S15 Preview: Round 18, Part Two
The stage is set for a ‘super’ Saturday of note as all five South African teams will be in action on home soil.
The stage is set for a ‘super’ Saturday of note as all five South African teams will be in action on home soil.
The Australians may still be battling the British and Irish Lions, but in South Africa and New Zealand the focus shifts back to the race for Super Rugby play-off places.
The tournament’s international window has come and gone and the Bulls and Cheetahs will be eager to cement their places in the top six.
The first South African side in action, however, will be the Sharks - they host a Blues outfit who’ll be playing for their season.
The action moves from Durban to Pretoria for the first of two South African derbies where the Bulls will be the favourites against the visiting Southern Kings.
From Pretoria, all roads lead to Cape Town where the Cheetahs will be desperate to seal a vital win over the Stormers.
Quintin van Jaarsveld looks at the final three fixtures of Round 18.
Saturday, June 29
Sharks v Blues
(Kings Park, Durban - kick-off: 14.50; 12.50 GMT; 00.50, Sunday, June 30 NZ time)
The Sharks will have to overcome boardroom problems in addition to a focused Blues side at Kings Park.
Saying that there’s turbulence in the Shark Tank would be an understatement.
The Sharks are in a shambles following the controversial axing of coach John Plumtree and the New Zealander’s sudden exit on Tuesday, which left the Durban franchise without a head coach.
Assistant coaches Grant Bashford and Hugh-Reece Edwards will attempt to steer the ship for the remainder of the campaign and they’ve been left with a challenging first assignment.
The players are predictably singing the same tune - that they are fully focused on the task at hand. Whether that’s true will be revealed on Saturday.
What is a fact is that the Blues are 100 percent focused and will be coming to play in what is a must-win match for them to stay in the play-off picture.
Both teams are instinctively attacking sides and with the 10th-placed Sharks requiring nothing less than a bonus-point win to keep their slim play-off aspirations alive, this could be the most entertaining match of the weekend.
Although rain is forecast in Durban on Friday, there was only a 10 percent chance of precipitation on game day at the time of writing, so the teams should be able to throw the ball around.
Sharks captain Keegan Daniel acknowledged that the Blues have several danger men but felt the hosts have plenty of firepower of their own despite missing a number of first-choice players through injury.
“The Blues have quite a bit of x-factor in their team and we know they are dangerous from anywhere on the field,” said Daniel.
“We need to focus on ourselves - we want to go out there and express ourselves. The calibre of players we have returning from Springbok duty is a massive boost for us.
“We also had guys playing [in a recent friendly match] against the Lions who put their hands up and players returning from injury. We just want to play some great rugby.”
The benches are set to play a significant role in the match and may prove decisive in the latter stages. Hard-running Rene Ranger has an exceptional ability to break tackles and made a major impact for the All Blacks against France in a super sub role.
Similarly, Bismarck du Plessis made key contributions for the Springboks in the four-nation tournament and will look to do the same on Saturday.
The Sharks will also be able to call on the likes of Jean Deysel and Cobus Reinach, while the Blues will introduce experienced All Black hooker Keven Mealamu off the pine.
Prediction: The Blues have a terrible record against the Sharks. It’s been eight years since the Blues last beat the Sharks and nine since they last won at Kings Park. The international window has allowed the bulk of the Blues squad to arrive in South Africa earlier than usual, so travel won’t be a factor. It could go either way, but I suspect the Sharks’ returning Springboks, Willem Alberts in particular, will stand up and be counted and will lead the hosts to a narrow win. Sharks by five.
Sharks: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Louis Ludik, 12 Andrew James, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Keegan Daniel (captain), 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Edwin Hewitt, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Daniel Mienie/Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Jandre Marais, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Jacques Botes, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Jaco van Tonder.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Anthony Boric, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Kane Barrett/Culum Retallick, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Rene Ranger.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Tiaan Jonker (South Africa), Reuben Rossouw (South Africa)
TMO: Willie Roos (South Africa)
Bulls v Southern Kings
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria - kick-off: 17.05; 15.05 GMT)
It will be a David versus Goliath battle when the Southern Kings make their first trip to Pretoria to take on the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld.
The franchises sit at opposite ends of the spectrum in every regard.
The Bulls top the South African Conference with an eight-point cushion over closest rivals the Cheetahs and are the most successful South African franchise in Super Rugby history.
The Kings, on the other hand, are entrenched at the bottom of the national conference and are the tournament’s newest franchise.
The Bulls have the capital to lure the country’s leading players to Pretoria. They consequently boast a Springbok-laden squad and enviable depth across the board.
The Kings, simply put, have none of those luxuries. They’re an upstart Super Rugby franchise; a group of ‘no name’ players patched together at the final minute due to the uncertainty of their participation in this year’s tournament.
The gulf between the sides was evident in their first meeting in April when the Bulls romped to a 34-0 win in Port Elizabeth. The shutout was a statement of intent by the Bulls and a bitter pill to swallow for the newcomers.
Worryingly for the Kings, Saturday’s return assignment will be that much more daunting. The Bulls will be back at their beloved fortress Loftus and driven by the knowledge that a second bonus-point victory over the Kings would elevate them into second place on the overall log.
That incentive - a possible home play-off - will be at the forefront of the Bulls’ mind and will ensure they won’t be complacent when they play host to the men from Port Elizabeth.
Kings Director of Rugby Alan Solomons regards the Bulls as the form team in the tournament and said his underdog side know they are in for an uphill battle.
"At the moment I think the Bulls are the best side in Super Rugby. I think they are playing superbly, their Springboks played superbly in the international series that has just taken place.
"So it is a massive challenge for us but I think the guys look forward to it. They enjoy playing at a top level, they enjoy playing at Loftus, which is a great ground, so we are really looking forward to the game,” said Solomons.
One of the questions heading into the match is what will be different this time round? Will it be another walk in the park for the much-vaunted Bulls or will the Kings offer more resistance?
The Bulls starting XV who will run out on Saturday is not their strongest by any means. Captain Pierre Spies, fellow Springbok loose forward Arno Botha and scrumhalf Jano Vermaak have been sidelined with long-term injuries, while other key players like Morné Steyn, Juandré Kruger and JJ Engelbrecht have been given a break on the bench after playing in all three June Tests.
Solomons pointed out, thought, that the Bulls are still fielding a formidable side with a whopping 13 Springboks in the run-on side alone.
"All these big franchises have got such player depth, just look at the side they are putting out,” he said.
Solomons added that they have taken several lessons from the teams’ previous meeting that should stand them in good stead this weekend.
"The big lesson we learnt is that the Bulls are a very good side. They played superbly against us, so I think we know exactly what to expect.
"They have got two things - they are about territory and momentum. Their style of play won't change,” he said.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke also expects a ‘tough battle'.
“It will be a typical SA derby,” said Ludeke. “We saw when we played down in Port Elizabeth just how competitive they can be. The advantage line was a huge battle, they have a sound set-piece game and a solid pack of forwards, their kicking game is good and their defence is outstanding.
“We only secured our bonus point inside the last 10 minutes. They created good opportunities, but just failed to finish them off. They remained competitive for more than an hour and we know we are in for a huge battle.”
Ludeke added that it will be important for them to retain their momentum. “We have focussed on the things that have worked for us [so far this season],” he said of their preparation for the match.
“The scrums have been a big focus. We want to be technically more accurate in the scrums and at the breakdown. We also have to retain possession better - that allows you to apply pressure on the opposition.”
Prediction: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that this match is one for the Bulls to lose rather than the Kings to win. The hosts are simply superior from one to 22 and should bank another bonus-point win. Bulls by at least 20.
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Louis Fouché, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Dewald Potgieter (captain), 7 Jacques Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Juandré Kruger, 19 Jono Ross, 20 Rudi Paige, 21 Morné Steyn, 22 JJ Engelbrecht.
Southern Kings: 15 SP Marais, 14 Marcello Sampson, 13 Ronnie Cooke, 12 Andries Strauss (captain), 11 Michael Killian, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Jacques Engelbrecht, 7 Wimpie van der Walt, 6 Cornell du Preez, 5 Darron Nell, 4 David Bulbring, 3 Kevin Buys, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Replacements: 16 Grant Kemp, 17 Hannes Franklin, 18 Rynier Bernardo, 19 Devin Oosthuizen, 20 Nicolas Vergallo, 21 George Whitehead, 22 Shane Gates.
Referee: Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa), Cobus Wessels (South Africa)
TMO: Gerrie Coetzee (South Africa)
Stormers v Cheetahs
(Newlands, Cape Town - kick-off: 19.15; 17.15 GMT)
Both teams will face a test of character when the Stormers and the play-off-pursuing Cheetahs collide in the final match of Round 18 at Newlands.
The traditional roles have been reversed for this encounter, with perennial also-rans the Cheetahs chasing a place in the play-offs and the Stormers essentially playing for pride.
As a result, the match itself could be unlike any in the history of this South African Super Rugby derby. The Cheetahs have openly admitted that they will tone down their attack-orientated gameplan and will instead adopt a ‘low risk’ approach - akin to that of the Stormers - to clinch the win that would secure their place in the play-offs for the first time ever.
Conversely, with the 11th-placed Stormers clinging to their remote mathematical chance of slipping into the top six, the Cape side - with nothing to lose - may well throw caution to the wind and implement a Cheetahs-like running game in search of maximum log points.
Cheetahs assistant coach Hawies Fourie said they will be prepared for such a possible change in tactics.
“The Stormers do still have a [minor] mathematical chance to get into the play-offs, but that means they need to win and get a bonus point in each of their three remaining games.
“Having to score at least four tries in each match means they may play a bit more of an expansive game in an attempt to get a full 15 points from their matches - it could make for an entertaining fixture,” said Fourie.
Will this unique dynamic, however, affect the outcome of the match? The Cheetahs have won just once at Newlands, in 2006, and although they pushed the hosts close last year, the Stormers managed to seal their fourth straight home win (16-14) over the Bloemfontein side.
What is certain among the unpredictability of this match is that the Cheetahs will have the edge in terms of morale. Granted, an argument could be made that momentum - from a technical standpoint - is on the side of the Stormers, the Cape side having won their last game 19-11 against the Kings while the Cheetahs lost 25-30 against the Bulls last time out.
However, there’s an undeniable buzz in the Cheetahs camp with them being on the cusp of making history and celebrating three new Springboks in playmaker Willie le Roux, scrumhalf Piet van Zyl and prop Trevor Nyakane. The trio's energy will be infectious and their contributions on Saturday are bound to be significant.
Factor in the form of captain Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuizen, Lourens Adriaanse, Raymond Rhule, Robert Ebersohn and arguably the most well-oiled back row in the tournament in Heinrich Brüssow, Pieter Labuschagne and Philip van der Walt and it’s clear that the Cheetahs will be brimming with belief.
Fourie said it was vital in terms of preparation this week to refamiliarise the returning Springboks with the Cheetahs’ structures.
“It was important this week to get everybody on the same page very quickly,” said Fourie.
“We had eight players in the Bok squad; they do things their way and we do some stuff differently, that was why it was important to ensure they get back into our systems and how we do things on attack and defence.
"We spent a lot of time to get our attack and defence on par again and we also worked on our kicking game.”
Fourie acknowledged that the Stormers have great defence but said they have focused on the Cape side’s other major strength.
“Their big strength is their mauling. Their line-outs are outstanding and their mauling from that is their major strength. That is something we have focussed on this week. We have worked hard to ensure our forwards can stop those mauls effectively,” he said.
Prediction: As their seven-three win-loss record indicates, the Stormers usually find a way to win when they play the Cheetahs. I disagree with Stormers coach Allister Coetzee’s claim that the Cheetahs are the favourites, but I do have a feeling that the visitors will shade their hosts in another tight game. Cheetahs by three.
Stormers: 15 Joe Pietersen, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Deon Fourie (captain), 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Juan Harris, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Siyabonga Ntubeni, 17 Ross Geldenhuys, 18 Gerbrandt Grobler, 19 Don Armand, 20 Dewaldt Duvenage, 21 Gary van Aswegen, 22 Gerhard van den Heever.
Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Robert Ebersohn, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Riaan Smit, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Rynhardt Landman, 4 Lodewyk de Jager, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Coenie Oosthuizen.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Petrus Vermeulen, 19 Johannes Prinsloo, 20 Sarel Pretorius, 21 Elgar Watts, 22 Howard Mnisi.
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Quinton Immelman (South Africa), Marc van Zyl (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)