Super Rugby

S15: Stakes huge in Highveld humdingers

Robbie Fleck (Gallo Images)
Robbie Fleck (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - It should almost have been a double-header.

But at the risk of offending those violently averse to the not-entirely-wacky idea of a Gauteng "super franchise" merger some day between the Lions and Bulls, perhaps it’s best not to go there, eh?

All I am suggesting for the present is that Bulls v Stormers in Pretoria on Saturday (17:15) and Lions v Crusaders in the novel timeslot of Sunday (14:30) at Emirates Airline Park could instead have been a combined dream for marketers in these challenging economic times.

Still, relative rugby neutrals in, or based somewhere between the two metropolises, now have an inviting two-game prospect to contemplate in the space of less than 24 hours, and hopefully a few may just be seduced to attend both - anything that helps rebalance the swathes of empty spaces we see so often at multiple venues is to be welcomed.

The 2018 Super Rugby season is pretty well-established now, wheat ever more being separated from chaff in the competition: some teams will be only one game from halfway in ordinary season once this weekend's roster has been completed.

Speaking of chaff, that is arguably what the South African conference looks dangerously too much like at present ... which is why the two heavyweight contests at "altitude" this weekend assume additional importance from a domestic perspective.

As you look at the three groups in the competition, the New Zealand one strikes you - hardly for the first time in recent years - as currently the healthiest; it has a combined total of 61 points at present.

Next comes the SA conference (54), followed closely by the Australian one (53), but our group has played more collective matches than either of the others, really leaving it the most shaky-looking right now.

In short, the SA conference needs a tonic, and what better way than through the table-leading Lions bouncing back to winning habit against the mighty 'Saders, defending champions and the very team who beat them in last year’s Jo'burg final?

It would not only be a magnificent pick-me-up for the squad, who come off a pallid run of losses to the Blues and Jaguares, with a desperately narrow home win over the ailing Sunwolves sandwiched in between.

That is not exactly a title statement ... and it is increasingly apparent how much the Lions miss injured captain Warren Whiteley as the man who binds them together both in "gees" and tactical astuteness.

He is not yet fit again, regrettably, which is reason alone to fear that the Lions just do not have the arsenal at present to be able to put away the Crusaders, regardless of venue.

Still, the New Zealanders have arrived here not exactly in champagne form themselves: until they comfortably repelled the Bulls in Christchurch last weekend, they were on a little nought-from-two hiccup, even if both were in high-quality derbies. The directness and mauling power near the opposition try-line of the Lions pack was one saving grace from their latest loss, 49-35 to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, with Malcolm Marx hugely to the fore as an irresistible ball-carrier.

But otherwise it was largely an outing to forget, as they continued to haemorrhage far too many tries; their defensive game has virtually fallen apart in recent weeks and that is no comfort with the ever-enterprising ‘Saders now waiting to test their adhesiveness.

A Lions victory is still possible with a blood-and-thunder sort of effort, but the fixture just seems to come at too uncertain a time for them.

As for the Saturday north-south tussle at Loftus, it appears at a time when neither side (but especially the Bulls) can afford another setback at this point.

Both the Bulls and Stormers are reassuringly "done" with Australasian travel - neither side banked a win on tour, either - but the Capetonians have at least recovered quite well subsequently with consecutive home wins over the Blues and Reds.

That mini-wave of optimism may be enough to propel them over the line in Pretoria.

As things stand, they still have a pretty tenuous 50 percent record (three wins, three losses) and a fourth reverse in Pretoria would induce a big wince, no doubt, from Robbie Fleck and his lieutenants in terms of playoffs chances - it would leave quite a lot to do.

The Bulls, of course, already have to play an even more formidable catch-up job as they are one from five; a home setback to their arch-rivals from south of the Hex River ... ouch. It could deflate much of the rest of their campaign, really.

My instincts are to suspect that the strength of the Stormers pack (not helped by the Bulls fielding a makeshift lock in Hanro Liebenberg) will do enough to starve a dangerous-looking home backline of enough possession to inflict major damage.

Some Sport24 staff tips for the Highveld crunches:

Bulls v Stormers: Rob Houwing: Stormers by four; Garrin Lambley: Stormers by three; Herman Mostert: Bulls by three

Lions v Crusaders: Rob Houwing: Crusaders by nine; Garrin Lambley: Crusaders by six; Herman Mostert: Crusaders by three

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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