Firstly welcome to Round 3; and secondly, when I am wrong I will admit that I am wrong – and last week I was very wrong with my prediction for a couple of the games. In particular, my tip of a draw between the Waratahs and the Rebels was found wanting from very early on.
That said (and said quickly so I can get it out of the way), last week’s round was not without its highlights with two cracking games in the Land of the Long White Cloud, where the Chiefs bested the Blues and the Highlanders continued their perfect start by defeating the pre-tournament favourite Crusaders in the Highlanders new stadium in Dunedin. The games involving the Australian conferences were somewhat less enthralling, with both teams expected to win. The Reds and the Waratahs both fulfilled expectations of success, but neither played near their best in securing the points against the unimpressive Rebels and the courageous but heavily Pocock-reliant Force. In South Africa, the results went with according to the script, but it would be hubristic to not mention how good the Bulls looked in belting the Cheetahs. A very impressive outing from what really is a new line up.
Moving to this week, we have more teams playing abroad with the Waratahs, Blues and Cheetahs travelling to foreign shores and thankfully there are a number of match-ups to savour.
The first match of the round sees the Crusaders host the Chiefs at McLean Park in Napier in a game that I am tipping, (this seems to be becoming a habit with the first match), to be the match of the round. The Crusaders will be smarting after losing to the surprising Highlanders and will be looking to impose themselves on a Chiefs lineup that is always a handful at home but often found wanting when visiting their opponents. Last week the Chiefs dominated a strong Blues outfit from the start and played some fantastic attacking rugby in conditions more conducive to a narrow wet weather game plan rather than expansive play put on show. The Crusaders remain without their big guns in McCaw and Carter, but ultimately I expect the class of their line up to prevail in what will be a game of contrasting styles: Crusaders by 6.
We then move to Perth where the Hurricanes arrive from Jo’burg to take on the Force in their first home game of the season. The Hurricanes come into this encounter having won their last four against the Force and having bested the Lions in a seesawing encounter. The Force conversely has failed to put together two consistent halves of Rugby in either of their games thus far this season. Whilst their second half effort was impressive against the Reds last week, I have lingering concerns about the quality of the backline of the Force and this concern is heightened further this week as they face a Hurricanes backline including All Blacks Cory Jane and Conrad Smith. Ultimately this game could come down to how knocked around the Hurricanes are from three weeks travelling – first in South Africa and now Australia. For that reason I am tipping the Force to squeak over the line ahead of the jet lagged Hurricanes in a tight one: Force by 4.
The first Saturday fixture sees Super Rugby return to an afternoon match-up at Canberra Stadium where the well-rested Brumbies welcome the travelling Cheetahs. The Cheetahs record is frankly woeful: they have won only one game from 14 in Australia, lost all four games previously played at Canberra Stadium and more broadly have lost their last 5 games. They were simply smashed last week by a new look Bulls outfit few were initially expecting to play a large role in the current Super Rugby season. The Cheetahs must now be considered the favourites for the wooden spoon. The Brumbies conversely come off the bye and will be buoyed by their (albeit scrappy) first win at home two weeks ago. The Brumbies are in a rebuilding phase this season no doubt; with new players and a new coach, I can’t see the Cheetahs beating them: Brumbies by 9.
The middle game of the Saturday triple header sees the Waratahs head across the ditch to Dunedin to take on the Highlanders in their new stadium. The Highlanders bring a rich record of form to this fixture, having started the season undefeated -including beating the Crusaders last week in a game where they not only scored more tries than their South Island rivals, but played with a vocal home crowd who got right behind them. The Waratahs are making their first sojourn abroad for 2012 to what has been a happy hunting ground for them in the past, having won four of their past five in Dunedin. Those statistics are old news though really when placed in the context of recent results, which show that the ‘Tahs have one only taken one of their last 6 games in New Zealand. Whilst Barnes returns at inside centre, the Waratahs remain without the experienced trio of Mitchell, Vickerman and Elsom. This will be a great battle in the forwards with the stoush between Tatafu Polota-Nau and Andrew Hore one worth savoring. I expect this to be a close game and am leaning towards the Highlanders who showed last week they know how to close out a game, a skill the Waratahs lacked in Round One: Highlanders by 4.
In the final game of the Saturday (Australian time) triple-header the Reds host the Rebels at Lang Park. Last week the Reds maintained their perfect start to season 2012 with a decisive 15 point victory over the Force that had as its foundation the metronomic like kicking of replacement Mike Harris, who is fast making the case for the immediate return of Quade Cooper weaker and weaker with both his kicking and his work in general play. At the time of writing the Reds side has not yet been named, however the expected return of Higginbotham and at least one of the Faingaa brothers will only serve to strengthen the lineup of last year’s champions. The Rebels form is frankly terrible having lost their last ten games and seven of their last eight away matches. The fact of the matter of is that, in the round prior, they simply missed too many tackles against the Waratahs – and as seriously can’t gain many positives from what really was a poor performance. The debut in Rebels colours of Kurtley Beale is a positive admittedly and his combination with James O’Connor will be vital to the slim chances the Rebels have of causing an upset. Whilst the Reds may well have one eye on their plane trip to South Africa scheduled for the early hours of Sunday morning, I don’t expect the Rebels to trouble them: Reds by 19.
The second to last game of this round sees the Sharks of Durban host the Lions at ABSA Stadium in their first home game of the season. The Sharks have gotten off to an ordinary start with losses away to the impressive Bulls and the penalty kicking Stormers, and have struggled to score other than through the boot of fullback Patrick Lambie. Looking at their line up on paper, they appear to be a better team than they have shown in the last two weeks. The Lions started the season with a close victory against the Cheetahs in week one and then failed to hold onto a lead down the stretch against the Hurricanes last week. In Elton Jantjies they appear to have unearthed another in the procession line of Springbok penalty shooters but need to find ways for others to score. Ultimately, I think this assignment will be much tougher for the Lions than their previous two games and expect the Sharks to lift in attack in front of their home crowd to defeat them: Sharks by 8.
The final match of the round sees the Blues make the long trip to Pretoria to take on the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld. This time two weeks ago, you could have easily convinced me to wager strongly for the Blues to win this game and win it handsomely. What a difference two weeks makes; after losing narrowly to the Crusaders in the first week, the Blues were outclassed in all respects by the Chiefs at Hamilton. To add insult to injury the Blues have lost Rudi Wulf and Jerome Kaino for this encounter. The antithesis of the Blues start to the season is that of the Bulls who, expected to struggle by most pundits including this writer, are undefeated after two rounds and come off a thrashing of the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last week. The only glitch to the perfect start of the Bulls is the loss of Hougaard for this game as a result of a red card last week. Despite that loss, and noting the Blues haven’t won in Pretoria for nine years, I expect the Bulls to win this game and win it well to maintain their perfect start to the season: Bulls by 13.
Match of the round: This one is easy this week: the Crusaders v the Chiefs is the must see game of the round.
Game you can afford to miss: Neither the Brumbies nor the Cheetahs are expected by many to do much this season, and whilst the Brumbies did win their first game, I don’t expect this game to be all that exhilarating. If you were to miss it – I wouldn’t be too worried.
Bet of the round: First points scored in the Sharks v Lions will, chances are, be a penalty. Load up on this bet when the markets open.