Whether the good fortunes of the Bulls and Cheetahs overseas will continue will be occupying the minds of their supporters, but the obvious focus of this weekend’s SuperRugby programme, from a South African perspective, will be at King’s Park in Durban, where the Sharks and Brumbies clash. By KEN BORLAND.
Play will be a meeting between two of the three remaining unbeaten sides in the competition, and should be a good measure of the Brumbies’ credentials.
The Brumbies’ three wins have been against the Reds, Rebels and Waratahs, but with the strength of the Australian conference the subject of much debate, the men from the Capital Territory have the chance on Saturday (5.05pm) to show that they are at the same level as the other title contenders from New Zealand and South Africa.
Under Jake White, the 2007 World Cup-winning coach, the Brumbies have married the strong driving play and stout defence the Springbok sides under his tenure were famous for to the different lines of running and interplay the teams of Stephen Larkham and George Gregan were renowned for.
The occupants of the top spot on the combined log do have a member of that championship side of the early 2000s in their starting line-up in the form of George Smith, one of the all-time great loose forwards and someone whose ball-stealing abilities have left many Springboks with mental scars.
The effects of travel and the fact that Kings Park has never been a happy ground for the Brumbies – winning just one of seven matches there – are obvious factors counting against the Australians.
The most obvious problem facing the Sharks is their lack of tries at the moment – and the return of Charl McLeod at scrumhalf suggests adding some spark and better cohesion between forwards and backs (something the Natalians are famous for) is at the forefront of coach John Plumtree’s mind.
The strong kicking game of the Brumbies can be seen as the reason for Odwa Ndungane being preferred to Lwazi Mvovo on the wing, while the rich reserves of loose forward strength the Sharks have is reflected by the lack of worry when Jean Deysel joins Willem Alberts on the injured list: Keegan Daniel, the key link man in much of the attacking brilliance the Natalians have shown in recent years, merely returns and takes over the captaincy as well.
The Sharks are winning ugly at the moment, which has worked for the Stormers over the last two years, so the manner of their victory won’t really matter on Saturday, although they will need to have the firepower to match a team that has scored 10 tries this season already, the third most in the competition.
For the aficionados of forward play, there is a mouthwatering clash to enjoy in the scrums, and not just because Siliva Siliva is the Brumbies’ reserve prop; Springboks Beast Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis will lock horns with Wallabies Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore.
The Cheetahs were a team that showed a new willingness to win ugly last weekend when they pulled off a famous victory over the Highlanders in Invercargill, and hopefully they have carried that spirit across the Tasman with them to Sydney, where they take on the Waratahs on Friday at 10.40am.
The Waratahs are in some disarray with some of the horrors of last season carried over into the current campaign with the New South Welshmen losing two of their first three matches, including a 35-6 thumping at the hands of the Brumbies last weekend.
Coach Michael Cheika has responded by introducing six new faces into the side for this weekend, but veterans such as Benn Robinson, Dave Dennis, Berrick Barnes, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Lachie Turner are still part of the furniture.
Cheetahs scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius was superb last weekend against the Highlanders and is returning to where he played his rugby last year. But his stay with the Waratahs was an unhappy one, and he will have much to prove against opponents who will also be looking to make a statement.
The game awareness of the Cheetahs was outstanding last weekend and, if they can produce their wonderful attacking instincts at the right time in the right place, they could show that their 23-3 victory in Sydney, which was their first ever outside South Africa, was no fluke.
The Bulls, the other unbeaten team in the competition, are in Christchurch to take on the Crusaders and will not have bought the nonsense that the seven-time champions are a spent force.
While the Crusaders have lost their opening two games, they will be buoyed and motivated by returning to the AMI Stadium for the first time in 209 days due to the earthquakes in Christchurch and they still have plenty of quality in their ranks.
Their backline, marshalled by Dan Carter, boasts Israel Dagg, Robbie Fruean, Ryan Crotty and Andy Ellis, while an all-international front row of Owen Franks, Corey Flynn and Wyatt Crockett has fellow All Blacks behind them in Sam and George Whitelock, Matt Todd and Kieran Read.
The Bulls will need to be clinical from the start and keep the pressure on the Crusaders while their confidence is still low and the crowd has not yet got firmly behind them.
The smart money though is on the Crusaders rebounding, clicking into gear and getting their 2013 campaign up and running, so the Bulls will have to be at their best to win back-to-back matches in New Zealand for the first time. And unfortunately, the Bulls do seem to have a bit of an issue with the second game on tour…
The Southern Kings have shown impressive competitiveness and steel in their debut season thus far, but the first real test of their defences comes on Friday night in Port Elizabeth (7.10pm) when they take on New Zealand opposition for the first time, in the form of the defending champions Chiefs.
There can’t be a sterner defensive test at the moment than coming up against the Chiefs – they even managed to score four tries against the Stormers at Newlands last weekend, even though they couldn’t quite win the game.
Kings coach Matt Sexton will need to conceive of better ways of starving the opposition of ball otherwise it will be difficult to see quite how the Eastern Cape men can win this one.
Better skills in hanging on to their own ball would be a start, but this could be where it all starts to go wrong for the Kings, who depart on tour next week.
But this has been a season of surprises so far and this Kings team certainly has heart, so there is hope yet for the rookies.
Cheetahs: Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Johan Goosen, Sarel Pretorius, Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne, Frans Viljoen, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane. Replacements – Ryno Barnes, Coenie Oosthuizen, Ligtoring Landman, Heinrich Brüssow, Piet van Zyl, Riaan Smit, Ryno Benjamin.
Southern Kings: SP Marais, Sergeal Petersen, Ronnie Cooke, Andries Strauss, Marcello Sampson, Demetri Catrakillis, Shaun Venter; Jacques Engelbrecht, Wimpie van der Walt, Cornell du Preez, Steven Sykes, Darron Nell, Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements – Edgar Marutlulle, Jaco Engels, David Bulbring, Daniel Adongo, Nicolas Vergallo, George Whitehead, Hadleigh Parkes.
Bulls: Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Wynand Olivier, Jürgen Visser, Morné Steyn, Jano Vermaak, Pierre Spies, Arno Botha, Deon Stegmann, Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Frik Kirsten, Willie Wepener, Morné Mellett. Replacements – Chiliboy Ralepelle, Werner Kruger, Grant Hattingh, Jacques Potgieter, Francois Hougaard, Louis Fouché, Jan Serfontein.
Sharks: Louis Ludik, Odwa Ndungane, Paul Jordaan, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen, Pat Lambie, Charl McLeod, Ryan Kankowski, Keegan Daniel, Marcell Coetzee, Franco van der Merwe, Anton Bresler, Jannie du Plessis, Craig Burden, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements – Kyle Cooper, Wiehahn Herbst, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jacques Botes, Cobus Reinach, Meyer Bosman, Lwazi Mvovo.
Other fixtures: Highlanders v Hurricanes (Dunedin); Reds v Force (Brisbane).
Byes: Stormers, Blues, Rebels. DM
King Tutankhamun's ceremonial dagger is forged from meteorites.