It was another riveting round of Super Rugby in round 14 that saw no real front runners for the wild card spots in the finals appear. The Hurricanes, Highlanders, Reds and Sharks all secured important wins. In the context of their seasons the points differential boosting flogging the ‘Canes imparted on the Rebels and the Sharks gritty win against the Stormers could end up being vital to their chances.
This week’s round is replete, again, with important fixtures with the Crusaders v Highlanders and Bulls v Stormers games likely to have a large bearing on how the top 6 looks at the end of round 18. The Reds, Force and Cheetahs have the bye this week.
The first match of the round comes to us from Christchurch with the south island rivals the Crusaders and Highlanders facing off. The Crusaders come into this fixture off the back of the bye last week having crushed the moribund Blues by 47 points the week before. After a slow start they have won five of their last six games to remain in touch with the wildcard spots. Read returns to their lineup this week which will be a boost for them. The Highlanders scraped past the Blues last week in Eden Park in what was a vital win for them on the road. Written off by many at the start of the season, they have exceeded expectations and have gelled into a well disciplined lineup despite some key injuries. They have had some recent success against the Crusaders which is more than can be said for most teams in this competition. This South Island derby will be a cracking encounter and it is only the names McCaw, Read, Carter and Dagg on the Crusaders team sheet that leads to me to giving them the edge in the opener to Round 15: Crusaders by 6.
The second game of a Friday night Super Rugby double header sees the Rebels hosting the Australia conference leading Brumbies at AAMI Park. The Brumbies went close to putting a second hand on the Australian conference trophy last weekend against the former Champion Reds and were, it must be said, unlucky not to be the victors after a last gasp penalty goal swung wide of the posts. Jake White may be a little concerned about both the Brumbies slowish start last week and the fact that they did not score a try. That said, this is a fixture that they will be looking to to secure a much needed bonus point. The Rebels were, there is no other way to say it, smashed by the Hurricanes’ last week. They are without their talismanic fly half Kurtley Beale whose move to the number 10 jersey has been directly correlative with their recent excellent form. They were embarrassed last week and will be smarting from that and will again have the Rebel Army hanging from the rafters at AAMI cheering them on. Ultimately the Brumbies have been the class team of the Australian conference thus far and they should win this game though I do not think they will win as easily as some are predicating: Brumbies by 9.
The final four games of the round include three local derbies in New Zealand and South Africa and kicks off with the Chiefs visiting the Blues at Eden Park. The Blues played better last week in the second half of their loss to the Highlanders than they probably have all season. That does not disguise the fact that they have won two of thirteen games this season and, worse than their numbers, they have not really competed in a number of those losses. The Chiefs remain the form team of the competition and their win last week against an excellent Bulls outfit again reinforces that this rebuilt line up ought rightly be considered as a favourite for the overall title. There are some interesting match ups around the park with the inside centre battle between Williams and Nonu sure to be an interesting one to say the least. Form does not lie and the Chiefs are in form and will this game well in my opinion: Chiefs by 14.
The only non-local derby game this week is at the Sydney Football Stadium where the disappointing and travel weary Waratahs welcome the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes come into this fixture having won three of their last four games having crushed the Rebels the last week. The Rebels were poor but the ‘Canes still scored nine tries and were absolutely ruthless. The ‘Canes are another team that has exceeded expectations and this is another game they must win in order to remain in the running for one of the wild card spots. The Waratahs conversely have failed to reach the expectations of many and have lost seven games this season by seven points or less. They just seem to be unable to win with last week’s end of game debacle in not taking the available drop goal an obvious case in point. Injuries are not enough to explain their poor form this season given the list they have and it would not surprise if a number of the current list of players and coaches are not in the sky blue next season. This game means more for the Hurricanes and, off the long trip home and another demoralising loss, I cannot see the Waratahs doing enough to best them: Hurricanes by 8.
The Lions host the Sharks in the first of two South African derbies to finish this round of fixtures from Coca-Cola Park in Johannesburg. The Sharks were excellent last week in beating the Stormers and have won their last four fixtures: they are dominating teams through their excellent forward pack and are on a role. With the Bulls and the Stormers facing off, a win for the Sharks with a bonus point could see them leap frog whomever loses at Loftus Versfeld. This is a game that they must win and they must win well to maintain their momentum towards a top six spot. The Lions are on the bottom of the table in the South African conference and overall and really have not looked like playing out a full 80 minutes let alone win a game since their victory in Round 1. They have returned home after a long Australian tour that probably secured their place at the bottom of the ladder and it seems likely at this stage that we will not be seeing the Lions in the competition next season. With everything to play for and the Lions anchored at the bottom of the ladder the only result I can see forthcoming in this fixture is the Sharks to win by plenty: Sharks by 23.
The final match of the round is also the match of the round that pits the Bulls against the Stormers in the heavyweight battle for the South African conference. The Bulls were excellent on their Australasian tour winning two games and only losing the other two by less than seven points. They return home having only lost one game there all season and need to win this game to jump to the top of the South African conference. The Stormers’ inability to score points burnt them finally last week when they went down to the Sharks in a tight encounter. There is no mistaking that they are a defensive juggernaut but they, obviously, need to score more tries this week to maintain their lead at the top of the South African conference. There are a number of mouth-watering individual contests in this game with fly half battle between Grant and Steyn looking to be an absolute ripper. The Stormers have to start scoring points shortly; any perusal of their backline tells one that and with the Bulls coming off the long commute home I am tipping the Stormers to win in a close one that, bizarrely, many would see to be an upset. A great game to finish another great round of rugby: Stormers by 4.
Match of the Round: Easy: Bulls v Stormers … enough said!