Each week of the 2012 season of Super Rugby has brought with it more twists and turns than an Stuart MacBride novel (I know this is a rugby column but seriously you should check out his stuff) and last week was no different with the Crusaders falling to the Rebels, the Stormers pushed all the way by the Cheetahs and the Reds beating the previously (seemingly) impenetrable Chiefs.
This week again is filled with games that are vital for the combatants in the race for the finals with the Hurricanes, Brumbies, Highlanders, Bulls, Sharks and Cheetahs facing each other (respectively). The Chiefs have the bye after their loss to the Reds last week.
The round kicks off in Wellington with the Australian conference leading Brumbies travelling across the ditch to take on the Hurricanes. The Brumbies come into this fixture without in-form fly half Christian Lealiifano and with a woeful record in New Zealand having not won their since 2009. That said, this year they have travelled far better (note their South African tour) and are, simply put, a better drilled line up than in previous years so they will be less trepidatious about this fixture than they would have been in some time. The Hurricanes defeated the Highlanders last week in the deep south of Otago which is no mean feat. With their finals aspirations hinging on them continuing to win games such as this one they will again rely to their mix of experience, in the form of their talismatic skipper Conrad Smith and others, and youth, in the form of Beauden Barrett, go push for another vital win. The ‘Canes will be confident going into this fixture and I expect them to continue their winning streak over a Brumbies outfit turning out their third string fly half: Hurricanes by 7.
Saturday is a bumper day of rugby with 5 games available for viewing for the rugby enthusiast starting with the Highlanders taking on the Bulls in Dunedin. The Highlanders started the season well and early on were touted as one of the key contenders for one of the wild card finals spots however the tide has turned in the Southland and losses to the Sharks and ‘Canes appear to have left them vulnerable. Last week it seemed like they ran of out gas against the Hurricanes which is understandable to an extent given that they were coming off the long tour to South Africa. Equally, some of their play was just poor in passages and they will need to improve significantly to be competitive in this game. The Bulls remain atop the South African conference and are continuing to win tight fixtures on tour without setting the world on fire. They come into this game confident off the back of two wins in Australia, formerly an unhappy hunting ground it must be said, and with Morne Steyn’s boot in metronomic like form they will punish any ill discipline from the Highlanders. The Highlanders will be desperate to win this one however I expect the Bulls to continue their rich vein of travelling form: Bulls by 11.
We then travel the 350 odd kilometres up State Highway 1 to Christchurch where the Crusaders host the Blues. Previously this clash would have been one of the marque games of any Super Rugby season but this year with the Blues in such terrible form it is not expected that this game will reach the heights of battles past. The Crusaders were terrible last week in their loss to the Rebels and also were not assisted by the resting of five of their All Black stars. They have copped a pillaring this week from their fans and the media in New Zealand and will be looking to rest the concerns of many that their season came off the rails last week. I, for one, think last week’s loss was nothing more than a blip brought about by the confluence of a great performance by the Rebels and the Crusaders lifting the foot off the pedal a touch. They will be primed for this game. The Blues got their second win of the season against the woeful Lions last week and whilst they will be on a high from that win it must be remembered that it was a pretty terrible game of rugby. This is a much tougher task for the Blues and with their players, fans and coaching staff all having eyes for the end of the season I do not expect to them to pose much of a threat to the Crusaders in this one: Crusaders by 22.
The middle game of a packed Saturday night is the mismatch of the round with the Reds hosting the Lions at Suncorp Stadium. The Lions presently sit last on the competition ladder and look likely to be the team to leave the South African conference at the end of the year. They are coming off a 22 point loss to the second worst team in the competition and have struggled all year to put a competitive line up on the field both through injuries and generally lacking depth in key positions. The Reds looked like they were in trouble against the Chiefs last week but off the back some inspired captaincy just before half time and, no doubt, finally getting some luck from the referees they secured a famous victory against the New Zealand front runners. They welcome back Quade Cooper and will again run out in front of 35,000 plus fans (who says Brisbane is a rugby league town) at Lang Park. I cannot see any other result in this fixture other than a bonus point victory for the Reds: Reds by 28.
Super Saturday then moves to South Africa and two games that are likely to have a large influence on the ultimate structure of the final six. First up the Cheetahs host the Sharks in Bloemfontein. The Cheetahs are coming off a close loss to the Stormers that could have gone either way right to the final whistle and will draw confidence from crossing the line of the best defensive team in the competition twice. Equally, they have lost six of their games this season by less than seven points which tells me that they are often getting into position to win games but just don’t have the fire power to get over the line when it matters. The Sharks dispatched the Force in a clinical display that ought not be lessened any in the eyes of followers by just how bad the Force were. It would have been easy for them to not play out the full 80 minutes against such subpar opposition (Force fans should note that I watched the game from start from finish) but they continued to go for the kill right down to the final whistle. I expect this game to be a tougher challenge for the Sharks however they are in form and I think they will win in close tussle: Sharks by 6.
The final game of the Saturday marathon is at Newlands in Durban where the Stormers host the Waratahs. If the Waratahs truly believe that they are still a chance to make the finals they must overcome the force of public opinion and the Stormers to be any hope. They have made more changes to their line up this week and will be looking to overcome their Cape Town hoodoo, having not won their since 2006. That said, this has been a season of demoralising loses and lost opportunities from a team that should, on paper, frankly be higher on the table which makes this game look like a difficult one for them to lift for. The Stormers defensive prowess is undeniable. Simply, they have the best defence in the competition. What remains the concern for most followers is that the only team that they have scored more tries then this season is the seller dwelling Lions. They play boring rugby but that style of play is winning them games. They will again be reliant on their defence and the boot of Peter Grant to get over the line in this one in front of their home fans though I do not see them coming up with a bonus point: Stormers by 4.
Once again the round finishes off with a Sunday afternoon fixture: this round it is the Force’s turn to host the Sunday matinee as they take on the Rebels at nib Stadium. The Rebels will be positively ebullient after their excellent win last week against the Crusaders. Make no mistake, the Rebels are playing excellent rugby at the moment particularly when one considers that they were also very good against the Bulls in Round 11. On the form they have shown the last two weeks one would really struggle to tip against them in this fixture save for one factor. That factor is that they are travelling this week and their form on the road is nothing call home about. The Force were terrible last week against the Sharks and seem now to have both eyes firmly focused on getting to the end of the season and the rebuilding that will inevitably confront their as yet unnamed new coach. They have a quality back row and may well get on top of the Rebels at the breakdown however their back line is unlikely on recent evidence to cause many problems for the Rebels. With Beale orchestrating things from the jersey vacated by Cipriani, I am tipping the Rebels to win and win well here: Rebels by 13.
Match of the Round: The Highlanders v Bulls game I think will be a ripping encounter between two teams who play a similar style and both have much to play for. I will be making sure I am planted in front of the TV for this one.