It is has been another interesting week in the world of Super Rugby with some great games on the park last weekend and some machinations behind the scenes this week that has seen one franchise become coach-less for 2013.
The match of the round between the Crusaders and the Stormers last week was an epic that saw the arrival of a new hero for the Crusaders in the form of Tom Taylor who scored all of the Crusaders 31 points. The rest of the round went basically to script with the Waratahs coming off the bye to defeat the gallant Force (I had picked the upset) in another riveting game of rugby.
It is another short round this week with the cellar dwelling Force, Lions and Cheetahs getting a week off.
In the first match of the round the Highlanders host the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday night. The Blues travel to the deep South of New Zealand bringing with them a 1-6 record and are a team that have looked, frankly, disinterested in the last couple of week. Their stars continue to fail to perform and there really is, seemingly, no end in sight for their current losing streak. It is sure to be a long season if they lose this one. For the Highlanders, conversely, one can see only positives in their season to date. They have won five of their seven games this season and, with the Chiefs, have dominated the New Zealand conference thus far. Whilst their record against the Blues is unimpressive, the Highlanders, in front of their loyal followers and off the bye, will win this game and should win it well: Highlanders by 14.
The second game of Friday night’s double header sees the Stormers travel across the ditch on the second last leg of their overseas tour (they are in Perth next week) to visit the Reds at Suncorp Stadium. At the start of the season one would have picked this fixture to be one of the games of the season and whilst the Reds have been down on man power and form in recent weeks this game still presents as an absolute ripper. At the time of writing the Reds are yet to name their line up but is expected that they will have a number of recognised players back this week to bolster their ranks, particularly in the midfield. Suncorp Stadium has become a fortress for the Reds in recent times, having won 17 of the 18 games there, and the Stormers can expect a crowd of more than 35,000 fans baying for their blood. The Stormers are coming off their first loss of the season and, suddenly, have some injury woes with Jean de Villiers and Andries Bekker both out of action for this encounter. That said, they have the best defence in the competition and the Reds will need to be patient and precise to avoid giving Joe Pietersen and Peter Grant too many opportunities to score through their boots. With Reds seeing the return of some of their stars and the Suncorp Stadium factor in the Reds favour, I am tipping the Reds to get over the line in this one in a close one: Reds by 4.
The first of four games in another fabulous super Saturday of rugby kicks off with the Hurricanes hosting the Crusaders at Westpac Stadium in Wellington. This is Dan Carter’s 100th match in Super 15 and the Crusaders come into this one off their excellent win over the previously undefeated Stormers which showed that they are, in my view, about to make things very interesting in this competition. Tom Taylor stamped himself as a player of the future for the Crusaders last week and his combination with the centurion in Carter will be vital to the outcome of this game. The Hurricanes are coming off a bye week having crushed the Sharks in Round 7 and continue to show that whilst they are not a team of champions they are definitely a champion team. The key to this game will be whether the ‘Canes show up in defence and are able to stop the Taylor and Carter show. I suspect that they will not be able to contain the Crusaders in attack and thus think the Crusaders will win and may win well: Crusaders by 9.
Attention then turns to the Sydney Football Stadium where the Waratahs host the Rebels. To say the Rebels were poor last week against the Brumbies would be an understatement. The overachieving Brumbies just pummelled the Rebels in a performance that reminded one of the Rebels’ struggles last season. They basically need to improve across all areas of their game from last week and, if they are to get anywhere near competing against the Waratahs, the forwards in particular need to step up and give the stars in the backline a platform to attack. The Waratahs were below their best last week against the Force but got the job done. They are the shortest of short favourites to win this game but that is more because the Rebels are so bad rather than the Waratahs playing anywhere near their peak. Rocky Elsom returns on the bench for them but I expect the team on the field to get the job done in a blowout: Waratahs by 16.
The first of the two South African games this week comes to us from Durban with the travelling Chiefs visiting the Sharks. The Sharks have been impressive thus far this season and it must be noted that they have only played two home games which makes their record all the more impressive. They have also won their past three and 12 of their last 14 games at home. All of this makes them an imposing opposition for visiting teams. The Chiefs are the form team of the tournament thus far (Stormers included) and rightly are at the top of the New Zealand conference. That said, their performance last week will have drained them after the Cheetahs threw everything at them. Also, Messrs Rennie and Smith could not be happy with them letting in 33 points last week. If their defence is that loose against the Sharks the result of last week may be reversed. Ultimately, this is an encounter of two teams at the peak of their powers in this competition and will be a great game. Whilst I am a fan of what the Chiefs have done this year the Sharks having home field advantage for only the 3rd time this season sways me in their favour but only just: Sharks by 5
The final game of the round comes to us from Pretoria where the Bulls host the Brumbies. The Brumbies sit atop the Australian conference and exceeded the expectations of most pundits thus far this season. Equally, it must be admitted that they have had the most advantageous draw of anyone in the competition to date having only played two games away from Canberra Stadium. This game presents as season defining for Jake White’s young charges. The Bulls did enough to get the bonus point against the Lions last week and are looking to win 3 games in a row before the head to Australia. Morne Steyn, who was out of form last week with the boot, will be out to redress his poor form of last week and at altitude any penalty within 60 metres of the posts will be in his range. I do not see the young Brumbies side having the fire power to beat the Bulls and am tipping the Bulls to win handsomely: Bulls by 13.
Match of the Round: There are two cracking games this round that fans cannot afford to miss: Reds v Stormers and Sharks v Chiefs.