The three week break for the winter international tours is now over and it is time for Super Rugby again. The finals are only three weeks away and there are nine teams still in contention for the final six finals spots. There is not a round left that does not have two or three games in it the result of which will have a large bearing on who does and does not make the finals.
Round 16 starts in Dunedin at the Forsyth Barr Stadium where the competition front-runners, the Chiefs, take on the home side the Highlanders. The hosts come off a big loss to the Crusaders just before the break however they come into this game sound in the knowledge that they have been in great form at home having won five from seven fixtures under the roof at Forsyth Barr. The Chiefs are the team to beat in the competition and have been in excellent form since their round one loss at home to the Highlanders. They will be looking to exact some measure of revenge here and welcome back all of their test stars for this fixture including Cruden. Ultimately, this is a game where it is all to play for for the Highlanders: if they win they keep their final’s hopes alive but if they loose then they will need to rely on other results. It is that desperation that leans me towards the Highlanders coming out on top in this game in a tight one: Highlanders by 4.
In the second Friday night fixture, the Rebels host the Reds at AAMI Park. The Rebels have played their best rugby at home this season and will be looking to be spoilers for the Reds final’s campaign in this fixture. The Rebels’ faithful and vocal crowd will pack out AAMI Park in the hopes that they can farewell Mortlock, Huxley, Campbell and Lipman with a win in their last games in Rebels colors on home soil. The Rebels will also be buoyed by the return of James O’Connor to the fly half jersey for this game against his, if twitter is any indication, good friend Quade Cooper. The Reds face the reality of having lost their captain, James Horwill this week and have moved Wallace-Harrison into the starting lineup as cover. They need to win all three matches they have remaining in the regular season to remain in contention for the finals and will rely upon their international 9, 10 and 12 combination (Genia, Cooper and Harris) for much of their drive and direction in coming weeks. The Reds have too much to loose in this fixture and I see them winning but not doing enough to gain a bonus point: Reds by 8.
The first of four games on Saturday comes from Christchurch Stadium with the Crusaders hosting Hurricanes. Leading into a bye this game could be vital for the finals hopes of the Hurricanes. They have won four of their last five games and have been impressive for most of the season after many wrote them off early. They are without Victor Vito who has a knee injury after being on All Blacks duty whilst Jack Lam has been bracketed with Karl Lowe as he recovers from a hamstring injury. The Crusaders also are not without injury concerns arising from the international break with Cory Jane failing to overcome an ankle injury. They punished the Highlanders in their last start and remain one of the class lineups in the competition. The Crusaders need to win this game to remain in the running to best the Chiefs for the top spot in the New Zealand Conference (albeit an unlikely scenario). I think the Crusaders will have too much class for the Hurricanes in this one and expect them to win this match but consider that it might be closer than many think: Crusaders by 9.
The Brumbies travel across Nullabor to face the Force in the second all Australian conference match of the round. The Force have been disappointing this year. They have a quality forward pack that is littered with Wallabies including the retiring Nathan Sharpe and the best flanker in the game (if you listen to Robbie Deans) in David Pocock. Yet despite the fact that they are regularly competitive and sometimes dominant through their forward, the lack of penetration in the backs has seen them only win three games this season. This is their last home game of the season and the sky blue army will be looking for a win for Sharpe to see him into retirement. The Brumbies continue to prove the critics wrong and have won four of their last five games (with that loss being by one point to the Reds). In Zack Holmes they look to have found a star of the future and they will continue to rely upon their mix of youth and experience as they run up to the finals. A win here probably clinches the top spot in the Australian conference for the Brumbies considering their run home after this and I expect them to keep up their excellent form with a comfortable win in this fixture: Brumbies by 12.
Attention then turns to the South African conference with two games that look, frankly to be a bit one sided. Leading off in Cape Town, the Stormers host the Lions. Despite a last start win against the Sharks, the Lions are in disarray with their coach, John Mitchell, suspended for the rest of the season during the international break. They have been beset by injuries this season and now are going through what seems to be a player insurrection. The Stormers, conversely, have just gone about their business each week in this competition and, bizarrely, have stayed largely under the radar despite being the a winning team in the competition along with the Chiefs. They don’t score points, everyone knows that, but they do know how to win. The Stormers’ players will also be out to prove the coach of their national team wrong as well with many considering some of the non-selections of Stormers for international duty to be strange in the extreme. I can not see the Lions troubling the Stormers at Newlands and, given their easy run home, they can tie up a home final here with a bonus point win which I think they will get: Stormers by 19.
The final much of the round comes to us from Loftus Versfeld where the Cheetahs visit the suddenly out of form Bulls. Three losses from their last three starts sees the Bulls teetering on the brink of dropping out of the top six if they lose this fixture. They welcome the return of all of their Springbok representatives including Zane Kirchner who was injured in the first test against England in the winter series. The Cheetahs are the entertainers of the competition however their knack of losing close games has cruelled any prospect of them competing for a finals berth as they have lost six matches this year by seven points or less. The most significant contributor to those losses has been ill discipline and they cannot afford to continue this trend against Morne Steyn. The last time these to two teams faced off, the Bulls thumped the Cheetah by 32 points and whilst I don’t expect the margin to be as much of a blow out I do expect the Bulls to return to the winners circle in this fixture: Bulls by 15.
The Sharks, Waratahs and Blues have the bye this week.
Match of the Round: As has oft been the case this season the first match of the round presents as the pick of the fixtures. The Highlanders with much to play for facing the leading Chiefs is a mouth watering proposition.