Boardroom deliberation spices Loftus derby
The off-field deliberations that will determine which two local teams will drop from Vodacom Super Rugby to accommodate the planned smaller competition will serve to spice up both the social media banter and the onfield rivalry in the big local game on Saturday.
Although the Cell C Sharks fans will be considering the Kings Park clash against the Rebels to be the one that is most interesting, their team should win too easily for the match to really capture the imagination. However in the earlier game at Loftus, there are several things for the Vodacom Bulls and Toyota Cheetahs to be playing for, starting with the need to keep pace with the DHL Stormers in the lopsided Africa Conference one battle and extending through the Bulls’ need to avenge consecutive defeats to their Bloemfontein rivals in Currie Cup and Super Rugby.
Make no mistake though, the debate on social media about whether it should be the Bulls or Cheetahs who make way next year – there is unlikely to be any debate in reality, it will probably be the Cheetahs – will have been noted by the respective camps. The Cheetahs don’t want to be dropping out, and they know that a win over their northern rivals might just make some minor impression, even if it is just to note that on pure form it shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion.
Neither of the two Loftus protagonists have been great this year, the Cheetahs possibly because of that Sword of Damocles that is hanging over their heads, but they do tend to produce watchable contests, and this week should be no different.
Perhaps the biggest local game of the weekend will be the one to be played in Johannesburg on Friday night. A win for the Emirates Lions over the Jaguares will be one more brick laid in the foundation of what should be an easy Lions canter to both conference honours and perhaps overall log supremacy too.
If you look at the international pedigree of the Jaguares you’d give them a chance, and even more so if you look at their home form this year, but they haven’t travelled well since pushing the Stormers close in Cape Town in the second week. The Lions should win fairly comfortably.
The game that could attract the most South African interest might be the one in Christchurch, where the Stormers will be looking to get back on the horse after their first defeat of the season to the Lions. After their win over the Chiefs, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck was hopeful his men might back up, but it was wishful thinking. He knows though that a solid performance at a venue that has never been kind to South African franchise teams will go some way to getting the fans to retain the belief that might just have flagged a bit after the disappointment of last Saturday.
WEEKEND PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS
Waratahs v Southern Kings (Sydney, Friday 11.45)
This is likely to be the Eastern Cape team’s last game in Australia, at least for now, and they would like to go out with a bang. Their tour so far hasn’t been as good as their venture Down Under in 2013, when they won one game and they drew with Jake White’s high flying Brumbies, but the Kings have provided some spectacle, and they were competitive against the Western Force and even at stages of last week’s game against the Reds. To match the Waratahs though will require a further lift, one which should be beyond them.
Prediction: Waratahs to win by 15.
Emirates Lions v Jaguares (Johannesburg, Friday 19.00)
There isn’t much separating the Lions now from ending as the top South African team once more. Even before last week’s match against the Stormers they were likely to finish top just because the Stormers, likely to be their nearest challengers in the final count-out, have a much tougher schedule this year. It is effectively a reverse of last year, when the Lions had to play all the Kiwi teams, and they should have no trouble winning all their games against Australian teams. The Jaguares though will come to Emirates Airlines Park with intent after dropping their last two games, and desperately needing to keep the heat on the Sharks in the African Conference 2 battle. Lions coach Johan Ackermann looked like he might tamper with his starting team in a quest to manage workloads, particulary in the pack, but it shouldn’t be the wholesale change that has contributed to the Lions losing to the Jaguares in the two matches they have played them in Buenos Aires since their last meeting at Saturday’s venue.
Prediction: Lions by 15.
Crusaders v DHL Stormers (Christchurch, Saturday 09.35)
The Stormers might win a game on their New Zealand tour, but it is much more likely to be their clash with the Highlanders in Dunedin than their opening game against the Christchurch. History reflects that South African teams have struggled away against the Crusaders, with the 2014 win by a depleted Sharks team being a rare event. The Stormers pack is much better than they showed against the Lions on Easter Saturday, but the Crusaders eight is easily the best in the competition. Pieter-Steph du Toit has been switched to blindside flank to accommodate Siya Kolisi’s rest opportunity, and it could just reap dividends, with the Stormers boasting an abundance of height and bulk up front for this game. The Stormers will hope to be competitive and to do enough to build some confidence for the following week. They may even believe they can win. It is unlikely to happen as the Crusaders effectively have an All Black pack fronting their charge, as well as a big and pacy set of backs that can use front foot ball to test the Stormers’ occasionally leaky defensive system.
Prediction: Crusaders by 10
Vodacom Bulls v Toyota Cheetahs (Pretoria, Saturday 17.15)
The Bulls got some of that old winning feeling back when they beat the Jaguares in front of a predictably pitiful Easter Saturday night crowd at Loftus, but coach Nollis Marais wants more of it as his team go out to avenge a surprisingly one-sided defeat in Bloemfontein at the start of the season. Bulls captain Adriaan Strauss will be playing against a team he represented 97 times, and also captained for several years, but his fellow Bulls front-row Springbok, Trevor Nyakane, will not be playing against his former teammates. He is being rested, with Jacobie Adriaanse getting a starting opportunity at tighthead for the first time. The Cheetahs have selected William Small-Smith on the wing as they are missing Sergeal Petersen to a hamstring injury, but otherwise look not far off full strength and will not be going to Pretoria without some hope. They’ve had the measure of the Bulls the last two times they played them – in the 2016 Currie Cup final and in the first round Super Rugby clash – but both those games were in Bloemfontein.
Prediction: Bulls to win narrowly.
Cell C Sharks v Melbourne Rebels (Durban, Saturday 19.30)
Jean-Luc du Preez will be absent from the Sharks pack due to an ankle injury, but otherwise coach Robert du Preez has kept the team that finished the first part of the season before the bye with a win over the Jaguares pretty intact for a game that will be all about chasing the bonus point. Yip, coaches normally talk of a bonus point being just that, but the Sharks have woken up to the fact that they need to do something special if they hope to stop the Lions from steamrollering to another Conference title. They boast an abjectly poor try scoring record this season – just 17 tries in seven games, which ranks them near the bottom – and will be looking to up that against an Australian team that was struggling before last week’s win over the Brumbies. The chances of the Sharks picking up the try scoring bonus could depend on the humidity for the evening game. The impact of the Durban conditions on the style of rugby the Sharks are able to play should never be underestimated.
Prediction: Sharks by 20.
Hurricanes v Brumbies (Wellington, Friday 09.35)
Prediction: Hurricanes by 15.
Highlanders v Sunwolves (Dunedin, Saturday 07.15)
Prediction: Highlanders by plenty.
Western Force v Chiefs (Perth, Saturday 11.45)
Prediction: Chiefs by 12 to 15.