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Lions may have added menace

When everyone was getting concerned about the state of South African rugby during the Crusaders’ recent rout of the Bulls at Loftus, there was a thought that kept going through the mind to temper the negative feeling – the Lions did this to the Bulls at Loftus last year too!

They did indeed, with the Johannesburg team comprehensively ending what to then had been a drought at Loftus in Vodacom Super Rugby by scoring seven tries en route to a 56-20 win. Those who remember the game will agree that it was a day when the Bulls were lucky to get 20, and the Lions could easily have eclipsed the 62 that the Crusaders put over the Bulls more recently.

It is debatable whether the Lions are as good now as they were this time last year, but the Bulls are arguably worse than they were 12 months ago, and lower on confidence. It has given rise to a perception that rather than being the herd of charging Bulls that they once were, the Bulls are now more like a gathering of lambs being led into the Lions’ den to be eaten.

It makes for an interesting reversal of the roles of a few years back, when the Bulls were South Africa’s champion franchise, and the only real local force in Super Rugby, and the Lions were the whipping boys. The Bulls do have better names on paper than the Lions team of yesteryear, so that makes it even more interesting.

We keep hearing of how dangerous a wounded Bull can be, so this is the time for the Pretoria team to show it. If they do, it could be an interesting game.

Everything does appear loaded in the Lions’ favour, however, and they could well have the carrot of playing for top spot on the overall log. They will know by late morning on Friday whether that is possible. While the Crusaders should start as slight favourites to beat the Chiefs in Hamilton, the Christchurch team do not boast the best record against the Chiefs. The Crusaders have to lose some time, and Friday could well be the day. If it is, then the Bulls could find themselves facing even more menace from a Lions team for whom this could become a big weekend.

It is a big weekend for the Stormers too. They need to make a statement in their last match against a New Zealand team before the play-offs. The Sharks need to stand up from their unexpected defeat to the Southern Kings by scoring a resounding win in Singapore, and the Kings will be looking for four in a row when they host the Brumbies.

The Sharks game will be televised in the early afternoon and the Lions and Kings games in the evening. The Kings have become a watchable team, so if you are not going to Emirates Airlines Park or Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, there is reason to be a couch potato for the second half of Saturday.


African conference

Blues v DHL Stormers (Cape Town, Friday 7.00pm)

The Stormers have a one out of one record against New Zealand teams at Newlands and will want to make it two out of two after losing heavily against three Kiwi sides away. Were Robert du Preez wearing the No 10 jersey for the Stormers, the home side might have started as clear favourites at home against a team that tends to blow hot and cold. However, the injury to Du Preez has made it more of a lottery, for while Dillyn Leyds is a fine player, he has played most of his rugby for the Stormers at wing or fullback. Starting at 10 is going to require an adjustment, and no-one needs to be told what a threat Sonny Bill Williams poses in the Blues No 12 jersey. The Blues didn’t boast a good away record until relatively recently, but wins in Sydney and Canberra would have given them confidence. The Stormers are determined, and they did come a lot closer against the Hurricanes than the final score suggested. If they win, it will be their pack that sets it up.

Prediction: Stormers by 3 to 10.

Hurricanes v Toyota Cheetahs (Wellington, Saturday 9.35am)

When the Hurricanes were interviewed after last week’s defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch, they perhaps unintentionally issued an ominous warning to the Cheetahs when they spoke about how much they were looking forward to getting back onto their home field. The Cheetahs were a little more competitive than their 50-32 defeat to the Blues last week might indicate, and they still have an irritating habit of conceding points just after doing the hard work of scoring them. Their defence is the biggest issue and should be exposed by a Hurricanes team determined to make a strong statement after the Crusaders defeat.

Prediction: Hurricanes by 20.

Sunwolves v Cell C Sharks (Singapore, Saturday 1.55pm)

Sharks coach Robert du Preez must be tearing his hair out at the unpredictability of his team. To be fair, they never looked particularly off their game against the Kings. It was more that the Kings played above themselves and are infused with self-belief and a determined refusal not to lose. But Du Preez didn’t leave much to the imagination when he spoke about the passion that the Kings displayed. By implication, he felt his team didn’t have enough passion. They did have passion on their last overseas trip, which was to Buenos Aires to play the Jaguares. They also have issues though, with the injuries to fullback Rhyno Smith and Pat Lambie meaning it is not just a simple case of Garth April slotting into the flyhalf role like he did last week. He may have to play fullback. The Sunwolves’ win over the Bulls a month ago and their competitive showing against the Stormers will have the Sharks forewarned of their abilities. The Sharks pack though should win it for the Durban team.

Prediction: Sharks by 10.

Emirates Lions v Vodacom Bulls (Johannesburg, Saturday 5.15pm)

The Lions team had not been selected at the time of writing but the early indications have been that Jaco Kriel is unlikely to take part in this northern derby as he is still undergoing agility training in his comeback from injury. That is not good for the Lions, who struggled to get their hands on the ball in their win over the Brumbies in Canberra. There is something decidedly odd about seeing these two teams come up against each other with the Lions such overwhelming favourites, and if the Lions weren’t so professional in their approach to everything, it would be a concern that the Bulls have been so roundly written off. It is a derby after all, and with Bok places up for grabs, we may just see the Bulls play with greater passion than they have recently. Even if they do, however, it is hard to see them overturning the form book.

Prediction: Lions by 8 to 15.

Southern Kings v Brumbies (Port Elizabeth, Saturday 7.30pm)

The late game on a Saturday isn’t the most popular from a spectator viewpoint, so it would be surprising if the support the Kings enjoy will be quite as voluble as it was against the Sharks. However, that win probably did more to galvanise interest in the Kings and support for the team than the two previous victories against Australian teams, and the Kings have organised a rugby festival at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium building up to the main event. So there should be a sizeable crowd, along with something the Kings haven’t experienced a lot of in recent years – expectation. It shouldn’t be a problem for them because they are so well coached by Deon Davids and also superbly led by Lionel Cronje, who has a calming influence on those around him and leads by example. What could be a problem for them is the absence of Chris Cloete. Jake White, when he was coaching the Springboks, used to say of Schalk Burger that he was worth two or three players. Cloete may be the same for the Kings. His absence gives the Brumbies a chance of upsetting the Kings’ impressive momentum. The Kings are at home though and they are playing confident rugby, so they should start as slight favourites against a team they drew with unexpectedly in Canberra in 2013.

Prediction: Kings to edge it.


Chiefs v Crusaders (Hamilton, Friday 9.35am)

Prediction: Crusaders to edge it.

Western Force v Highlanders (Perth, Saturday 11.45)

Prediction: Highlanders by 10.

Waratahs v Rebels (Sydney, Sunday 08.05)

Prediction: Waratahs by 20.


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