The Southern Kings could hardly have asked for a tougher baptism into the world of South African derbies when the host The Sharks, Vodacom Super Rugby runners-up in 2012, in Port Elizabeth on Saturday evening.
The Sharks, of course, used Port Elizabeth as a secondary base in the late 1990s, and have never lost there. Okay, they have only played there twice and won both, against the Chiefs in 1998 and the Brumbies in 1999.
The Toyota Cheetahs kick off this weekend’s action from a South African perspective at Rugby Park in Invercargill against the Highlanders, the venue that is the furthest south of all of them. It will be tough for the team from Bloemfontein – they have never beaten their counterparts from Otago (but this excludes Free State's superb 49-18 win over Otago at Rugby Park way back in 1997, before the days of SA franchises).
Back home in South Africa, the DHL Stormers host the Chiefs in Cape Town on Saturday afternoon. The home team topped the log last year, while the men from Waikato ended up winning the trophy. It promises to be a very interesting match.
Later on Saturday, The Sharks take on the Southern Kings before the Vodacom Bulls finish proceedings for round four in Auckland against the Blues early on Sunday morning (SA time).
Highlanders v Toyota Cheetahs
The Toyota Cheetahs will face an uphill battle in Invercargill on Saturday morning (SA time) against the Highlanders, a team they have never beaten in Vodacom Super Rugby, but have come agonisingly close in six of their seven previous encounters.
And even though the team from Otago have the same amount of wins in 2013 than the Toyota Cheetahs, they have played one fewer match and are hosting this contest in the deep south of New Zealand, at a venue where they have not lost since March 2002.
The Toyota Cheetahs have also played at Rugby Park in Invercargill. That was in 2007 when they lost 17-21, one of the six occasions in seven matches where the team from Bloemfontein have lost by seven points or less. Only once, in 2009 in Dunedin, did the Highlanders beat the Toyota Cheetahs convincingly (32-8).
Toyota Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské has named an unchanged side for Saturday’s clash, which includes only 10 players that were part of their match-22 last year, when the Highlanders snuck through at the end by 36-33 thanks to three second half tries and two late penalty goals.
The Highlanders also have a number of new faces in their squad, but very few teams will say no thanks when the opportunity arises to select players as experienced as loosehead prop Tony Woodcock (113 Vodacom Super Rugby caps and 96 Tests), lock Brad Thorn (92 and 59) and midfielder Ma’a Nonu (125 and 76). Add to this list players like Andrew Hore (hooker, 127 and 74), Hosea Gear (wing, 86 and 14) and nippy scrumhalf Aaron Smith (28 and 13), and it will be hard to argue that the home team will take to the field as favourites.
The teams are:
Highlanders: Ben Smith, Kade Poki, Phil Burleigh, Ma’a Nonu, Hosea Gear, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Jake Paringatai, John Hardie, Joe Wheeler, Josh Bekhuis, Brad Thorn, Ma’afu Fia, Andrew Hore (captain), Tony Woodcock. Replacements: Brayden Mitchell, Chris King, Jarrad Hoeata, Tim Boys, Fumiaki Tanaka, Colin Slade, Shaun Treeby.
Toyota 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 (captain), Trevor Nyakane. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Coenie Oosthuizen, Ligtoring Landman, Heinrich Brüssow, Piet van Zyl, Riaan Smit, Ryno Benjamin.
Kick-off: 08h35 (SA time)
Venue: Rugby Park, Invercargill
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
Television match official: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
DHL Stormers v Chiefs
The Chiefs, defending Vodacom Super Rugby champions and the only New Zealand team in the competition that returned home from South Africa unbeaten in 2012, face a tough challenge this weekend against the DHL Stormers at DHL Newlands in Cape Town.
Each of the other four New Zealand franchises had one win and one defeat in the Republic last year, but the Chiefs, who ended up winning the title for the first time ever, beat the Toyota Cheetahs and The Sharks during their two-week trip to our shores.
It’s the Chiefs’ first visit to DHL Newlands since 2009, when they beat the DHL Stormers by 28-14, but since then the men from Cape Town have built up an impressive home record.
Since their defeat at the hands of the team from Waikato on 3 May 2009, the DHL Stormers have won 21 out of their 27 home matches.
But that record will not mean anything if the DHL Stormers, South African Conference winners in 2011 and 2012, are not at their very best on Saturday. They started the season with two tough defeats in Pretoria and Durban, while the Chiefs have started with two very impressive bonus-point victories.
DHL Stormers coach Allister Coetzee has not made any changes to his starting team for Saturday’s encounter, with the only changes to the team on the bench, where the experienced Tiaan Liebenberg and Dewaldt Duvenage were selected.
“We’ve gone with an unchanged team because it's important to keep backing the players," said Coetzee. “I don't see any reason to change the situation and this weekend hopefully they will continue to show improvement.”
Coetzee is mindful that any team that have title aspirations can’t afford to lose at home.
“We’re back at Newlands, where we have passionate support behind us, and that should give us an extra push,” said Coetzee.
“We’ve had a great week of preparation, but it will still be tough (against the Chiefs). We’re playing against a side that has already scored one good win away from home this season. They have a great pack of forwards and if they dominate there they have backs that can tear any opposition defence apart.”
The teams are:
DHL Stormers: Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Jean de Villiers (captain), Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Elton Jantjies, Nic Groom, Duane Vermeulen (vice-captain), Rynhardt Elstadt, Siya Kolisi, Andries Bekker, De Kock Steenkamp, Frans Malherbe, Deon Fourie, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Tiaan Liebenberg, Pat Cilliers, Don Armand, Nizaam Carr, Dewaldt Duvenage, Peter Grant, Gerhard van den Heever.
Kick-off: 17h05 (SA Time)
Venue: DHL Newlands, Cape Town
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa), Ben Crouse (South Africa)
Television match official: Deon van Blommenstein (South Africa)
Southern Kings v The Sharks
The Southern Kings’ dream start to Vodacom Super Rugby two Saturdays ago against the Western Force will be consigned to history when The Sharks, runners up in 2012, arrive in Port Elizabeth this weekend.
It will be a very tough baptism to the harsh world of South African derbies for the Kings, who only have a handful of players in their squad who have experienced the intensity of these encounters before.
One of these is midfielder Andries Strauss, who started his Vodacom Super Rugby career at The Sharks in 2006 and is now the Kings’ vice-captain.
Strauss said the Kings realise they will have to lift their intensity from the Force match if they are going to give The Sharks a run for their money.
“As a team we have set ourselves goals, and winning one game doesn’t mean we’ve really achieved anything yet,” said Strauss.
“If we want to win more games in this competition, we are going to have to improve on that performance. There is no better way than to take on a side with a bunch of Springboks and showing the world once again that we can play this game.”
Kings head coach, Matt Sexton, said: “We will definitely be looking at improving our level of ball retention. If you consider that during the Western Force game we made in excess of a hundred tackles in the first half of the game, which, if you have to take those sort of statistics into every game, sooner or later you’re going to run out of petrol, so we want to make sure we retrieve the ball and hold onto it.”
The Sharks started the season very well, with good wins over the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and the DHL Stormers in Durban. But John Plumtree, their coach, admitted they were still not 100% happy with all aspects of their game.
“We were not entirely happy with what we did on the weekend in terms of our attack,” said Plumtree.
“In saying that, looking at the Kings, their set-piece and defence stats are right up there at Super Rugby standard. That just shows that they are certainly capable.
“I don’t think the Force expected it and they got it, good on the Kings. If you look at their side, there are a lot of seasoned campaigners, some young guys who are pretty enthusiastic, they put it all together and came up with a good performance.
“I also thought (flyhalf) Demetri Catrakilis was really good, played well and controlled the game and I thought their setpiece functioned really well – their lineouts and scrummaging. I like their fullback, SP Marais, he looked really good and reminded me of an Israel Dagg while they have a solid midfield with Andries Strauss and Ronnie Cooke. They’re a capable side, definitely, they should do alright.”
Apart from Strauss, who played 22 Vodacom Super Rugby matches for The Sharks, the Kings boast another former KZN stalwart in Steven Sykes, who featured in 69 matches at this level for the Durbanites between 2007 and 2012.
Unfortunately injury has robbed a third former Shark, Luke Watson, of the opportunity to lead his new team against the side for whom he made his Vodacom Super Rugby debut as a fresh-faced 19-year-old way back in 2003. He will start on the bench.
The teams are:
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, Steve Sykes, Darron Nell (captain), Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements: Edgar Marutlulle, Jaco Engels, David Bulbring, Luke Watson, Nicolas Vergallo, George Whitehead, Hadleigh Parkes.
The Sharks: Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Frans Steyn (captain), Lwazi Mvovo, Patrick Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Ryan Kankowski, Jean Deysel, 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, Charl McLeod, Meyer Bosman, Odwa Ndungane.
Kick-off: 19h10 (SA Time)
Venue: Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Referee: Jason Jaftha (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa), Christie du Preez (South Africa)
Television match official: Johann Meuwesen
Blues v Vodacom Bulls
Can the Vodacom Bulls break their Auckland duck and beat the Blues for the first time ever in New Zealand? This question will be answered early on Sunday morning (SA times), when these two sides clash in the final Vodacom Super Rugby match of the weekend at Eden Park.
The closest the Vodacom Bulls ever came to beating the Blues away from home, was in 2008, when they lost by 21-23 despite outscoring the team from Auckland by three tries to two.
Added to this, the Vodacom Bulls also lost their last home game against the Blues (in 2012), meaning their last victory over the New Zealanders was back in the opening round of 2009. These two teams did not meet in 2011.
To complicate matters for the visitors from Pretoria, they will be facing a Blues team high on confidence after their very impressive 34-15 demolition of the Crusaders at Eden Park last weekend. The Aucklanders scored five tries against the former champions and looked very comfortable with ball in hand, as well as on defence, where they did not concede one try.
Vodacom Bulls coach Frans Ludeke, whose team won five of their last six opening tour matches Down Under, made a number of changes to the side after they struggled to put away the Western Force at Loftus Versfeld last weekend.
“We have talked about our depth and this is a great opportunity to really test that,” Ludeke said.
“All the guys who start for the first time this season will be very keen and it will also give some respite to those who are feeling a bit sore after the first couple of matches.”
Ludeke realises the Blues will be a very tough opponent this weekend. It will be the first time the Vodacom Bulls play on a Sunday since 8 April 2001, when they lost 29-42 to the Crusaders in Pretoria. They also lost to the Crusaders on Sunday 5 April 1998 in Christchurch (20-31).
“Both the Blues’ wins were well deserved,” said Ludeke.
“They play very enterprising rugby. We have been up and down and our aim will be to produce the good spells for longer. We also know we will have to pick up points on tour if we want to be around at the business end of the competition”.
The teams are:
Vodacom Bulls: Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Wynand Olivier, Lionel Mapoe, Morné Steyn, Jano Vermaak, Pierre Spies (captain), 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, Jürgen Visser.
Kick-off: 05h05 (SA Time)
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri (New Zealand)
Television match official: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Other fixtures (SA times):
Friday, 8 March:
08:35: Hurricanes v Crusaders (Wellington)
10:40: Rebels v Reds (Melbourne)
Saturday, 9 March:
10:40: Brumbies v Waratahs (Canberra)
Bye: Western Force