Another week has passed in the world of Super 15 and again we are coming off a week of some surprises: first and foremost, how good were the Cheetahs last week? First win on New Zealand soil and they did it playing the great attacking brand of football that has been the hallmark of their season to date. Second, the Reds were just woeful: again. Finally: the Stormers v Bulls match up gave us everything we expected from these two very good teams.
This week’s fixtures start early with an Easter Thursday clash between the Rebels and the Blues. The Blues are coming off a bye and will have travelled from Auckland hoping to rest a woeful run of early season form that sees them at the bottom of the New Zealand conference, even after the points for the bye are considered. Thus far the star recruits for the Blues have not really been on form for them and they need a win in this game to salvage any hope of figuring the finals later in the year. The Rebels welcome back Cipriani and Inman this week with O’Connor moving back to inside centre to accommodate “the Dancing Man’s” return. The backline for the Rebels looks potent on paper but it must be said that as a unit it has generally not fired this season. Whilst this is a must win fixture for the Blues, the Rebels also have much to play for and being at home in front of their enthusiastic fans leans me toward them pipping the Blues in a tight one: Rebels by 4.
The first Friday night fixture this week has the travelling Sharks visiting New Plymouth to face the Hurricanes. The Canes will be very disappointed to not take maximum points from their game against the Cheetahs last week. Their loss of focus and intensity in the second half in last week’s fixture will be a worry for the Canes brain’s trust. They will not be the beneficiaries of a 21 point lead one suspects this week against the Shark and will need to play a full 80 minute game to challenge them. The Sharks on the other hand will come into this fixture confident after breaking their Canberra hoodoo last week and will be looking to go back to back on tour. The Sharks have been one of the surprise packets of this year so far and are playing a positive brand of football that could see them punish the Hurricanes if they give them enough opportunities. This will be an entertaining encounter that I expect will go the way of the men from Durban in a high scoring but close one: Sharks by 8.
The second of three games on a fabulous Good Friday of rugby sees the Reds limp back to Lang Park to take on the Brumbies. The Brumbies travel to the Sunshine State on a high despite last week’s loss to the Sharks and are the form team in the Australian conference at the moment. I have said this consistently for the last couple of weeks and I will say it again: Jake White has worked wonders with this team that does not include many “name” players. He has them playing with passion and they are responding to his methods. For the Reds, well their first trip away this season has been nothing short of a disaster. Forget the injuries for a minute: last week’s loss to the Force was a capitulation in which they were out-muscled and out-played by the Force. With none of the injured stars coming back this week it is Ewen McKenzie’s challenge to get his team back on track with the limited resources available to him. My head is saying that the Brumbies must win this one on form. My heart is telling me that the Reds will bounce back. Throw a crowd filled with most of, one will hope, the Reds 30,000 members (why be a member if you are not going to show up) into the mix and I am going to go for the Reds to win in what will be a scrappy encounter: Reds by 6.
The final fixture in Super 15′s fabulous Good Friday pits the Force against the Chiefs in Perth. The Force showed last week that when they play the game with committment and focus for the full 80 minutes they will challenge most teams. Whether that will be enough to challenge the powerful Chiefs outfit remains to be seen. The Chiefs sit atop the New Zealand conference after running over the Waratahs last week and come into this fixture confident in the knowledge that they have edged the Force in four of their five encounters to date. The loss of their leading try scorer in James Stannard to injury is a big loss for the men from the West and it will again be upto the Force’s forward pack to lay a platform. Simply: if the Force win the forward battle they will go close to winning this fixture. If they do not, expect the Chiefs to run away from this one. Despite the Force no doubt being backed by their excellent home crowd I expect the Chiefs to have too much class for them in this one: Chiefs by 11.
In the first Saturday game of Round 7 the Highlanders host the Stormers under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. I am tipping this game to one of the matches not just of the round but of this season so far as the Highlanders look to become the first team this season to defeat the Stormers. The Stormers are unbeaten so far this season by playing a gutsy defensive brand of football that relies heavily on the opposition loosing discipline to score. I have said it every week that they do not score enough tries and that might cost them: this is the week that we might see this actually occuring. The Highlanders crushed the Rebels last week in Invercargill and have been one of the surprise packets of this season thus far. Their forwards have, frankly, been the standard bearers in the competition to date and despite them being on their third choice number 10 already this season they showed last week that given the opportunity their backline hums. All of this means that we are in for a cracker of a contest between two teams with divergent styles. I can’t envisage the Stormers scoring enough points to withhold victory from the Highlanders in this one and expect the Highlanders’ fans to be raising the roof in Dunedin: Highlanders by 8.
From the match of the round our attention then turns to two teams that have been perennial strugglers with the Cheetahs taking on the Lions in Bloemfontein. The Cheetahs are, for mine, the most entertaining team to watch in Super rugby at the moment. They run the ball from everywhere on the park and will be brimming with confidence after coming off their most successful tour since they have been in the tournament. The Lions have also been improvers this season albeit they have no real rewards to show for it thus far with two of their four losses this season being by less than 5 points. Whilst they defeated the Lions in round 1, they have been struck by injuries since then which has blunted some of their effectiveness in both defence and attack. I can not see the Lions scoring enough points in this one and expect the Cheetahs to record a decisive victory in front of their home crowd: Cheetahs by 16.
The final match of the round comes to us from Loftus Versfeld where the “Men in Pink”, the Bulls, take on the Crusaders. The Crusaders have been one of the disappointments of the tournament so far to be honest but they have excuses: take the names Carter and McCaw out of any team sheet and that team is going to struggle. In their last two weeks they have done enough to win but have been sloppy and ill disciplined in patches. Such play this week will see them defeated given that the Bull’s will take every opportunity to score points via Morne Steyn’s boot. Equally, the Bulls need to be careful to not give up too many penalties, like they did against the Stormers last week (in a loss for them despite scoring more tries than their opponents), because, even with Dan Carter being on light duties with the kicking, the Crusaders will punish them on the score board if they do. I don’t think the Crusaders are quite at the top of their game as yet and that being the case I am leaning towards the Bulls in this one in a tight one: Bulls by 5.
Match of the Round: I can not go past the Highlanders v the Stormers. This will be a great game. If you are going to be away from a TV screen during this one set the recorders now and ask one of your mates to do the same in case something happens to your recording.