It is hard to believe that we are already into Round 8 of the Super Rugby season. It would be fair to say that so far this season has been highlighted by unpredictability and upsets with some of the fancied teams languishing behind their less fancied rivals (particularly in the Australian and New Zealand conferences).
Again last week brought upsets: the Hurricanes smashing the Sharks in particular. That said, the form teams of the competition thus far, the Chiefs, Stormers and Bulls, ensured normal service in their games with good wins.
We have only six games this week with the Reds, Highlanders and Hurricanes all having the bye. For all three teams the bye arrives at an important juncture in their respective seasons. In particular the Reds will be looking to use this week to get some of their injured stars fit and ready for the Stormers at home in a fortnight’s time.
The round kicks off with the Blues hosting the Sharks at Eden Park. The Blues have, frankly, been terrible this season. Their high priced imports have failed to fire and they are currently second last on the table (ahead of only the Lions) with one win from six starts. Nothing in their performance against the Rebels last week, a game they really should have cantered to a win with their roster, suggests a team that is in any way a confident lineup. I expected more from the Sharks last week but simply put they were outclassed by the Hurricanes. The Sharks come into this fixture having defeated the Blues in their past seven encounters and welcome the return of Patrick Lambie to their lineup who will make up for Bismark du Plessis’ return home. All in all I can not back the Blues on current form and expect the Sharks to bounce back from last week’s trouncing with a solid win: Sharks by 8.
Friday night’s second fixture sees us head to Perth where the Force host the Waratahs at nib Stadium. This is the second meeting of these teams this year following the Force’s surprise victory over the Waratahs in Sydney earlier in the season. The Waratahs are fresh off the bye which will not do them any harm at all given the injury toll they took into the week off. They have never lost in the West which counts in their favour though generally have a poor away record. The Force have been one of the teams that have contributed to the unpredicability of the season. Their excellent pack is the cornerstone of their team but once one looks into the backline they become a line up that few teams fear. That said, their performance last week against the Chiefs was not a bad one given the form of their opponents and there are whispers of the return of a couple of their stars this week (Shepherd is a name that appears to be being bandied about). In what will be a tight fixture I am tipping the Force, spurred on by their blue army, to get over the line here in an upset: Force by 4.
In the first Saturday fixture of the round the Crusaders host the Stormers at Rugby League Park in Christchurch. This is certain to be the match of the round. The Crusaders return home after their trip to the Cape and bring with them a 3 from 6 record to start the season. Some of their stars, McCaw included, remain on the sidelines but Dan Carter will certainly be more confident with two starts under his belt. Interestingly coach Blackadder has shifted Carter to inside centre in this match which may well lead to more potency in attack for the men from Christchurch. The Stormers remain unbeaten this season and their victory in Dunedin last week was out of the top draw. They are the best team in the tournament at the moment and their defence has been nothing short of out of this world, having only allowed 97 points this season thus far. Pundits, me included, keep harping on their lack of attacking flair but last week they did bag a couple of very good tries to best the Highlanders. With the quality of the kickers in both lineups this could become a battle of the sharpshooters and with the discipline in the Stormers outfit this leads me to lean their way in this encounter but only just: Stormers by 3.
Immediately after the Crusaders v Stormers classic, our attention turns to Canberra Stadium where the Rebels travel up the M31 to face the Brumbies. The Brumbies have lost 3 of their last 4 games and were not all that impressive against the struggling Reds last week. All of their games this season have been decided by seven points or less and they have won 4 of their last 5 games in Canberra. The Rebels are coming off an excellent win over the, it must be conceded, woeful Blues. O’Connor and Beale were the standouts against the Blues but they will need their somewhat hit and miss forward pack to stand up to a Brumbies pack that has been very impressive this year under the tutelage of Laurie Fisher. If the Rebels win the forward battle I suspect they will win the game but I just can not see that happening in chilly Canberra. The Brumbies have much to play for, not the least to remain at the top of the Australian conference, and I suspect they will bounce back to the winner’s circle in this one: Brumbies by 7.
In the earlier hours of Sunday morning (Australian time) the Cheetahs return to Bloemfontein to take on the Chiefs. Both teams have been standouts this season despite many writing them off early on as also rans. The Chiefs were not all that impressive against the Force but showed that they have the ability to grind out a tight win. They have won five games in a row now including three on the road and in Masage, Taumalolo and Nanai-Williams possess three of the form players in Super 15 rugby at the moment. The Cheetahs are probably the most exciting team to watch in the competition at the moment and their attack at all costs attitude has reaped rewards thus far. That said their defence is a real concern with them having conceded 199 points thus far, the most in the competition. They will throw the ball around again in this game but I can not see them restricting the Chiefs to few enough points for them to secure a victory. I expect the Chiefs to continue on their winning way in this one in a high scoring encouter: Chiefs by 9.
The final match of the round sees the Lions host the Bulls in Johannesburg. The Bulls have not lost to the Lions since 2005 and with the Lions hit hard by injury and coming off a loss against the Cheetahs there is no evidence to suggest that that record will be broken in this fixture. The Bulls come to Coca-Cola Park off the back of a close win against the Crusaders that was marred with eye gouging allegations. They average the most points per game in the competition (33) and form suggests that they will go past this mark in this encounter. The Bulls should take the bonus point in this match and are impossible to tip against: Bulls by 21.
Match of the Round: Easy to pick this one this week. All fans must get themselves in front of a TV for the Crusaders v Stormers fixture from Christchurch.
Best Bet: It will be a short price but my money will be on the Bulls to beat the Lions by 13 points or more.