A derby between two near-strength teams on Friday night, with the weekend starting for South Africa’s franchises with a Friday morning match by the Stormers in Australia and ending with the Bulls match on Saturday afternoon, provides the weekend’s Super Rugby fare for South African supporters.
The Stormers, who are first out of the blocks of South Africa’s four teams when they meet die Reds at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane (Friday 11:00) will be without leading Springboks Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit who have returned to South Africa, Steven Kitshoff and Bongi Mbonambi who are both rested, with injuries to the original touring team’s Wilco Louw, Dan du Plessis and JD Schickerling not helping matters and the swop at scrumhalf of Herschel Jantjies for starter Justin Philips another change.
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The Sharks, who travel to Ellis Park, come off a loss to the Bulls last week and have made minor changes. And the Lions coach Swys de Bruin has also been moderately conservative in his team selections to fill the gap left by the injured centre Wandile Simelane with Bok wing Aphiwe Dyanti, and to find a place for the returning Andries Viljoen and to welcome back Cyle Brink in the major changes to his team.
The Bulls are without five Springboks, three of them injured, one suspended and one benched for this weekend. They play the Jaguares on Saturday afternoon. The Argentinians are the bottom team in the SA Conference to whom the Bulls lost in Argentina six weeks ago – a not too infrequent occurrence for South African sides.
Friday’s matches –
Highlanders vs Hurricanes, Dunedin – Friday 08:35
The Highlanders, who include a draw on their record because of the cancelled match against the Crusaders, won their first two matches but then lost to the Rebels, Hurricanes and Blues (all away).
They are a much better side than their record shows and playing at home they should give a good account of themselves against the Hurricanes, who also come off a (second) loss against the Crusaders last weekend. They also include a 23-all draw against the Chiefs on their record to date.
The Highlanders are without their injured scrumhalf Aaron Smith. His experience and the speed from phase play are up there with the best and he will be sorely missed.
The Hurricanes are probably the favourites, but their inability to take that step-up has been a problem all season. And they are playing a very good side that will be determined to perform before their home crowd.
Expect a close result, with the odds on the Highlanders if the last six matches are to be used as a guideline. All of them have been won by the home side.
Reds vs Stormers, Suncorp Stadium – Friday 11:00
What does one make of the Stormers? They want to run, but don’t. They win the battles up front but don’t convert.
Robbie Fleck’s side have scored the least tries (nine) in the competitions to date with the Bulls (12) also not too flash in this department.
Compared to the top try-scorers Crusaders (29), the Lions (25), Rebels (24) and even the Chiefs (24) there is indeed reason why coach Fleck must reconsider the Stormers approach – especially if they also decline driving mauls with their big pack.
Are the Stormers heading in the right direction, as Fleck insisst? Well, after two defeats in their last two matches and with only three sides with a bigger negative points difference, it is to be hoped that he is right and that there is indeed some light ahead. However, right now one cannot see that they are heading in the right direction.
The Reds have two wins from their six outings, the Stormers three. It would not surprise if they stand at three-all after Friday’s match – and while a Reds win would be against general expectations, it won’t be that surprising.
Lions vs Sharks, Ellis Park – Friday, 19:10
The “new” Lions team has surprised this season. There is obvious depth, their succession planning is in place and coach Swys de Bruin is not averse to selecting youngsters.
It will be a highlight for the Sharks as team and for Beast Mtawarira when he runs onto the field on his own when he becomes the most-capped South African rugby player in Super Rugby history, surpassing the mark of 156 appearances set by former Bok captain Adriaan Strauss
The match should be real derby material. Expect a tight, vary physical match where the Lions, even if they don’t have the tight forwards of the recent past, should win it on home turf and with backline that can score tries.
Looking at the two sides at Ellis Park, it is interesting to note that there has been only one win of more than seven points in their last five meetings – and that the last match, in 2018, was won by the Sharks in Durban – their only win in the five matches, with the last five results as follows:
2018: Sharks won 31-24, Durban
2018: Lions won 26-19, Johannesburg
2017: Lions won 23-21, Johannesburg (quarterfinal)
2017: Lions won 27-10, Durban
2017: Lions won 34-29, Johannesburg
But it’s a derby, and the matches between South African sides except for the Bulls 40-3 win against the Stormers, say it all. It will be tough and it will be close.