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Rugby | Vodacom Super Rugby

Elton Jantjies © Gallo Images

Pressure test for the Lions

The Emirates Lions find themselves facing a Vodacom Super Rugby pressure test as they head into a three-game sequence that could make all the difference to their chances of again walking away with the South African conference.

This time two weeks ago, before the Lions had lost to the Blues, everyone was glibly accepting that this year would be business as usual in the local conference. The Lions had thrashed the Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria, the DHL Stormers were struggling overseas, and there didn’t seem to be a local team that could match them.

They must still remain favourites to win the conference, but the performances of the Stormers pack, coupled with their own increasing inability to hold onto their possession, is making it less of a certainty. After Saturday’s difficult away trip to Buenos Aires, the Lions return home for a repeat of last year’s final against the Crusaders and then a big derby match against the Stormers.

We will know more about the Stormers’ capabilities after they play the Reds at Newlands on Saturday. The Stormers showed irresistible form against the Blues but need to back up before they start getting taken seriously. They do have a hellishly difficult draw in the sense that after this home game they are on the road again for three successive matches in South Africa, none of which will be easy.

At this point the Stormers look most likely to challenge the Lions but the Bulls have shown a lot of promise even in defeat. They face a tough one this week in the form of the Crusaders in Christchurch. They will not be helped by the fact the Crusaders will feel they need to correct after two successive defeats in New Zealand derbies. And the Sharks might feel the same when they play in Melbourne against the Rebels, who have something to prove again after their surprisingly big defeat at the hands of the Waratahs last Sunday.

It is interesting to note that for both teams in Melbourne the turn-around has been short – the Rebels play just five days after the Waratahs clash while the Sharks will be in action six days after their abysmal effort against the Brumbies.

Weekend preview and predictions

South African conference

Crusaders v Vodacom Bulls (Christchurch, Friday 8:35am)

The Bulls’ performance against the Chiefs in their opening tour match last week would have been a warning for the Crusaders not to be complacent and was also probably a good draw for the Christchurch ticket sellers, who will now feel they have something to sell. Certainly, the Bulls’ style of rugby is light years away from the more conservative template of the past and the first half in Hamilton was the most entertaining 40 minutes of rugby produced by a South African team in New Zealand for a long time. There is no denying that the Bulls are on the right track but coach John Mitchell will be longing for another win to go with the opening victory against the Hurricanes to further validate what he has been doing and the progress being made. Expecting it to come in Christchurch though might be a bit much.

Prediction: Crusaders by 10

Rebels v Cell C Sharks (Melbourne, Friday 10:45am)

The Sharks desperately need not only to win, but to do so showing energy and innovation in their game. Last week’s performance against the Brumbies was abjectly poor, and coach Robert du Preez has rightly focused on the need for a solid start. Hopefully, for the Durban team’s sake, the forwards will be better this week – they will have to be – and more of an effort will be made to not only get the ball to the dangerous backs, but also to synch the forwards and backs. The Sharks have Jean-Luc du Preez and Beast back in the starting team and that should make some difference, but the Rebels should have the edge at home.

Prediction: Rebels by 8.

DHL Stormers v Reds (Cape Town, Saturday 5:15pm)

Stormers coach Robbie Fleck won’t need reminding that the Reds have been occasional party spoilers at Newlands down the years because he has been part of those games both as a player and a coach. There has been a big focus this week from the Stormers on retaining their intensity of the Blues game and backing up that performance with another equally impressive one so that the Stormers can take some momentum into a difficult sequence of away derbies against the Bulls, Lions and Sharks. The Reds are much improved on recent seasons under Brad Thorn but the Stormers should have enough to win at home.

Prediction: Stormers by 9.

Jaguares v Emirates Lions (Buenos Aires, Saturday 11:45am)

Lions coach Swys de Bruin says it is nice for his team to be underdogs for once, but that is not to say that his team won’t be feeling the pressure after two average performances and with the knowledge that there are big games against the Crusaders and Stormers to come in their immediate future. The Lions’ troubles were compounded this week by the injuries to players and a lack of continuity could count against the Lions in a match where, while it won’t be as extensive as on previous visits to South America, they will still go with a rotational policy.

Prediction: Lions to edge close game.

Australasian conferences

Sunwolves v Chiefs (Tokyo, Saturday 6:15am)

Prediction: Chiefs by 15

Hurricanes v Highlanders (Wellington, Saturday 8:35am)

Prediction: Hurricanes to win close game.


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