Cape Town – Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing, in the 12th of his regular South African-focused Super Rugby previews this year, believes that the Lions will make an enormous stride toward a potential home final if they beat the Brumbies in their Friday humdinger.
In fact, this outcome could prove a key determinant of their knockout seeding; win and they are formidably placed for nailing top spot overall, but lose and thoughts of a much-desired Jo’burg showpiece could fade fairly dramatically for last season’s runners-up.
Comfortingly, under the circumstances, all of the Sport24 staff forecasters fancy Warren Whiteley and company overcoming the Brums to return home with a 100 percent record from Down Under, despite some steely names to have to subdue in the home ranks.
But there is a dissenting view: outspoken regular columnist Mark Keohane admits to a “crappy feeling the Lions are going to drop this one”.
Elsewhere, there is uniformity in the theory that the Sharks will safely repel the Kings despite the derby PR hype being generated in Port Elizabeth in favour of the courageous minnows, plus expectation of a sizeable crowd.
What about the Bulls, bruised but back in action at Loftus? Sadly the view is again unanimous; their fragility and confusion over style identity will linger …
*Rob picked the results of seven out of eight of last weekend’s games correctly on SuperBru, giving him a season record thus far of 67/87 (77 percent).
SPORT24 PICK OF THE CROP
BRUMBIES v LIONS, Canberra
When: Friday, 11:45 (SA time)
Referee: Paul Williams (NZ)
Weather outlook: Partly cloudy, cool, calm
SuperSport commentators: Australian panel
Background: Canberra used to be a true fortress for the Brumbies. But that was then – like when the equestrian-themed outfit could boast pretty regular Super Rugby titles or at least appearances in finals – and this is now. Despite being nominally top of the flimsy Aussie conference, they have won only three of nine games in 2017, including prior reverses at home to the Blues, Highlanders and Sharks. That should be an automatic cue for Johan Ackermann’s ambitious Lions charges not to feel over-awed by this date. The coach has shuffled his forward resources again – though this policy has been bearing fruit, keeping various men fresh and on their toes – and is able to sport an impactful bench, including the ace “A-team” front row of Messrs Van Rooyen, Marx and Dreyer. There has been enough total rugby, if you like, from the Highvelders on this tour to suggest they will have the nous and verve to prevail as long as they are mentally up for it. Maybe three-try superiority for a bonus point as well is pushing it a bit, though …
Key head-to-head: Given the widespread expectation that this match won’t have much in it scoreboard-wise, it may well be settled by a moment of solo attacking inspiration rather than any slow-grind factors. If so, the tussle out wide between long-serving Brumbies right wing dynamo HENRY SPEIGHT, eternally try-hungry, and the Lions’ fast-rising speedster on the left, COURTNALL SKOSAN, should be one to keep a hawkish eye on. Fijian-born Speight is in his seventh year of service in Canberra, but Skosan is increasingly part of the best furniture in the Lions’ camp, too, and as lethal near the tryline as a prolific-scoring football striker in the small box. This could well be his big-break year at Test level, I fancy…
Last result between sides: May 16, 2015: Lions 20 Brumbies 30 (Johannesburg)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Lions by five; Garrin Lambley: Lions by six; Herman Mostert: Lions by three; Lloyd Burnard: Lions by six.
SA GAME 2
KINGS v SHARKS, Port Elizabeth
When: Saturday, 17:15
Referee: Federico Anselmi (Arg)
Weather outlook: Clear, mild, light breeze
SuperSport commentators: Owen Nkumane & Gavin Cowley (Eng), Gerrie Scheepers & Gary Boshoff (Afrik), Lonwabo Mtimka & Lungelo Payi (Xho)
Background: Few non-Sharks-partial South Africans would begrudge the Kings, still so likely to be headed for the Super Rugby scrapyard next season, another upset victory. (They are on a two-game winning streak, Rebels and Waratahs.) But the visitors from further up the coast should be in no mood for sentimentality or charity at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. On paper, this fixture remains a relative mismatch, in all truth, although yes, matches are won on grass. The Sharks need to bank another triumph for playoffs qualification purposes, and you might argue that they had their Kings “scare” in the first-round meeting in Durban … secured by only two points, and helped by a late sin-binning for that high-nuisance-value Kings fetcher Chris Cloete. It will be Robert du Preez’s charges by a bit more to spare this time, sing most of our tipsters harmoniously, although a good, passionate late-afternoon scrap seems in prospect in “die Baai”.
Key head-to-head: The slightly earlier-than-expected return to fitness of PAT LAMBIE was not only brilliantly timed for the Sharks, with wunderkind Curwin Bosch going to the Junior World Championship, but potentially has given him enough time to convince Allister Coetzee his experience is the answer to the Bok No 10 channel during June against France. He has this game, plus Sunwolves and Stormers, to amass necessary sharpness for Test combat. But it won’t be a cakewalk in PE, where his opposite number LIONEL CRONJE is arguably in the form of his life and playing with flamboyant creativeness on attack. That said, I reckon he has a way to go yet to be worthy of any international elevation … including ensuring his place-kicking is more consistent.
Last result between sides: March 18, 2017: Sharks 19 Kings 17 (Durban)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Sharks by 10; Garrin Lambley: Sharks by 12; Herman Mostert: Sharks by 12; Lloyd Burnard: Sharks by 15.
SA GAME 3
BULLS v HIGHLANDERS, Pretoria
When: Saturday, 15:05
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (SA)
Weather outlook: Chilly, chance of rain, moderate wind
SuperSport commentators: Andy Capostagno & Hanyani Shimange (Eng), John van Rensburg & Kobus Wiese (Afrik), Alfred Mzizi & Kaya Malotana (Xho)
Background: How the mighty have fallen. When you have legends like Victor Matfield asking ruefully “what is their game-plan, their DNA?” you know that the Bulls are floundering. Unless a dramatic amount of fresh strategic clarity and gees has been rediscovered over the course of the week, the Bulls seem set for further Kiwi-induced pain at the hands of the Highlanders. Hardly helping, arguably, is a forecast of a wet pitch and cold temperatures for this one … the visitors may nonchalantly feel they are back on a training paddock in Dunedin or Invercargill. If it is a grim afternoon in meteorological terms, the Bulls’ ropey scrum may come under further, concerted assault, whilst we all know NZ teams somehow still manage to turn on the ball-in-hand charm even when it is damp and greasy. Best hope for the home faithful is that their side were genuinely stung by the 10-try rout last weekend and determined at very least to bolt the stable door with some overdue, frenzied and properly organised defence. This should be closer … but still no cigar in Pretoria?
Key head-to-head: Adriaan Strauss is reportedly injured, but it is revealing nevertheless that that severely embattled Bulls boast a much younger, fresh-faced skipper for this one in the shape of tall No 8 HANRO LIEBENBERG, the former Baby Bok leader who has recovered from a hamstring niggle. The 21-year-old from Brackenfell in the Western Cape has the difficult job of helping restore steel and spirit to the Bulls’ ranks after that awful Crusaders pummelling, and leading the charge from his personal berth as well. Up against him directly is the Otago-based outfit’s GARETH EVANS, just a little shorter and perhaps more rangy in physique than Liebenberg, and a Super Rugby customer since 2014 – he had a very injury-plagued 2016 but is regaining much of his mojo this season.
Last result between sides: April 11, 2014: Highlanders 27 Bulls 20 (Dunedin)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Highlanders by eight; Garrin Lambley: Highlanders by 10; Herman Mostert: Highlanders by three; Lloyd Burnard: Highlanders by 20.
SA GAME 4
BLUES v CHEETAHS, Auckland
When: Friday, 09:35 (SA time)
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (NZ)
Weather outlook: Cool, rain, light breeze
SuperSport commentators: NZ panel
Background: Uh-oh, the maths doesn’t look too good for the Cheetahs, suddenly chucked into merciless overseas duty after that Bloemfontein killer loss to the Highlanders at the death. If they are notoriously leaky in the dying stages of matches, that is also a time when the Blues often enough like to turn on the offensive charm, by contrast. Maybe the best hope for an unlikely Cheetahs win – the Blues are on a two-game productive streak in that column, both away – is the expectation of really foul weather, which may serve as some sort of leveller. Mind you, are Franco Smith’s troops geared to play a more conservative game if required? Hmm. If they want some pre-match crumbs of comfort, they are probably best found in the result of the last meeting between these sides: the Cheetahs edged it 25-24 in the Free State two years ago, helped by a brace of tries by the now (sadly) medically-sidelined Cornal Hendricks …
Key head-to-head: The expectation of heavy Auckland early-winter rain leading up to this tussle, and some sauce during it too, suggests that we not necessarily get a high-scoring clash (you have to believe a firm surface might aid the traditionally fluid Cheetahs’ battle-plan better?). In that event, the scrums and tight-loose grappling could become more influential than usual, and the Blues boast a notably robust unit at tighthead prop in CHARLIE FAUMUINA. The bearded All Black gets to set-piece grips with CHARLES MARAIS, perhaps the more scrum-specialist loosehead at the Cheetahs, as Ox Nche, so lively in general play against the Highlanders, instead offers impact possibilities off the splinters.
Last result between sides: February 27, 2015: Cheetahs 25 Blues 24 (Bloemfontein)
Sport24 staff predictions: Rob Houwing: Blues by 23; Garrin Lambley: Blues by 20; Herman Mostert: Blues by 15; Lloyd Burnard: Blues by 20.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing