But with the spirited Kings, seasoned Bulls and struggling Stormers all up against tough teams this weekend, the smart money has to be on the Sharks claiming a bonus-point victory to secure top spot on the South African Conference log. The Cheetahs, meanwhile, will have to make do without Springbok flyhalf-in-waiting Johan Goosen who tore a cruciate ligament in practice during the week and will miss the rest of the team’s campaign. By KEN BORLAND.
The Stormers return to SuperRugby action at Newlands on Saturday with a crunch match against a top-class Brumbies side enjoying a four-game unbeaten run.
A compelling victory over the Sharks last weekend in Durban has ensured that the pressure is not on the Brumbies in Cape Town – a venue they have also enjoyed impressive success at – but on a Stormers side that is painfully aware that a defeat will leave them with a dismal record of just one win in four matches, and a game against the Crusaders to follow.
The Brumbies have stated in no uncertain terms that they see the collisions as the key battle on Saturday and it just happens to be the area where they most comprehensively outplayed the Sharks last weekend.
It’s no secret that the Stormers regard the Sharks as the most physical challenge they face in this competition, so they have certainly taken notice of last weekend and coach Allister Coetzee was happy to concede that the Australians will be favourites at Newlands.
“I can’t remember when last I saw a Sharks team giving away so much momentum to the opposition. The Brumbies are a quality team and there is no doubt they must start as favourites this weekend,” Coetzee said this week.
It is also no secret that the Brumbies are the masters of ball retention, so if the Stormers forwards don’t front up on Saturday, they will be spending a lot of time without the ball, tackling, and, as stout as the Capetonians’ defence is, Jake White’s team have shown enough on attack this year already to suggest they can score tries against any team.
“If we score tries I can’t see the Stormers winning against us with kicks,” White rather bullishly said this week.
But it’s true because the Brumbies have been just as impressive on defence this year, they are in the faces of the opposition, their discipline under White has been good and, having lost just two of their six matches at Newlands since 1998, it’s easy to see why many people consider the Brumbies to be the favourites on Saturday.
The Stormers have lost star wing Bryan Habana, who had an operation for torn knee ligaments and is out for at least 10 weeks, but fellow Springbok Juan de Jongh returns at outside centre, allowing Jean de Villiers to shift back to his regular position of inside centre. Tiaan Liebenberg is also back, bringing a more physical presence at hooker.
Six Springboks have paid the price for the Sharks’ poor show last weekend with coach John Plumtree dropping Odwa Ndungane, Frans Steyn, Charl McLeod, Ryan Kankowski, Jannie du Plessis and Craig Burden. Ndungane is out of the match-day 22 altogether, but the other five are on the bench for the game against the Melbourne Rebels in Durban on Saturday.
After a miserable afternoon last weekend in pouring rain watching a lacklustre effort by the home side, Sharks fans will be hoping to get much better value for their Kings Park ticket fee on Saturday as last year’s beaten finalists look to bounce back against one of the competition’s minnows.
The Sharks have provided little hint of their attacking quality this year and the dropping of inside centre Steyn in favour of the more subtle skills of Meyer Bosman suggests Plumtree has identified his vice-captain as the problem.
More particularly, the lack of conditioning of Steyn, who has come off a long period of inactivity after an ankle injury and a tough week of training awaited the 2007 World Cup winner.
But the Sharks will obviously need a much better effort from their forwards if they are to do any meaningful attacking on Saturday and the eagerness of promoted players such as Jacques Botes, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Kyle Cooper and Wiehahn Herbst could inspire the pack to dominate the rather no-name-brand mediocrity of the Rebels.
What could threaten the Sharks is a fast and loose game which brings Rebels backs such as James O’Connor, Lachlan Mitchell, Cooper Vuna and Mitch Inman into the contest.
A change of personnel is also what Bulls coach Frans Ludeke has prescribed after his team’s disappointing performance in last weekend’s 41-19 defeat by the Crusaders, with nine changes being made. Four of those are due to injury, with wing Akona Ndungane, centre Wynand Olivier, scrumhalf Francois Hougaard and lock Flip van der Merwe all ruled out.
“Player management” and “rotation policy” is what Ludeke is calling flyhalf Morné Steyn’s demotion to the bench for the match against the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday, but the points machine could be paying the price for some defensive lapses last weekend in Christchurch.
With Steyn heading for France at the end of the SuperRugby campaign, the reign of Louis Fouché as the Bulls’ pivot could start this weekend against one of the world’s most innovative flyhalves in Quade Cooper.
The Reds will be smarting after their 19-12 defeat at home to the Force last weekend and will be hoping for a much better display from their fit-again halfbacks, Will Genia and Cooper, in particular.
The Queenslanders will be desperate to get back to winning ways at home, with the Force upset being only their fourth loss in 26 games at Suncorp Stadium, because the gap between them and the Brumbies, who have a game in hand, at the top of the Australian Conference could be more than 10 points if they lose to the Bulls.
Suncorp Stadium is a “fast” venue, a quick pitch helping the expansive style of the Reds and, with inspirational 2011 title-winning captain James Horwill back in harness and so much disruption in the Bulls camp, the home side will be favourites.
The Crusaders are most definitely favourites in Christchurch on Saturday as they take on the Southern Kings, playing in New Zealand for the first time.
The Kings have produced some stirring displays in Port Elizabeth this season, showing plenty of tenacity and spirit, but they are in for the fight of their lives against the Crusaders, who looked back in top form in dispatching the Bulls so clinically last weekend.
Coach Matt Sexton is also rapidly going through his store of captains with prop Schalk Ferreira becoming the fourth player to lead the team out in four matches. Luke Watson, Darron Nell and Steven Sykes have all succumbed to injury.
If the Kings fail to match the tremendous passion and determination they showed in Port Elizabeth, then their first SuperRugby tour could get off to the most inauspicious of starts.
The Cheetahs are also in action overseas as they take on the Western Force in Perth and we will see if the central franchise is dependent on flyhalf Johan Goosen for its success.
The Cheetahs have won in Invercargill and Sydney on this tour, with Springbok flyhalf-in-waiting Goosen playing a key role. But the 20-year-old tore his cruciate ligament while practising his goal-kicking at the start of the week and Naka Drotske’s team will be without him for the rest of the campaign.
“To lose Johan to injury is a major blow, but this is the perfect time for Riaan Smit to prove his worth and we have full confidence in him,” Drotske said.
Apart from the exciting Smit appearing at flyhalf, the match also marks the return of Heinrich Brüssow to the starting line-up. Out-and-out fetchers are not exactly in vogue in South African rugby at the moment, but with the Cheetahs looking to play a fast-paced game, the Springbok will be looking to impress with his skills at the tackle area.
With the Kings, Bulls and Stormers all up against tough opposition we are probably relying on the Sharks and Cheetahs to provide odds-on South African victories this weekend.
Whatever the result in Cape Town, the Brumbies are guaranteed to retain the top spot on the combined log, with the Bulls, Blues and Reds all chasing second place if the Chiefs slip up against the Highlanders in Hamilton in Friday’s only game.
The top spot in the South African Conference will be there for the taking if the Bulls go down in Brisbane, with the other four teams all theoretically capable of overtaking the three-time champions, although the Sharks are the most likely to claim the bonus-point victory that will secure first place on the log. DM
Southern Kings (v Crusaders, Saturday 8h35): George Whitehead, Marcello Sampson, Ronnie Cooke, Hadleigh Parkes, Sergeal Petersen, Demetri Catrakilis, Shaun Venter, Jacques Engelbrecht, Wimpie van der Walt, Cornell du Preez, David Bulbring, Daniel Adongo, Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements: Edgar Marutlulle, Jaco Engels, Rynier Bernardo, Devin Oosthuizen, Nicolas Vergallo, Waylon Murray, Elric van Vuuren.
Bulls (v Reds, Saturday 10h40): Zane Kirchner, Lionel Mapoe, JJ Engelbrecht, Francois Venter, Bjorn Basson, Louis Fouché, Jano Vermaak, Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Grant Hattingh, Paul Willemse, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Morné Mellett. Replacements: Willie Wepener, Frik Kirsten, Juandré Kruger, Jacques Potgieter, Ruan Snyman, Morné Steyn, Jan Serfontein.
Cheetahs (v Western Force, Saturday 12:45): Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Riaan Smit, Sarel Pretorius, Phillip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne, Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Coenie Oosthuisen, Rynhard Landman, Boom Prinsloo, Piet van Zyl, Burton Francis, Ryno Benjamin.
Sharks (v Melbourne Rebels, Saturday 17:05): Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Meyer Bosman, Lwazi Mvovo, Patrick Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Keegan Daniel, Marcell Coetzee, Jacques Botes, Franco van der Merwe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Wiehahn Herbst, Kyle Cooper, Beast Mtawarira. Replacements: Craig Burden, Jannie du Plessis, Jandré Marais, Ryan Kankowski, Charl McLeod, Frans Steyn, Riaan Viljoen.
Stormers (v Brumbies, Saturday 19:10): Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Gerhard van den Heever, Elton Jantjies, Dewaldt Duvenage, Duane Vermeulen, Rynhardt Elstadt, Siya Kolisi, Andries Bekker, De Kock Steenkamp, Frans Malherbe, Tiaan Liebenberg, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Deon Fourie, Pat Cilliers, Don Armand, Nizaam Carr, Nic Groom, Damian de Allende, Jaco Taute.