We are now past the halfway point in this year’s Super Rugby season and the points table is starting to take shape with some surprises, in the Chiefs and Brumbies, and the some of the usual suspects, in the Stormers and Crusaders, coming to the front of the pack.
There are some key games over the coming weeks which could see some of the fancied contenders such as the Reds and the Bulls either prosper and move forward in the competition or fall by the wayside.
All of this means that this week we face another fascinating weekend of rugby that I expect to the filled with a number of close results and a number of, frankly, mismatches.
This week again sees only 6 games with the Bulls, Sharks and Rebels getting the week off and starts in Auckland with the Blues hosting the Reds on Friday afternoon. Historically this has been even match up both teams winning eight matches each along with there being one draw. Both sides have underperformed thus far this year, with the Blues in particular already being written off by most pundits as also ran’s this season. This is not without much justification given that they have thus far only won one game this season. That said, the margins of their losses in recent weeks have been close and being back in Auckland will be a positive for them. Whilst the Reds picked up more injuries last week, to blame their current predicament just on injuries would be dangerous. They created a number of opportunities against the Stormers that the backline failed to capitalise on and the forward pack was simply out-muscled. This is vital game for the Reds in the context of this season, particularly noting that they follow this fixture up with a game against the Crusaders in Christchurch which will be a massive test. Digby Ioane notches up his 50th cap for the Reds with his return to the line up at outside centre which may add some spark to the backline. Ultimately, with both sides woefully out of form, this game is tough to pick. I am leaning towards the Reds solely from the basis that if they lose this game the season is likely to be over for them. For the Blues, this reality has already eventuated: Reds by 5.
The second game of the round sees the Brumbies continue they African sojourn and face the Lions in Johannesburg. The Brumbies arrive in Jo’burg on a high of sorts: losing to the Bulls would have been disappointing for them however the fact that they picked up 2 bonus points will have led to the spring remaining somewhat in Jake White’s step. The main worry for the Brumbies’ hierarchy will be that their poor discipline was a deciding factor in last week’s game. They could not have been happy with only conceding two tries whilst scoring five themselves and still losing. The Lions have been decimated by injury and it is abundantly clear that, despite them playing some enterprising rugby they don’t have the depth to cater for the injury toll. They have lost four games this season by more than ten points and have only won one game thus for this season. I think this is game is a mismatch and I am tipping the Brumbies to pick up maximum points in this one and retain top spot in the Australian conference: Brumbies by 18.
In the first Saturday evening game of the round the Chiefs return home after their unbeaten overseas tour to host the Hurricanes. The Canes were simply outclassed in the first half last week by the, all of a sudden, rampant Crusaders and, despite a stronger effort in the second half, ended up on the wrong side of a double bonus point loss. After a promising start to the season, the Canes seem to be losing form at the wrong time of the season and will need to lift massively to compete with the Chiefs who are the team in the New Zealand conference that everyone wants to beat at the moment. The Chiefs have won their last seven games and have found a way to win close fixtures with five of their victories have been by eight points or less. With the Chiefs on top of the New Zealand conference and despite coming off the long haul back from the South Africa to take part in this game, I expect them to continue on their winning way this week and take a bonus point against the Canes: Chiefs by 13.
Attention then turns to Perth where the, in disarray, Force returns from the bye without their coach to face the Stormers. The Force has been unable to win a close game as yet this season and have also been unable to defeat an opponent not from Australia. A compelling factor in the bulk of their losses thus far this season has been their slow starts which, if they play in this way against the Stormers, they will be punished. The Stormers have proven on this tour that they are the real deal this season and are winning off the back of rock solid defence and an ever expanding offensive arsenal. Their much maligned back line has really stood up in the last couple of weeks and has scored some excellent tries. Whilst they are facing a mounting injury toll, they also welcome back some key players this week. Ultimately I think Force will give the Stormers too many chances to score whilst not being penetrative enough in the back line to pierce the Stormers’ defence. There is a theory that when a coach is fired one should tip that team in the following week. I do not expect this theory to hold though for the now “coached by committee” Force: Stormers by 11.
In the early hours of Sunday morning (Australian time) the, thus far, surprising Highlanders travel to the high veldt to take on the, equally surprising, Cheetahs. This will be high scoring game: of that there will be no doubt. Both sides have played over and above the prospects given to them by pundits earlier in the season and are playing an attractive brand of football that should bring a big crowd through the gates in Bloemfontein. The Highlanders arrive in South Africa off the back of a number of difficult outings and the long flight will not have helped their cause much. Equally, they have shown a resilience this year that has been previously lacking from outfits from the Otago. They will be looking to keep a long winning streak against the Cheetahs going and will have the added encouragement of the knowledge that a win here will keep them in the top six of the competition. The Cheetahs have won three games this year and do not have a defensive record to be proud of but their attack from anywhere attitude can see them score points from long range and lead them to win more than their share of close matches with a last gasp effort. I am prepared to back the Cheetahs in this one to pull off the only upset of the round and beat the travelling Highlanders as I expect the Cheetahs to run them off their feet: Cheetahs by 9.
The final match of the round will see the Richie McCaw enhanced Crusaders travel to the Sydney Football Stadium to take on the Waratahs. McCaw makes his long awaited return from the bench in this one and the return of the Crusaders talisman at this stage of the season cannot be underestimated. Last week the Crusaders were just brilliant in dismantling the Hurricanes in the first half and will pose a massive test for the Waratahs. Tom Taylor and Dan Carter will be looking to scythe through a depleted Waratahs outfit whilst also looking for any opportunity to score points if the Waratahs’ forwards are ill-disciplined. The Waratahs are, all of a sudden, in the midst of their own injury crisis with Foley and Alcock joining the suspended Rob Horne on the sidelines for this fixture. Coach Foley must be getting very worried about the ‘Tahs second half fade outs thus far this season and obviously, if that happens again, the Crusaders will punish them more than opponents in recent weeks have. I just cannot see the Crusaders being beaten in this one and expect them to put some points on the Waratahs: Crusaders by 12.
Match of the Round: I never expected to be saying this at the start of the season but I expect the Cheetahs v Highlanders game to be an absolute bottler.