Another week of Super Rugby has passed and not much has changed in the race for the finals with nine teams looking to squeeze into final six. The results, save for the Highlanders loss to the Chiefs, all fell to the favour of the finals combatants. The Hurricanes surprise victory against the Crusaders has contracted the race between the New Zealand conference teams and they get the benefit of the bye this week and the four points that go with it.
The penultimate round of Super 15 presents with some of the best games of the season with the Chiefs playing the Crusaders and the Sharks playing the Bulls. The later game could have a marked effect on the final make up of the top 6 with the Sharks prospects on the line against the Bulls.
There are three games to kick the round off on Friday night and the first of those sees the Crusaders travel to Waikato to take on the tournament leading Chiefs. The Crusaders were, frankly, disappointing against the Hurricanes but it must be said they were missing some of their stars. The return of Dan Carter and Kieran Read this week will be a massive boost for them. If they lose this game they may find themselves out of contention so one could expect that they will be primed for a victory here. The Chiefs come into this fixture already having a home playoff locked in. They got the job done against the Highlanders without being super impressive and will be better for that run last week. They have only lost two games this season and are rightly favourites at the moment to take out the whole tournament. This is a game that they need to win to cement themselves as a genuine contender for the title. I think the Chiefs are the real deal this year and am tipping them to win this one in a game that should be a classic: Chiefs by 6.
Friday night’s second game comes to us from Lang Park where the Reds host the Highlanders. The Reds have won their last four games and have only lost one game at home all year. The combination of Genia, Cooper and Harris is really starting to gel and coupled with a forward pack starting to dominate their opposition, the Reds are striking form at the right time of the season. If they play the way they did in the first half against the Rebels they will be very difficult to defeat. Equally it must be noted that once replacement had to be made in the second half against the Rebels much of the Reds’ continuity went missing. The Highlanders have dropped out of contention for the finals after losing to the Chiefs last week and now may be the spoilers that the Reds do not need in their quest to retain their crown. In attack the Highlanders are replete with quality players including the always impressive Hosea Gear but they seem to have lost their way in recent rounds and have given up starts early in games that they have not been able to run down. There is everything to play for for the Reds and in front of a Friday night full house at Lang Park I cannot see them dropping this game: Reds by 8.
The final Friday night fixture is an unusual Friday game from South Africa. The Sharks host the Bulls at ABSA Stadium in a game that will have a large impact on the make-up of the final six. The Bulls bested the Cheetahs last week to lock in their first win in four weeks and were certainly impressive in the first half to break the spirits of the Cheethas to gain five valuable points. Stacked with Springboks, they have not really had a chance to refresh over the international break which may cause them some problems as things get towards the finals but also gives the Bulls the advantage in that they have maintained match fitness and continuity whilst other teams have been resting. The Sharks come into this fixture having lost before the break to the Lions and then the bye last week. Their Springbok players aside, they have not had a lot of rugby in the last five weeks. They do have a quality forward back and will need to win the forward battle in this fixture to have a chance to defeat the Bulls and keep their finals hopes alive. I am leaning towards the Bulls in this one principally as a result of the Sharks not having played much rugby in the last five weeks: Bulls by 4.
In the battle of the cellar dwellers at Eden Park the Blues host the Force on Saturday evening. Both teams have been in disarray this season with coaching dramas and player insurrections and will be desperate to secure a win in this fixture. The Blues have been the disappointments of the season and have won only two out of fourteen. They will be desperate to win in front of their home crowd which is likely to be a small one given recent form. The Force improved in the second half against the Brumbies but really by then the game was already over. They have only won one game on the road this season and simply do not have the backline to challenge the quality teams in this competition. Their backline limitations could again have a large bearing on the outcome of this game because I expect their forwards to be equal to the task set for them by the Blues. Ultimately I think the Blues will have too much fire power in the back line and will condemn the Force to their twelfth loss of the season: Blues by 7.
The Brumbies travel east on Saturday night to take on the Waratahs at the Sydney Football Stadium. The Waratahs have made significant changes to their back line this week with Foley getting an opportunity at fly half and they will have their first choice wingers, Turner and Mitchell, back for the first time this season. They have not won a game in nine weeks and whilst there have been some close games in that period they really have not played well. Their reliance on kicking has cruelled them and one thing the Test break has shown us is that Berrick Barnes has been in excellent form but seems to have been let down by the players around him. The Brumbies continue to prove the doubters wrong and just keep winning. Equally, if they wish to secure the top spot in the Australian conference they need to keep on winning. They have a backline replete with try scorers and have a forward pack that is growing in stature each week led by their international front row. I cannot see the Waratahs breaking their losing streak in this fixture despite the changes to the backline and expect the Brumbies to win in a tight one: Brumbies by 6.
In the first of two games in the early hours of Sunday morning (Australian time), the Cheetahs host the Stormers in Bloemfontein. The Stormers were fairly ordinary last week against the Lions it must be said and they continue to fail to score points. That said, despite having scored less points than all but the bottom four teams and fewer tries than only the Lions, they consistently find ways to win. They win through having the best defence in the competition and that defence again will be on display against the Cheetahs. The Cheetahs are enigmatic to say the least: they attack vibrantly, then defend terribly, they are generally poorly disciplined at the breakdown and they have only won five games all season. Last week they played well in patches against the Bulls but again their inconsistency and poor discipline let them down. The Stormers will be too strong in this fixture and may well sneak out a very welcome bonus point if they can finally find their attacking mojo: Stormers by 11.
The final match of the round is the antithesis of the first: this game presents as likely to be the worst of the round with the Lions hosting the travelling Rebels at altitude in Johannesburg. The Lions face the real prospect of not surviving in Super 15 after these final two fixtures and have pride to play for as well their ongoing futures. Whilst the Stormers were less than impressive last week, the Lions certainly tested them at certain points during the fixture. They have shown that when on song they can score points with no more stunning an example being their shock victory over the Sharks before the international break. The Rebels are terrible travellers and this international tour to finish the season could not come at a worse time for them off the back of injuries to their main men O’Connor and Beale. Ultimately I cannot see the Rebels improving their away form in this fixture and expect the Lions to win and possible win well: Lions by 12.
Match of the Round: the first match of the round is a ripper with the Chiefs taking on the Crusaders in a game which could now, after their loss last week, play a large role in where the Crusaders finish on the table this season.