What an amazing week it has been in the world of Super 15 Rugby: “Genia Gate” has dominated the airwaves and set social media followers in to a meltdown. With this going on it is easy to forget that we had another excellent round of rugby last week, highlighted by the key contenders for this year’s crown in the Stormers, Chiefs and Crusaders all further pressing their claims to be the favourite.
The Stormers came away from their overseas tour with a swag of points, the Chiefs are now eight from eight and the Crusaders have their stars back. All of this combines to make the coming weeks of rugby a mouth-watering proposition to say the least.
The Stormers have a well-earned break this week and there are seven games of action. The round kicks off with the Hurricanes hosting the Blues in Wellington on Friday evening. These teams are respectively fourth and fifth on the New Zealand Conference table but frankly their seasons could have been more disparate to date. The Hurricanes have probably exceeded expectations with their four wins this season whilst the Blues have been the disappointment of the tournament to date. The Hurricanes are coming off losses to the Chiefs and the Crusaders in recent weeks after looking like they were starting to hit some form. The Blues have been terrible this year and were not at all impressive against the still struggling Reds last week. The Hurricanes defeated the Blues in Auckland earlier in the tournament and I think they will chalk up their fifth win of the season in this one:
AAMI Park is the venue for the second of two games on Friday night with the Bulls visiting the Rebels. I don’t think the Bulls will be too worried about this encounter with the stuttering and depleted Rebels. The Rebels have lost both of their key play makers now that Cipriani has been released. The much awaited return of Stirling Mortlock to the Rebels back line does nothing to patch over the obvious deficiencies the Rebels have in the backs. The Bulls will be looking for a bonus point in this game and they should get it fairly easily. They are coming off four straight wins and, aside from the very good Stormers, are the form team of the South African Conference. All of this stacks up in favour of a comfortablewin by the Bulls: Bulls by 21.
The Bayer Growers Stadium in Pukekohe is the venue for the first game of a packed Saturday night of action with the Chiefs hosting the Lions. I expect this game to be as, if not more, one sided as the Rebels v Bulls game from the previous evening. The Chiefs have defied expectations this year and are presently on a run of eight straight wins. They are the leader of the competition at the moment as well as leading the New Zealand conference and have no chinks in the armourwith the forward pack dominating opposition packs and their backs cutting through opponents like a hot knife through butter. The Lions are depleted by injury and are without the depth to cover the gaps. The bulk of their losses have been by greater than 10 points this year and I do not expect this game to be any different. In what will not be a happy homecoming for John Mitchell, I expect the Chiefs to secure a bonus win in this one: Chiefs by 23.
From one of the most lopsided games of the round attentionthen turns to what might just be the match of the round. The Australian Conference leading Brumbies host their close neighbours in the Waratahs at Canberra Stadium in what is becoming a fierce local derby. The Waratahs pushed the Crusaders all the way last week in their narrow loss but were let down by some key defensive lapses as well as some poor execution of set pieces. If they give the Brumbies backs anyleeway they may get burned as the Brumbies backs have been outstanding this season. Their record against the Brumbies is impressive having won seven of the past nine encounters but they are appalling travellers. To say that the Brumbies have exceeded expectations this year would be an understatement. Jack White and his team of coaches have this team looking like contenders for the first time since the champion Brumbies teams of the past. Coming off the back of a great tour to the Cape which culminated in their victory over the Lions last week and buoyed by some key signings during the week confidence should be high in Australia’s capital. The Brumbies have been in great form at home and think they will continue that good record and get past the Waratahs in what will be a tight game: Brumbies by 5.
Durban is the scene for the penultimate Saturday game of this round with the Sharks hosting the Highlanders. The Sharks are coming of the bye and have a brilliant record against the Highlanders having won the last five encounters between these two teams. That said the Sharks have only won four of nine games played by them this season and continue to struggle with injuries. The Highlanders will be on a high after their amazing come from behind victory against the Cheetahs last week. Their form has surprised many and the men from Otago have only lost two games so far this season (including a home loss to the Stormers in which there is no shame). I do not see the Sharks being able to contain the Highlanders in attack enough to keep within the range of the Sharks’ sharpshooters and expect the Highlanders to get off to a good start in this game and hold on to win a tight contest: Highlanders by 4.
The Force are on the road after the tumultuous events of last week and their first stop is Bloemfontein where they take on the Cheetahs. The Force are one of the few teams that have met expectations this year. By this I mean their forward pack has matched with all comers thus far, helped no doubt by a star studded back row, but their backline has not caused many opponents any concerns. They will no doubt try to stifle the play of the Cheetahs and keep this game as a forward’s battle and I think they will need to to have any hope of winning this game. The Cheetahs remain both the entertainers of the competition and, to be fair, one of the disappointments. They with such flair at times it is easy to forget that they are entertaining without winning and last week’s loss to the Highlanders only reinforces that. They will need to overcome the negativity that will necessarily be associated with their second half fade to the Highlanders. That said, I think they simply have too much fire power for the Force and should win this game and win it well: Cheetahs by 13.
The final match of the round is a Sunday afternoon fixture that pits the teams that many would have picked at the start of the season to repeat the 2011 Grand Final this year, the Crusaders and the Reds. The stars have returned for the Crusaders and they are coming into form at the right end of the season having taken maximum points from their game against the Waratahs last week. Any team with the names Carter and McCaw in the team sheet are going to be tough to beat and that will be even more so with this game being McCaw’s first home game in Christchurch since the earthquakes. It would be folly though to write off the Crusaders as a two act show as their players right across the team all appear to be peaking for this game and their run to the finals. The Reds were did what they needed to do last week to dispatch the woeful Blues at Eden Park and are still without some key playmakers so they still may make a charge to the finals. They have won the last three games against the Crusaders but the corollary of that is that Crusaders have not been bested at home by any team from across the ditch since 2004. I think the Crusaders just have too much fire power for the Reds in this game and with their talisman in McCaw returning home I do not expect them to be defeated: Crusaders by 8.
Match of the Round: As I noted in the preview I think the Brumbies v Waratahs clash will be a ripping local derby.