africa Conference 1 by coming out on top, and if they have properly recovered from jet-lag after their Singapore mini-trip should do the business. It would avenge that late-season home humiliation from these foes in 2015, when the Bulls seemed in early “holiday” mode and were thumped 42-29, leaking as many as six converted tries. I expect them to be crucially more watertight this time.
Key head-to-head: Is it just me, or have the Bok stocks of JAN SERFONTEIN, once touted as SA’s new-age Danie Gerber, dipped rather violently and strangely? Once dripping in X-factor as a 19- or 20-year-old, the Bulls centre has become disappointingly head-down and robotic over the past couple of seasons; his shifting between the two midfield berths only sums up the way he has regressed, although his defence stays pretty tenacious when he puts his mind to it. Here he comes up against former Loftus colleague and Cheetahs captain FRANCOIS VENTER, and could do with a dominant showing at No 13 if he wishes to stay on the international radar in 2016. That can’t be taken for granted as Venter -- still only 24 himself until mid-April, yet in his fifth season of Super Rugby -- looks increasingly the real deal for maiden green-and-gold recognition soon. Venter has the extra task of nursing raw partner Nico Lee through this old grudge clash on Saturday.
Last result between sides: June 13, 2015: Bulls 29 Cheetahs 42 (Pretoria)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Bulls by seven; Garrin Lambley: Bulls by 10; Herman Mostert: Bulls by seven; Lloyd Burnard: Bulls by 12.
SA GAME 3
KINGS v SUNWOLVES, Port Elizabeth
When: Saturday, 17:05
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (SA)
TV: M-Net, SS1
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Bob Skinstad (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Lungelo Payi (Xho)
Weather outlook: Clear, mild, gentle breeze
Background: You can only imagine how bleak the mood will be in the Friendly City if the Kings, already nought from four, crash at home to the similarly vulnerable Japanese outfit. Such a result would have disastrous consequences, I have little doubt, for gate takings later in the competition. Yet my gut feel, regrettably, is that the Sunwolves – also winless but at least boasting two bonus points – may sneak victory. I might not have said that had the Eastern Cape team not come straight off a taxing slog in New Zealand, where they put up an almighty fight against the Hurricanes in their closing tour engagement yet still emerged with very little noticeable reward in scoreboard terms. Home legs may be at risk of fourth-quarter leadenness, and that could be the cue for the fleet-footed Sunwolves to strike. Hope I’m wrong, of course.
Key head-to-head: He doesn’t have to face up to a behemoth this week, but the Kings’ slight yet supremely courageous little left wing MALCOLM JAER should still have his hands pretty full defensively if the Sunwolves field their regular No 14 and Japan international AKIHITO YAMADA (their team was not yet known at the time of writing). Yamada lies third for most tries (four) in the overall Super Rugby stats so far, and joint-fifth for clean breaks. Yes, he also boasts being one of the members of the famous Japanese starting XV that scuppered the Boks in Brighton at the last World Cup …
Last result between sides: No prior meetings
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Sunwolves by two; Garrin Lambley: Kings by two; Herman Mostert: Sunwolves by three; Lloyd Burnard: Sunwolves by five.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing