Cape Town - Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the second of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, believes the Lions, under pressure to jack up their game, will repel Aussie tough nuts the Waratahs in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Johan Ackermann is likely to have drummed into his charges that they were a tad fortunate to escape Bloemfontein with a win last weekend, and will be expecting a livelier showing by the 2016 runners-up in their first home fixture.
Meanwhile the Bulls, anxious not to fall to an early nought-from-two, may carry just too many guns for the Cheetahs in the Free State metropolis, while the Stormers should maintain a 100 percent record against the Jaguares.
But Houwing reluctantly sees the Sharks losing again on tour, and the Kings being nosed out by the Sunwolves in a battle of unfancied outfits in Singapore.
*Rob picked eight out of nine matches correctly on SuperBru in round one, erring only with the Highlanders-Chiefs game in Dunedin, where he had backed the hosts to win.
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
LIONS v WARATAHS, Johannesburg
When: Saturday, 15:05
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (SA)
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Hanyani Shimange (Eng), Hennie Koortzen & Werner Swanepoel (Afrik), Alfred Mzizi & Makhaya Jack (Xho)
Weather outlook: Mild, chance of rain, gentle breeze
Background: They possibly under-estimated the Cheetahs a little last Saturday, which goes some way to explaining their fortuitous win, but that oughtn’t be a repeat crime for the Lions this time. Not when the ever-competitive ‘Tahs come to town armed with such steely Super Rugby characters as Michael Hooper, Nick Phipps, Sekope Kepu and the behemoth lock Will Skelton. In short, they will know they’ve been in a game. Expect certain Lions players who failed to take their A-games to the Free State to also be acutely aware that they might soon also go the way of Springboks Faf de Klerk and Malcolm Marx - to the bench! - if they don’t shape up this time around. That said, last season’s SA standouts have it in them to clinch this one, and possibly even with a bit to spare if the pitch is firm – not guaranteed, alas, as there’s been more heavy rain in the Big Smoke this week and falls still predicted in the immediate lead-up.
Key head-to-head: The Lions are lucky that Howard Mnisi’s awful, already competition-ending knee ligament(s) injury hasn’t completely crippled their midfield resources. Step up the talented HAROLD VORSTER, whose own 2016 Super Rugby season was cut short; his return to fitness has been brilliantly timed. The quick-footed 23-year-old from Phalaborwa wears No 13 here, and comes up against one of the most formidable attacking units in the tournament’s history in Waratahs utility factor ISRAEL FOLAU - here’s hoping Vorster is suitably fresh for the task.
Last result between sides: May 30, 2015: Lions 27 Waratahs 22 (Johannesburg)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by eight; Garrin Lambley: Lions by three; Herman Mostert: Lions by five; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by 10.
SA GAME 2
CHEETAHS v BULLS, Bloemfontein
When: Saturday, 19:30
Referee: Shuhei Kubo (Japan)
SuperSport commentators: Gavin Cowley & Warren Brosnihan (Eng), Christo Olivier & Gary Boshoff (Afrik), Kaunda Ntunja & Lonwabo Mtimka (Xho)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, mild, light breeze
Background: I tip the Bulls, mindful that a second successive defeat so soon in the campaign might badly damage their conference-topping aspirations, to do the business this weekend, despite the stern resistance they’ll get from the Cheetahs. It said much about their mental fettle that they were able to claw back a fair amount of respectability at Newlands after falling a potentially demoralising 24-0 down by halftime. Instead they “won” the second half 24-13 and Nollis Marais is likely to have lauded his men for doing anything but go to pieces following the Stormers blitzkrieg. I also reckon there’s a better-than-even chance captain Handre Pollard, who looked so obviously short of a gallop last Saturday, will get closer to known high standards at No 10. It’s a pity injured Lood de Jager won’t get to turn out against his old employers, but Jason Jenkins hardly weakens the Bulls’ grunt in close-quarters combat...
Key head-to-head: You wouldn’t automatically call this the “key” duel if you based it on TREVOR NYAKANE’S often traumatic scrum performance at tighthead prop against the Stormers at Newlands last week... but that’s the very point of installing him here. The versatile front-ranker has retained his berth, and marked set-piece improvement by him could be critical to the Bulls pulling this date off. Springbok Robbie Kempson said on SuperSport this week he believed the taller JC Janse van Rensburg getting a strong, long, binding grip on Nyakane in Cape Town helped his dominance... but interestingly, the Bulls No 3 will encounter here a similarly low-centre-of-gravity foe in promising young OX NCHE, promoted to the Cheetahs’ starting loosehead berth.
Last result between sides: July 16, 2016: Cheetahs 17 Bulls 43 (Bloemfontein)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Bulls by seven; Garrin Lambley: Bulls by one; Herman Mostert: Bulls by five; Lloyd Burnard: Bulls by five.
SA GAME 3
STORMERS v JAGUARES, Cape Town
When: Saturday, 17:15
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
SuperSport commentators: Matthew Pearce & Gareth Wright (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Lungelo Payi & Siyabonga Mangweni (Xho)
Weather outlook: Fine, mild, gentle breeze
Background: Robbie Fleck is pretty sure to have warned his charges, cock-a-hoop after events last Saturday night, of the dangers of a speed wobble, even if this is only their second fixture. Simultaneously, he is likely to have reminded that this is basically the Pumas’ Rugby Championship team in disguise... and look how much grief they gave our national side last season. But if the spirit, tempo and flair of last weekend can be matched or almost equalled, then the Stormers should be well on their way, nevertheless, to another heartening victory. They have the forward strength to nullify the bajada, although Agustin Creevy’s troops, fresh off an eventually comfortable win in PE, will have noted that the absence of Damian de Allende makes the Stormers especially raw right now in midfield, where one-cap EW Viljoen (very decent against the Bulls, mind) now finds himself paired in an emergency with recent acquisition Dan “the other” Kriel.
Key head-to-head: Amidst the rightful hype surrounding the Stormers’ vibrant team showing last week, perhaps the effervescent display in the vital conduit berth of scrumhalf by JANO VERMAAK was slightly overlooked. The veteran Springbok broke exquisitely to tee up the first try of the match to SP Marais in the 14th minute, and continued to look a slippery, revitalised character after an injury-disrupted 2016 in the Cape. The Stormers could do with some stability at No 9, so will be hoping he builds further on that showing against the Jaguares, who field the infinitely more callow GONZALO BERTRANOU against him. He has two Test caps, but they are both against minnows Paraguay and Chile. Vermaak’s greater wisdom should shine through...
Last result between sides: March 26, 2016: Jaguares 8 Stormers 13 (Buenos Aires)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Stormers by eight; Garrin Lambley: Stormers by nine; Herman Mostert: Stormers by seven; Lloyd Burnard: Stormers by 12.
SA GAME 4
BRUMBIES v SHARKS, Canberra
When: Saturday, 10:45
Referee: Angus Gardner (Aus)
SuperSport commentators: Australian panel
Weather outlook: Cool, chance of rain, light breeze
Background: It’s a time-honoured hallmark that wins for SA teams in Canberra don’t grow on trees. And with the Sharks already beaten in game one by the Reds, it’s difficult to install them as favourites against the perhaps even more accomplished Brums. Still, there were enough signs at various times in Brisbane to suggest that a minor upset is far from out of the question. The Sharks will know deep down, too, that 0/2 is still a salvageable situation for them down the line, considering how little time will be spent abroad after this short tour is over. There’s a better chance, I feel, of the visitors gaining parity (or even supremacy, given a good day?) in the forward battle, as they may find the Brumbies’ back division hard to repel. Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight, for example, will enjoy having a run at some of the more lightweight Sharks outside backs, whose defensive fortitude will be put to a severe examination.
Key head-to-head: The general physical presence and high work-rate of still only 21-year-old JEAN-LUC DU PREEZ was one of the more redeeming factors in the Sharks’ round-one loss to the Reds, and the strapping, 113kg blindside flanker will be expected to assert himself all over again in the final Australian tour fixture. After all, the Springbok No 7 shirt remains a reasonably fluid affair so he can keep banking some personal brownie points over the next few months. He gets a good gauge of his development here, given that his direct rival will be big SCOTT FARDY, the already in-form 39-cap Wallaby Test veteran.
Last result between sides: May 10, 2014: Brumbies 16 Sharks 9 (Canberra)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Brumbies by three; Garrin Lambley: Brumbies by six; Herman Mostert: Brumbies by five; Lloyd Burnard: Brumbies by eight.
SA GAME 5
SUNWOLVES v KINGS, Singapore
When: Saturday, 12:55
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (SA)
SuperSport commentators: To follow
Weather outlook: Cloudy, warm, chance of rain
Background: Both sides in this battle of Super Rugby minnows - many with fond Super 12 memories are adamant neither belongs at this level, to be perfectly blunt - already come off losses, the Sunwolves particularly blitzed by the defending-champion Hurricanes (83-17). But in steamy Singapore they are likely to believe they can knock over South Africa’s weakest franchise. That’s the way I slightly lean in forecasting terms, too, although no Sport24 co-tipsters share that downbeat view. The protagonists have met once previously, in Port Elizabeth last season when it was 4-4 in try terms but the Kings eked out a 33-28 result.
Key head-to-head: One of the best player investments from abroad that the Sunwolves could make was steely ex-Force second-rower SAM WYKES. An eight-year stalwart in Perth, the traditionally generous-haired No 5 now plies his trade for the Japanese franchise and usually more than earns his proverbial wages. He’s still only 28, too. Up against him will be the Kings’ stringbean, but athletic MZWANELE ZITO, a former Madibaz kingpin in the Varsity Cup. Apart from his lineout competence, Zito relishes a roaming role, although maybe he will have learnt this week to curb that penchant for a cute, wasted little grubber with men gagging for the ball outside him...
Last result between sides: April 2, 2016: Kings 33 Sunwolves 28 (Port Elizabeth)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Sunwolves by two; Garrin Lambley: Kings by one; Herman Mostert: Kings by three; Lloyd Burnard: Kings by five.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing