Saturday is derby day in Gauteng as four South African Vodacom Super Rugby franchises clash in what promises to be two massive encounters.
The announcement of the Springbok squad for the Castle Incoming Tour – shortly after the second match – will add some spice to the day.
First up, the MTN Lions are back at home in Johannesburg and will host the high flying Sharks at Coca-Cola Park. The KwaZulu-Natalians are on a roll and will be heading to Gauteng with a lot of confidence following their good victory over the DHL Stormers in Durban last weekend.
Then the DHL Stormers will be aiming to get back to winning ways when they travel to Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria to take on the Vodacom Bulls – who have lost their last two tour matches in New Zealand.
Loftus Versfeld is sold out for this massive clash and the expectation of the traditional North/South derby is huge.
The Toyota Cheetahs have a bye this weekend and following this round of action, Vodacom Super Rugby will make way for Test rugby until the end of June.
MTN Lions v The Sharks
The big question in Johannesburg this week is can the MTN Lions reverse their slump against arguably the hottest team in the South African Conference at the moment when they take on The Sharks at Coca-Cola Park on Saturday afternoon.
The MTN Lions have not had things go their way recently. Injuries have caused havoc for John Mitchell and his team and while they have shown great fighting spirit, they just have not had enough to push through when it mattered most.
But they should not forget what happened last year, when The Sharks also arrived in Joburg as hot favourites, but were held to a draw by a spirited MTN Lions team in the end.
That is also the MTN Lions’ best result against The Sharks since the Cats franchise split up before the start of the 2006-season. The men from Durban have won each of the other seven encounters against the team from Joburg.
“The Sharks are playing good rugby and it looks like they’re back to the fluid rugby they played in 2010,” said Mitchell. “They started off slowly but they’ve done well since. They have fluency in their ranks and they’re a coherent team.
“They are also aggressive and are hungry because they are in with a sniff of playoffs. They are a dangerous animal right now.
“But as a team we did grow on the tour and a lot of the guys are experiencing Super Rugby for the first time. Our set-piece and lineouts are better but with the amount of changes it has been difficult. We’ve had 19 changes on tour so team coherency is difficult to achieve. The younger guys have also struggled with the physicality of the season.”
John Plumtree, coach of The Sharks, said his players need to keep their focus as a place in the Qualifiers is still well within their reach.
“It’s a big week for us in terms of attitude,” said Plumtree. “The Lions have had a tough season and they’ve had a lot of off-field distraction which hasn’t helped them. They’ve suffered a lot of injuries and it’s hard enough to do well with a fit squad in this competition.
“But we’re expecting them to come into this game with a lot of passion. We know that spending time on tour together builds a lot of team spirit. No-one really put them away on tour, there were no real hammerings. We have to go up there with the right amount of respect.
“The players have worked hard as a group to get themselves into this position and we’ll hopefully kick on in this competition, we’re certainly looking good. The players don’t want to let themselves down, but they must be the driving force here. It doesn’t matter if the coach stands up and rants and raves about the importance of the game, it needs to come from within the playing group.”
MTN Lions v The Sharks
Date: 2 June
SA Time: 17:05
Venue: Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jason Jaftha (South Africa), Stefan Breytenbach (South Africa)
Television match official: Gerrie Coetzee (South Africa)
Vodacom Bulls v DHL Stormers
The Vodacom Bulls will be out for revenge when they take on the DHL Stormers in Pretoria on Saturday, but the first position on the South African Conference Log is also up for grabs at Loftus Versfeld.
Earlier in the season, the DHL Stormers beat the Vodacom Bulls in Cape Town following a superb display in the first half, but the visitors from Pretoria did fight back after the break. That has been the case in their last few matches, however last weekend, when they were with their backs against the wall in Durban, Allister Coetzee’s team from Cape Town turned recent form on its head with a superb come back performance.
In the end they didn’t do enough to beat The Sharks, and although they are travelling to Pretoria without a number of injured players, the DHL Stormers would’ve taken a lot of confidence from their second half performance in Durban.
The Vodacom Bulls, back from a tour on which they lost the last two matches, would’ve taken cognisance of the DHL Stormers’ second half performance in Durban as they prepare for this very important encounter.
“We would have liked to win [our last tour game against the Chiefs], but we didn’t so we can’t harp on that,” said Vodacom Bulls coach Frans Ludeke.
“The next one is the Stormers at home, which we know will be a huge clash. Normally the game is decided by one or two big moments that gives the result.
“It’s great to be playing at a sold out Loftus – there is a huge expectation and it’s wonderful to see the crowd coming to see good rugby. These derbies are always huge and we enjoy playing in that environment.
“That’s why we say week for week. It is a must win for all the teams, we must be accurate, we must be good, we must do what we need to do to get a result.”
Coetzee, who will be without his lineout kingpin Andries Bekker, as well as SA Under-20 prop Steven Kitshoff, has made a number of changes to his team for Saturday.
Coetzee said: “Injuries are part of the competition. We have to face the challenge head on. We should see it as a challenge rather than a negative. The players are looking forward to playing the Bulls at Loftus.”
Vodacom Bulls v DHL Stormers
Date: 2 June
SA Time: 19:10
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Mark Lawrence (South Africa), Cobus Wessels (South Africa)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
Other fixtures (SA times):
Friday, 1 June
09:35: Crusaders v Highlanders (Christchurch)
11:40: Rebels v Brumbies (Melbourne)
Saturday, 2 June
09:35: Blues v Chiefs (Albany)
11:40: Waratahs v Hurricanes (Sydney)
Byes: Toyota Cheetahs, Force, Reds