The second game on Friday night sees the Force visit AAMI Stadium to take on the Rebels. The Force stunned a disappointing Waratahs outfit last weekend with their positive attitude and dominant forward pack led by that man Pocock. They will take a lot of positives from that win and with their back line continuing to improve they will have many teams casting a wary eye of their upcoming games to see when they will be taking on the Force. For the Rebels last week was another case of so near yet so far. Ultimately poor discipline cruelled them in the end when they had the game sown up. Also, it is clear that while the stars are shining in their back line they need some help. This game could well turn on whether the Force are able to shut down their former teammate O’Conner. I expect they will and on that basis I expect the Force to keep their winning momentum going: Force by 6.
Saturday’s series of games begins with an afternoon fixture at the Sydney Football Stadium as the Waratahs seek redemption against the Sharks. Just on the numbers one would think that the Waratahs would be prohibitively short priced favourites in this game. They have bested the Sharks on the last six times they have met at SFS and have won nine of the last eleven clashes. That said they are coming of a loss that saw them, again, lose the support of their fans. Whilst I do not condone the fans reaction it must be said that their performance against the Force was poor at best and they will need a massive improvement to beat the Sharks. Speaking of the Sharks, they will be starting this tour on a high after their come from behind victory against the Reds on the weekend. They have a great forward unit led by Du Plessis and if they dominate the Waratahs up front, Lambie and co will be able to cause havoc in the back line. I can not tip the Waratahs after last week and think that the Sharks will have the fire power to prevail in a close one: Sharks by 4.
In a poignant return, our next game sees the Crusaders host the Cheetahs in Christchurch in a game played in that city for the first time since 2010. The news in New Zealand has been abuzz this week with the return of Dan Carter for this homecoming and his inclusion will be massive for a team that has struggled to play with confidence thus far this season. The Cheetahs play a free flowing and attractive brand of football that sees them have a crack from just about anywhere on the field. When it comes off, it pays dividends like it did against the Rebels last week. When it doesn’t fans bemoan their ill discipline. In this encounter they can not afford to make any errors because the Crusaders will punish them. In what will be an emotional homecoming before a capacity crowd for the Crusaders I can not see the Cheetahs testing them despite their recent good form: Crusaders by 11.
The action then moves to the Canberra Stadium, where the Brumbies will host the thus undefeated Highlanders. The Brumbies under the stewardship of Jake White have been playing with a simple game plan that has proved effective and they have thus far exceeded expectations. That said it must be admitted that those expectations were exceedingly low and their wins to date have been against teams generally expected to be in the bottom four in the Cheetahs and the Force. What a difference a year has made for the Highlanders: they are a totally different line up from last year and have won a series of tough games against much fancied opposition. Having spent the last week in Otago and the Southland of New Zealand the vibe about the team is very positive. The Highlanders are playing a tough and committed brand of rugby at the moment and I can’t see the Brumbies giving them their first loss of the season on current form: Highlanders by 9.
The wounded Reds travel to Loftus Versfield in Pretoria to take on the rested Bulls in the first of the two Saturday night fixtures in South Africa. The Bulls are fresh from the bye last week and will be keen to make their recent home record against the Reds extend to five in a row in this fixture. Few expected the Bulls to be a force this season but they have shown thus far, despite a number of players retiring at the end of last year, they will be as difficult to defeat as usual this season. The Reds have had the tour from hell in South Africa with Mike Harris and Ben Lucas sent home with hamstring injuries and Digby Ioane suspended to go with Quade Cooper still being on the bench. If nothing else this fixture will test the Reds backline depth. This is a game where the Reds pack will need to stand up and also maintain their discipline. If they don’t Morne Steyn will punish them. Whilst, as a Reds fan this galls me to admit, I think this will be a difficult day out for the Queenslanders and I expect the Bulls to win in a tight one: Bulls by 4.
The last game of this round sees the Lions host the Stormers in Johannesburg. Whilst the Lions have proved competitive this season they have not defeated the Stormers in their last eleven encounters. Playing at home does not assist them when considering the statistics because they have won just one of their last seventeen games in Jo’burg. The Stormers conversely are undefeated this season and in Joe Pieterson have a kicker of the quality of Morne Steyn. That coupled with the best defensive record in the tournament makes them irresistible in this game: Stormers by 16.
Match of the round: Blues v Hurricanes gets us off to an excellent start to the round and will definitely be worth watching.
Game you can miss: I can not see the Lions v the Stormers reaching any great heights.
Best bet: Steyn with a penalty against the Reds.