It is hard to believe that we are already into Week 4 of the Super Rugby competition for this year. The old adage: time flies when you are having fun certainly applies to fans of the game so far this season.
Last week’s games presented the mix of solid of performances, dour encounters and upsets that we have seen in previous rounds. The main surprises were:
1. another loss to the Crusaders, this time at home;
2. the Bulls being defeated by the Blues, who until that game had been somewhat ordinary;
3. the Rebels putting together their strongest performance for some time, and perhaps since introduction to the competition, to push the champion Reds all the way at Lang Park; and
4. the traveling teams, the Highlanders, the Cheetahs and the Waratahs all giving excellent account for themselves on the road (with the Highlanders crushing the Force).
This week’s round sees more teams traveling and some mouthwatering fixtures as some teams, such as the Reds, venture outside of their conference for the first time. The Crusaders, Bulls and Lions all have byes this week so we only have six games to preview.
The round gets underway with the Chiefs hosting the Brumbies at Bay Park Stadium. Both teams are coming off a win with the Chiefs defeating the undermanned Crusaders last week and the Brumbies getting their second win of the season against the improved Cheetahs outfit. The Chiefs, aside from their first round second half brain melt against the Highlanders, have been one of the form teams of the competition and have been particularly impressive in attack thus far. Now coached by the combination of Rennie and Smith they are starting to look like real contenders this year particularly with their backline of Kahui, Williams and Co. Conversely, with Jake White at the helm, the Brumbies have played a dour defense oriented game that sees them remain undefeated, including the bye. Whilst wins against the Force and the Cheetahs do not present the best form line in this competition the way the Brumbies have found ways to win shows a strongly committed team. This game will come down to whether the defence of the Brumbies can stifle the attacking flair of the Chiefs. Winning just on defence 3 weeks in a row looks a bridge to far for the Brumbies and thus despite their woeful record against the Brumbies I am tipping the Chiefs to run away with this one: Chiefs by 11.
In the early ours of Saturday morning (Australian time) attention turns to Cape Town where the Blues travel to Newlands to face the Stormers. This game presents as another battle between a dour defence orientated outfit in the Stormers and a side boasting significant attacking options in the Blues. The Stormers are first up after a spell and whilst they don’t score enough tries for anyone to consider them a chance to win the tournament their defence has been second to none against this year. Also in their favour and despite losing four games at home there last season, the ground at Newlands has long been considered one of the least favourite on the circuit by visiting teams. The Blues arrive here faced with somewhat of a personnel crisis with Jerome Kaino gone for the season and Rene Ranger suspended. With that fact in mind, the Blues will be looking for another big performance from their 29 point hero from last week, Gareth Anscombe to lift them over the line. I find it impossible to tip the Blues in this game given their hit and miss form and with the Stormers playing before their home crowd this week I am tipping them to maintain their unbeaten start to the season: Stormers by 6.
In the first of another packed Saturday night of games, the Hurricanes finally return home to Wellington and host the Highlanders. The Hurricanes have been one of the surprise packets of the season so far winning two of their three games abroad including last week’s pummeling of an ordinary Force outfit. They scored some brilliant tries in that game and despite seemingly being in a rebuilding phase have shown the teams about to travel abroad a blue print for winning away. Every other team would certainly take a 2 from 3 record from their first overseas tour of the season. The Highlanders have also surprised many pundits with squad of young locals combined with discards from the other regions that has bested home town favourite the Crusaders already this year. Their coach Jamie Joseph has them playing an attractive brand of rugby and they are undefeated going into this fixture having bested the Waratahs in a tight game last week. The self belief in the Highlanders line up is self evident by their ability to grind out tight wins and I think they will do it again against the Hurricanes and remain undefeated: Highlanders by 4.
Super Saturday night continues at the newly named Allianz Stadium in Sydney where the Waratahs host the Force in what has already become a crunch game for the Force very early in the season. The Force are winless after three fixtures, are woefully out of form and are low on talent following some key injuries. Most concerning for the Force is their moribund attack with make shift fly half James Stannard the only back from the Force to have scored a try this season. The Waratahs continue to miss some of their big names with injury but any back line that includes the names Ashley-Cooper and Barnes is going to be tough to contain. The Waratahs record also does not look as good as it could with two very close losses that easily could have gone in their favour. This game looks an even battle in the forwards (despite the Waratahs missing Elsom and Palu) but looks a white wash in the backs with the Waratahs out matching the Force in every position and that should see the Tahs run away with this one: Waratahs by 13.
The early hours of Sunday morning (Australian time) serves up a match that could well be the match of the round with last season’s champions, the Reds traveling to Durban to face the Sharks. The Sharks come into this fixture secure in the knowledge that they have defeated the Reds in 4 of their last 5 encounters and have started the season not that far off the pace as their record suggests with narrow losses to both the Bulls and the Stormers to start the season. Last week’s game against the Lions showed they can score points and that they are not as reliant on the kicking of Pat Lambie as most expected. The Reds are undefeated thus far and could best be described as winning ugly without their backline centre piece Quade Cooper. The Reds line up has also been destabilized by injuries, particularly in the backs, and they just haven’t quite gelled yet. Equally, in Mike Harris a piece of the puzzle missing from last year, a super boot in the style of Steyne and others, has been added which means that if the Sharks are ill disciplined in their own half the Reds will punish them. This is a game where the interpretation of the referee, Mr Kaplan, could have a large bearing on the flow of the game and the result. If he allows the Sharks to slow the game down and frustrates the Reds there is a chance the Reds may leave Durban defeated. That said, all things being equal I am tipping the Reds’ class to lift them over the line here in a tight one: Reds by 4.
The final match in an abridged round sees the Rebels host the Cheetahs on Sunday afternoon at AAMI Park. The Cheetahs are one of the chameleon teams of Super 15 Rugby: one week they look like world beaters, the next they are no better than schoolboys. Last week they had a win in Canberra in the bag until two late penalties cruelled them. In essence they are a confidence line up and if they start well in this encounter the Rebels may struggle to contain them. The Rebels are off to a slow start to the season and again seem to be unable to score tries. That said, I do not expect that to continue as any team with the fire power of Beale and O’Conner in the back line will eventually click with time. Last week showed that the Rebels are becoming a more committed defensive outfit when they nearly caused a boilover at Lang Park and with Beale having gotten his debut for the Rebels out of the way I expect an improved performance from them this week. The Cheetahs will have a crack at a try from anywhere on the park and if the Rebels can stifle this expansive approach, as I expect them too, they should win for the first time in a while: Rebels by 8.
Match of the Round: The Sharks v Reds games looks a corker in Durban and is the best match of the round for me.
Game to miss: I actually do not think there is a game to miss this week. All of this week’s games have interesting aspects to them.
Bet of the Week: I think the Rebels are due for a win and will be putting some hard earned on them at the line this week.