Another fascinating week of Super Rugby action last week was punctuated by the usual suspects both winning and losing, some entertaining play interspersed with some graft and more injuries that could play a large role in how some teams progress in the comings rounds of the competition.
A gap has formed in the overall standings with the Bulls, Crusaders, Chiefs and Stormers now streaking clear of the pack. In my opinion the teams in the hunt for the last finals spot (assuming the Brumbies are the representative from the Australian Conference) are Highlanders, Sharks, Hurricanes, Reds and Waratahs. All of these teams face important fixtures this week that could have a marked impact on make up of the final six.
We have a full complement of games this week with the Brumbies getting a well needed rest.
Eden Park hosts the first match of the Round with the cellar dwellers in the New Zealand and South African conferences, the Blues and the Lions, facing off in what might be the battle for the wooden spoon. The Blues, fresh from advertising for a coaching replacement for Pat Lam, have been the most disappointing team in the competition and have won one game out of ten to start the season. They seemed bereft of answers last week when thrashed by the Hurricanes and the changes made to their line up do not look like they will present an immediate solution. The Lions took on the table topping Chiefs last week and challenged them for passages of the game, certainly at set pieces time. That said, they could not convert their opportunities into points and ongoing pressure on their opponents. The Lions remain decimated by injury and whilst it is tough to tip the Blues on form this season I think the Blues will have enough in the tank to win this game: Blues by 8.
The Waratahs take on the Bulls in Friday night’s second fixture at the Sydney Football Stadium in what could be the last chance for the Waratahs to press their claims for a finals berth. The Bulls are presently the top South African team and have exceeded the expectations of many this season off the back of excellent performances from their backs in attack lead by Morne Steyn. They will be disappointed with their defence last week against the plucky Rebels but they got enough points out from their own attack to still secure a comfortable victory. The Waratahs conversely were disappointing in their loss to the Brumbies last Saturday. They have made some significant changes to their team this week including the surprising omission of McKibbin and the movement of Ashley-Cooper to inside centre at the expense of Tom Carter. Ultimately, the Waratahs will need to score tries to beat the Bulls and on recent evidence I do not think they have enough points in them to best them. Despite there being much to play for for the ‘Tahs, I think the Bulls will this one moderately comfortably: Bulls by 11.
Saturday’s first fixture and one of the matches of the round for mine sees the Hurricanes travel to Dunedin to take on the Highlanders. I think this game will be a ripper with both sides having much to play for to stay in touch with the top six. The Highlanders have returned home off the back of a mixed trip to South Africa. Their forward pack has excelled this year and will again be the focal point of their game in this match. The Hurricanes have not beaten the Highlanders in their last three encounters and whilst they are coming off a victory against the Blues this presents as a much more difficult assignment. Whilst the fitness of the Highlanders coming off the long flight home to Dunedin is a worry as is the memory of the second half of the season fade last year, this is a much improved Highlanders outfit and in front of their passionate fans under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium I expect them to squeak past the ‘Canes in a tight tussle: Highlanders by 4.
AAMI Park hosts one of two mismatches this round with the Rebels hosting the Crusaders. The Crusaders did enough last week to defeat the improving Reds. One pundit was heard this morning to comment that the only side that would have beaten the Reds last week was the Crusaders which goes not so much how well they are playing, but the quality of their line-up. Without setting the world on fire, they are winning close games. Some of the big names for the Crusaders have been rested this week though Richie McCaw’s return to the starting line-up will be another boost for them. The Rebels played very well last week without getting a result and will need to again lift their game to put pressure on the Crusaders in this game. For all the positives to come out of last week’s fixture I suspect they are going to have their work cut out for them particularly at the set pieces. If they can get some ball they will no doubt attack the Crusaders with gusto but whether they have the firepower to overcome the Crusaders forward pack remains to the seen. Whilst it is pretty obvious the Crusaders have not hit full form thus far this season I don’t think they will need to hit top gear to overcome the Rebels in this game: Crusaders by 17.
The Force’s tour of South Africa continues this week in the first of two games from the Cape as they travel to Durban to take on the Sharks at ASBA Stadium. Off the back of the boot and attacking flair of Patrick Lambie the Sharks overcame the Highlanders last week and will fancy their chances against a team they have bested in five of six games over the years. They will be desperate to win this game, possibly with a bonus point, to keep their hopes of a final 6 berth alive. The Force were not disgraced last week against the Cheetahs and indeed went close to pulling off an upset. They will again need to win the forward battle to have any hope of defeating the Sharks but will also need to be careful to not give up too many penalties through ill-discipline (which did start to come into their game against the Cheetahs as too did a fair whack of petulance towards the referee) because Lambie will punish them for any indiscretions in kicking range. I cannot see the Force scoring enough points in this game to beat the Sharks and expect them to remain anchored at the bottom of the Australian conference after this game: Sharks by 9.
The final Saturday night fixture of the round is the local derby between the Stormers and the Cheetahs at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town. This is a game between two teams with vastly convergent styles: the Stormers the best defensive unit in the competition and the Cheetahs expansive and exciting in attack. Much like the form of the Crusaders, the Stormers are doing enough in each game to win without setting the world on fire. The ability to win in any circumstance is often a trait that is fast dismissed but we are seeing this season just how important it is. The Cheetahs have scored 23 tries this season but have let in 27 and therein lies their main problem: they are attacking geniuses at times but that flair does not translate into wins because of the flaws in their defence. Whilst they Cheetahs will no doubt again seek to attack at all costs in this game, a compelling statistic is that the Stormers have let in just 9 tries so far this season. I do not expect that tally to be increased by too many in this game and thus am tipping the Stormers to continue on their winning way in this game: Stormers by 12.
The final match of the round is other match of the round for mine with the Reds hosting the Chiefs on Sunday afternoon at Suncorp Stadium. Much like the Crusaders and the Stormers, the largely unheralded Chiefs have been finding a way to win this season no matter the situation. Their backline combinations are working well and are replete with class while their forward pack, dismissed by many at the start of the season, have made more well regarding packs look pedestrian in comparison. They are the form team in the competition having not been beaten since round 1 and will be looking continue their recent good form at Suncorp Stadium (having won their last two fixtures at this ground) to maintain their lead at the top of the table. The Reds probably put in their best performance of the season last week against the Crusaders at home; certainly keeping the Crusaders scoreless is a feat to be proud of. There is starting be stability in the look of the Reds line up from week to week after the early run of injuries they have endured with the return of the Faingaa twins from injury and Ioane from suspension bolstering the ranks markedly. The Reds need to win this game to remain alive in the competition and off the back of what is sure to be a large crowd on a Sunday afternoon I expect them to win this one in a nail biter: Reds by 3.
Match of the Round: there are two this week with the local derby between the Highlanders and the Hurricanes and the Sunday game between the Reds and the Chief both worthy of being considered the match of the round.