Last week presented another interesting round of games that saw the Crusaders return to Christchurch and be tested by the Cheetahs, the Highlanders’ undefeated run come to end while the Rebels broke their duck this year and the Reds were, there is no better word for it, smashed.
This week the Blues have a much needed bye after their worst start to a Super Rugby season in some time leaves their coach under significant pressure. They will be overjoyed with the rest one thinks.
The first match of the round sees the Highlanders host the Rebels in Invercargill in the only Friday night fixture this week. The Rebels are coming off their first win in some time against the Force and welcome back James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale to that winning side. Danny “the Dancer” Cipriani is a loss for them but it must be said they certainly held their own and got over the line with him off the field last week so that loss may not be as great as expected. The Highlanders return to the South of the South Island with some major injury concerns including, but not limited to, the loss of Colin Slade for the season. Chris Noakes, a relative unknown, comes in at fly half. Having just been in Invercargill last week, I know first hand that it will be a cold and windy assignment for the Rebels and with the Highlanders’ superior forward pack I expect to see them get over the line in this one: Highlanders by 8.
On Saturday afternoon, the Hurricanes host the Cheetahs at Westpac Stadium. The Cheetahs have been nothing less than impressive in their last two outings on foreign soil and in particular came closer than most pundits suspected to causing a massive upset at the opening of the new ground in Christchurch last week. I feel like I am repeating myself but I will say again they play the sort of attacking albeit risk filled game that will see them push many sides this season. The Hurricanes have been another surprise team of this season so far and have come a long way following their clean out in the off season. Their come from behind victory against the Blues showed again that they are a team prepared to take their opportunities and that they have a very level of self belief at the moment. I think that self belief and the benefit of a home crowd will be enough to see them defeat the Cheetahs in what might be the most entertaining game of round: Hurricanes by 9.
The Waratahs again travel over “the ditch” this week to face the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium. The Chiefs come off a much needed bye last week and will fresh for what I expect will be a tight match that could really be determined by which of two very good forward packs gain the ascendancy. If the forward battle comes out in favour of the Chiefs they have the backline spark to cause some major damage to the Waratahs. The Tahs on the other hand are coming off a much needed win in front of their home fans which would have done much to lift their spirits. With the bye coming for them next week, a win here will do great things for the moral in the team as they rest up for the second half of their season. That said, it must be acknowledged that the Tahs do not travel well and have a woeful record in New Zealand. In this one, the home ground advantage is again a determining factor for me and I think the Chiefs will just get home in a tight contest: Chiefs by 4.
The next match of the round has plenty of promise to be the match of the round with Durban’s Sharks travelling down the road from Sydney to face to the Brumbies at Canberra Stadium. The young Brumbies side is coming off an excellent win against the then undefeated Highlanders and have been in good form this season under the charge of Jake White. They play well at home and have been particularly impressive with their work at the breakdown this season. They will need to be on song again in the forwards this week with the Sharks coming to Canberra with one of the most feared forward packs in the competition. Last week it was pretty obvious to most observers that the Sharks ran out of gas at the end of the game. They have had to great start to the season and have shown they know how to win close encounters. If the Sharks win the battle at the breakdown they have a potent backline with pace to burn which could see them put on plenty of points in this one. Ultimately, whilst I expect the young Brumbies to push the Sharks I expect the Sharks forwards to best the Brumbies and secured an away win for them: Sharks by 6.
In the final game of another Super Saturday of rugby the weary and wounded Reds return from the Cape to take on the Force at nib Stadium in Perth. The Reds are, frankly, in disarray. Five changes have been made to the side embarrassed in Pretoria last weekend but that does not mask the fact that they down to their fourth choice flyhalf and without the bulk of the back line that played in the Super 15 final last year. They need to bounce back immediately from last weeks embarrassing capitulation which was their second heaviest defeat ever. The Force showed plenty of spirit against the Rebels last week and, but for some terrible early discipline which saw the Rebels race to a 21-0 lead might have gotten the better of their cellar dwelling counterparts. David Pocock is the key man for the Force as he is every week and it is poignant to note the make up of the Reds back row and bench which seems to be directly focused at neutralising him. Their record at home leaves a bit to be desired and whilst they will be desperate to get a win for their faithful, I am leaning towards Coach McKenzie to lift last years champions off the canvas in this one: Reds by 6.
In the early hours of Sunday morning attention will turn to Ellis Park initially where the Lions host the Crusaders. The statistics tell a worrying story for the Lions in this one: they have been beaten in 8 of their last 9 meetings with the Crusaders. Last week they showed plenty of courage coming back from giving the Stormers a lead but if they do that against the Crusaders they are likely to be buried by them. There have been positive signs that the Lions are improving but I have serious doubts that they have improved enough to really compete in this competition at the moment. The Crusaders, amazingly, remain favourites to win this competition despite not playing anywhere near their best to start the season. The return of Dan Carter was massive for them last week but again they let their opposition get back into the fixture (whilst Carter was on the field no less) which must be worrying for Todd Blackadder and his brains trust. Richie McCaw has been left at home but I expect them to have too much class in this one for the Lions: Crusaders by 12
The final match of the round, despite what I have said earlier, is the match of the round for mine with the old foes the Stormers and the Bulls facing off at Newlands. Set your alarms people in Australia and New Zealand as this is going to be a cracker. The Bulls arrive at Newlands full of enthusiasm coming off their destruction of the Reds and with the knowledge that they have won 13 of their last 14 away games in South Africa. This will be a different type of fixture though compared to last week and they will need their forward to again step up to grind out what could be a key victory for them down the track in this competition. Morne Steyn may well again be the key (when is he not though?). The Stormers are undefeated but their dour style of play has meant they probably have not got the plaudits they deserve for their start to the season thus far. They are a tough side and a particularly difficult one to beat at home. If the Stormers can maintain their discipline and not give Steyn opportunities to kick more goals they have a great chance of remaining undefeated. That said, I am slightly leaning towards the Bulls in this when to go on with their winning ways in what might be a blood bath: Bulls by 4.
Match of the Round: there are a number of great games this weekend but I can not go past the Stormers v the Bulls at Newlands.
Match to avoid: I will be watching all of the games this week. Each of them has an intriguing element to them that makes them all worth the effort.
Bet of the round: If you can get on Dan Carter to score the first points against the Cheetahs I would be having a tiny wager on that.