Well it is finally here: the last round of Super Rugby and with eight teams still alive for the finals race, there is a lot to play for. That said, this is a round of mismatches with the top seven teams facing the bottom seven teams which means that baring some upsets it seems likely that the finals will be contested by the Chiefs, Brumbies, Stormers, Crusaders, Bulls and Sharks.
Before pressing forward with this week’s round preview it would be remiss to not mention one of the best Super Rugby games I have seen last week: the Chiefs v Crusaders game was a heavyweight battle between two great teams that has left me thinking that maybe we have seen a preview of the grand finale of this year’s season already. Only time will tell.
Onto this week’s fixtures which start in Wellington with a stand-alone Friday night fixture between the Hurricanes and the Chiefs. The Hurricanes presently sit at eighth on the ladder and come into this fixture having had the bye last week. The equation is simple for the Hurricanes: they have to win this game to have any hope of making the finals. They have won five of their last six games to keep their season alive and have shown that they lift for the big games having recently bested the Crusaders. The Chiefs are the leaders of the New Zealand conference and have had the top spot locked away since the international break. A win here for the Chiefs will guarantee them home ground advantage for the whole of the finals series so this game could prove vital for them. Last week some poor discipline at certain points and a brain snap from the soon to depart Sonny Bill Williams cost them dearly and they cannot afford to fall into a similar pattern in this game. Ultimately, I expect the Chiefs to have too much class for the Hurricanes and expect them to get the win in a closely fought affair: Chiefs by 6.
Saturday afternoon rugby returns to Canberra Stadium this week with the Blues crossing the ditch to take on the Brumbies. This has been the Blues annus horribilis and it would be fair to say they have been the most disappointing team of the season. Last week’s win against the Force was expected and is not a positive form line given the injuries that have hit the Force and the Force’s general inability to travel (and indeed win). The Blues squad may be playing for their contracts next year and with Pat Lam certain to be moving on those wishing to avoid be swept out of the club will be looking to lift. Converse to the Blues, the Brumbies are close to being the story of the season. Much like the Stormers, they keep winning games and they continue to not receive the kudos they probably deserve for what has been an excellent season. In front of the White army (every other Australian conference has an “army” of supporters so I am designating the Brumbies fans the White army in honour of the coach) and playing to ensure they are the beneficiary of a home final they will be looking to complete their season on a high. The Brumbies will win this with the only question real question mark the margin. I do not think there will be a blowout here, it is just not the Brumbies style of play: Brumbies by 9.
The second game of the Saturday marathon of Super Rugby fixtures this week comes to us from Christchurch with the Crusaders hosting the Force. The Crusaders won the super heavyweight battle of the season last week against the Chiefs and did so off the back of some excellent performances from their stars and some luck which they were probably due. There is a mathematic possibility that they could miss out on the finals if they lose here but they will be desperate to win as the prize for winning is also the prospect of a home final next week. The farcical Force season to date reached another low last week against the Blues, simply put they were hammered. To be fair injuries last week left them without their star back row which has been the bedrock of any good performances by them this season. The line ups for this game are not yet available (at the time of writing) but if any of those players are not available then any small hope Force fans had of a win will ebb away. Whilst a win for the Force would be great for the other Australian conference teams in the finals race, I expect the Force’s season of discontent to end with a whimper rather than a roar here and the Crusaders to easily obtain a bonus point: Crusaders by 26.
Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium is the venue for another of the key games to determine the make up of the final six with the Reds hosting their long time arch enemies the Waratahs. The Reds title defence now hinges on other results but in order for them to play a part in the finals the first hurdle they must traverse is winning this game and winning with a bonus point. The Reds are on a five match winning streak but, surprisingly, have struggled at some points to put their opposition away and score tries. Whilst the Reds defence has been strong, they will need to attack with a vengeance and will need their, to date, misfiring backline to gel if they are to score the four tries they need here. Rob Simmons returns at lock which is a big plus for the Reds. The Waratahs are in the midst of a seven game losing streak. To be fair, last week they were more dynamic in attack than they have been in previous weeks and did score more tries than the Brumbies. In a search for positives that is the only one that is obvious from what was an ill disciplined performance from a team looking for the end season. Obviously, this is a fixture that is rich with history and the Waratahs will lift but I cannot see them besting a Reds outfit for whom this fixture represents all or nothing: Reds by 11.
Another Saturday afternoon fixture (South African time) with the Rebels finishing their season against the South African conference leading Stormers. The Stormers again failed to set the world on fire last week against the Cheetahs but, as I have been saying every week now, they did enough to secure the win. A thirteen win season so far, with a fourteenth just around the corner, can only be considered to have been a performance out of the top drawer. Defensively, I cannot recall seeing a more impressive domestic side and they will stifle the Rebels in this one, like they have done just about every other team this season, into making mistakes within penalty range. For the Rebels it feels like it has been a season of extremes: on the one hand they have been competitive at home, securing a shock victory against the Crusaders of all teams, whilst on the other they have not looked like winning overseas. Without O’Connor and Beale again this week, against the best defence in the competition and at the end of a long season they will need to put in an extraordinary performance to challenge the Stormers here. Unfortunately, for all Rebels fans, I do not think they have such a performance left in them this season and I expect the Stormers to race into the finals off the back of a bonus point win: Stormers by 19.
The last two matches of the round are local South African derbies that will have fans in both Australia and New Zealand watching with bated breath to see the final make up of the final six. First up the Sharks host the Cheetahs at ABSA Stadium in Durban. In a must win fixture last week against the Bulls, the Sharks kept their finals hopes alive with an excellent performance against their more fancied rivals. They are at home again and with their Springboks front row will be looking to dominate their opposition in the forwards as a path to winning this game and securing their slot in the finals. The Cheetahs have become the close game specialists in the competition; unfortunately they seem to lose close games and have lost seven games by less than seven points this season. They will be keen to finish their season on a high note and will again take a high risk, attack at all costs, strategy into this match as they seek to spoil the Sharks season. Unfortunately, in recent weeks this strategy has not reaped the results that they would have wished and they leak too many points to be considered likely to win in this fixture. I expect the Sharks to win here in a game that might be closer than many think: Sharks by 8.
The final match before the finals sees the Bulls host the Lions at Loftus Versfeld. For the Lions this may well be the last game they play in the Super Rugby after what has again been an ordinary season for them. Injuries, player insurrection and a suspended coach have all led to the Lions being in a position where they have again underachieved. They are the bottom placed side and will be short priced to remain there after this game. That said, they will take hope from the fact that they have the game in them to beat a top team given their performance against the Sharks before the international break. The Bulls are limping towards the finals and have lost four of their last five games. It is difficult to understand where their form has disappeared to when you consider the quality of their list. Any team with fourteen Springboks in their line up should simply be playing better and they are in real danger of missing out on a finals place which is a prospect that seemed unfathomable a couple of months ago. This is now a must win fixture for them and, frankly, if they cannot win against the Lions they probably do not deserve to be in the finals anyway. With less confidence than I expected when I looked at the last three rounds of the season a month ago, I think the Bulls will win this game but again it might be closer than people think: Bulls by 12.
This is a round where there are some obvious mismatches on form but equally there are some vital games in the context of the finals. The Match of the Round comes from Suncorp Stadium where the old foes the Reds and Waratahs do battle again.