It was another intriguing week of fixtures in round 13 of Super Rugby last week that has given no real clarity to the ultimate make up of the final 6. Key victories to the Highlanders, the Sharks and the Reds see them continuing to jostle for 6th spot and while the Hurricanes lost last week they also cannot be counted out.
With only one more round to go until the three week international break, round 14 again presents as a vital round for many of the contending teams. There are some cracking games this week with the top two teams in the Australian conference facing off and the first and third placed teams in the South African also doing battle.
At the other end of the spectrum the battle for the wooden spoon may well be decided on Saturday night in Perth with the Force hosting the Lions. After their blow out of the Blues last week, the Crusaders have the bye.
Friday night Super 15 action comes from Waikato Stadium where the table topping Chiefs look to continue their run to the finals against the Bulls. The Chiefs are coming off the bye this week and will be looking to reassert their dominance in the competition having lost to the Reds in their most recent game (Round 12). Befitting their position at the top of the NZ conference they have been dominant at home, winning five in row (four of those games by greater than 13 points), and remain the form team of the competition. They have a monster backline and will look to run over the Bulls on their home track. The Bulls were beaten last week by a hungrier opponent in the Highlanders and will want to rest any prospect that they might fall out of contention in the South African conference with a win here. This is their 4th game on tour and whilst their record is impressive away to date it must be said that this fixture probably poses their strongest challenge to date. Ultimately it is the fresh Chiefs against the weary Bulls and that is enough for me to lean the Chiefs way in a game that might be repeated come finals time: Chiefs by 8.
Saturday night is once again a bonanza for Super Rugby fans with six games over the course of the day and night. Simply, if you cannot find a game to watch on Saturday no matter the time zone you are just not trying hard enough! The first match of the Saturday Six sees the Rebels cross the ditch to take on the Hurricanes. The Rebels are presently sitting at third on the Australian conference table and have rightly earned that spot with gritty wins against the Crusaders (at home) and the Force (away). Since Kurtley Beale has moved into the fly half spot the Rebels have been a different team and have mixed a willing defensive effort with an attacking corps mixed with youth and veterans to out enthuse their opponents. That said, it must be recognised that their form away from AAMI Park is still questionable at best and they have never won in New Zealand. The Hurricanes will be disappointed to have lost to the Brumbies last week as some ill-discipline and defensive lapses cost them dearly. They are still in the race for a top 6 spot and must win this game to have any hope of progressing to the next stage in the competition. Bizarrely, for a team still in the running, their form at home has been terrible with only one victory this season in their games in Wellington. In a fixture between a team that doesn’t travel well and one that seems to not enjoy the comforts of home, I am going to go with the home side because they have more to play for coming into the pointy end of the season: Hurricanes by 6.
Auckland plays host to the final New Zealand fixture of Round 14 with the Blues hosting their South Island rivals the Highlanders at Eden Park. Nothing positive can be said about the Blues performance last week against the Crusaders and, indeed, the same could probably be said for their season. They were just terrible against the Crusaders and they are really just making up the numbers now until the end of the season. Round 18 cannot come fast enough for them and their soon to be out the door coach Pat Lam. The Highlanders, conversely, have been one of the teams of the tournament thus far and again showed how far they have come from the depths of despair last season with a gritty win over the Bulls at home last week. Despite the Blues having won the bulk of the games between these two franchises over the years, this year both sides are markedly different and I cannot see the Blues finding a way to stop the Highlanders from recording a much needed bonus point win: Highlanders by 16.
Attention then turns to Australia’s capital and the most important match in the Australian conference thus far this season with the Reds visiting the Brumbies. Make no mistake: this is the heavyweight championship bout of the season between last year’s champions and this year’s conference leaders and it will be a cracking fixture. I admit that I wrote the Brumbies off last week, in no small part because of their injuries woes at fly half but I was proven wrong by Zack Holmes who had a blinder on debut. Jake White has done nothing short of a brilliant job with this young team and they are playing with a self-confidence and belief that belies the quality of their list. The Reds were, frankly, unimpressive for the bulk of their game against the Lions last week and will need to improve immeasurably to best the Brumbies. Quade Cooper’s return was solid but the Reds need him on the field for the full 80 minutes as they do Ben Lucas who also left the field early last week. The Reds have the bye next week and will by throwing everything into this game knowing that a win will help them keep pace with the other contenders for the final spots in the finals. The Brumbies having a wonderful record against the Reds and have been nearly impossible to defeat at home. The white army will be out in force in Canberra and whilst my heart says the Reds will win I find it impossible to go past the in form Brumbies at home in a close one: Brumbies by 3.
Across the Nullabor in Perth the Lions finish their Australasian tour against the Force in the battle of the cellar dwellers. Former Force coach John Mitchell returns with his Lions outfit to face a Force team in just as much disarray as it was when he left. They again found a way to lose last week against the Rebels and have an ordinary record at home having won only two of their last 14 at home. The Lions were not disgraced last week against the Reds but it has to be said that the Reds did take their foot off the gas after the 50th minute of a contest they were never going to loose. Both teams have been average this year so it does not say much to compare their records. That said, the Force continue to possess a world class back row led by David Pocock and their blue army of fans will again be out in droves which I think will be enough to get them over the line against a Lions outfit who one suspects is looking forward to getting home: Force by 7.
The first of two South African fixtures kicks off in Bloemfontein with the Cheetahs hosting the Waratahs. The Waratahs have come off their fourth loss in a row and have not won in South Africa since 2009. Whilst their loss last week looks close on paper against the Stormers, frankly they were never really in the hunt having gone to the half time break 16-3 down. Injuries have played their part in the Waratahs season of discontent but equally their style of play has not impressed pundits or fans alike with too much emphasis on kicking the ball away. Such a style is not often going to be successful against teams in the South African conference who have players who can kick the bladder out of the ball. The Cheetahs have been more competitive than ever before this season and are the entertainers of the competition but they just do not win enough games to inspire any confidence. Last week they were fairly pedestrian against the Sharks and could not change their game plan when it became clear that their enterprising attacking play was not going to work against a committed Sharks line-up. Both sides have less then easy runs home and will be looking to secure points from this game, but with the ‘Tahs on the tail end of their African sojourn I am tipping the Cheetahs to sneak over the line for their 5th win off the season at home: Cheetahs by 8.
The final match of Super Saturday is another cracking game with the Sharks hosting the Stormers in Durban. The Stormers are the only team in the competition to have won 10 games and yet still don’t get the plaudits they probably deserve as a result of their defensive and often dour play. Behind an often dominant forward pack they have relied heavily on the boot of Peter Grant to overcome their opposition and have yet to really unleash their back three, led by the electric Bryan Habana, in attack. Defensively they are excellent and they also one of the more disciplined teams in the competition at the breakdown. The Sharks have excellent form on their home track having won fourteen of their last seventeen games at ABSA Stadium and were at their most impressive in attack last week against the Cheetahs. They need a win in this fixture to remain in the battle for the top six and will be looking to stretch the Stormers through their back line stars in Lambie (assuming he is fit), Mvovo and Pietersen. I expect this to be a tight encounter and whilst the Stormers are very hard to tip against I think this might the week that their failure to score enough points might cause them problems. That being the case I am going to tip the Sharks but not with any great level of confidence: Sharks by 4.
Match of the Round: For mine there are two great games this round that are must sees for anyone who likes rugby: Brumbies v Reds and Sharks v Stormers. Both will be battles of the highest quality.