What can one say about Round 9 of the Super 15 last week? Well, it was a tough round for tipsters for one and it was a historic round for the Kings scoring their first win away from home. Really the less said about my tips last week the better to be honest!
After the results of last week there are two Australian teams atop the table and as luck would have it they face off this week in what presents as another mouthwatering week for the rugby purist and, I hope, an easier week for the tipsters out there.
Hurricanes v Western Force, Westpac Stadium
The Hurricanes and the Western Force have played each other seven times and the Hurricanes have won six and lost one with no draws between the teams. Further the Hurricanes have hosted the Force four times at home and have not been bested.
The Force come into this game on a high having defeated the Crusaders at home last week: I defy anyone but the most ardent of Force fans to have seen that coming! Bizarrely the leading try scorer in Super Rugby, Alfi Mafi graces the pine for the men from Perth this week which is a strange decision at best among five changes to a winning team from last week.
The Hurricanes have also made five changes to their line up from last week, albeit a team that lost to the Blues in Auckland last week. A massive loss for them arises out of the injury suffered by Dane Coles who is replaced in the starting lineup by Motu Matu’u.
Whilst the Force were impressive last week against the Crusaders, they are historically terrible travellers. That coupled with facing a Hurricanes line up that will be keen to return to the winners circle makes this game look unlikely to fall in the win category for the away team.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 14
Waratahs v Chiefs, Allianz Stadium
The statistics on this game favour the Waratahs: these teams have faced each other seventeen times in Super Rugby competetition and the Waratahs have won ten of those encounters. In fixtures at Allianz stadium prospects look even grimmer for the away team with the Waratahs having won six of eight encounters on their home patch against the Chiefs.
The Waratahs will be well rested for this fixture having come off the bye last week and boy did they need the bye after being physically dominated by the Hurricanes the week previous. New coach Michael Chieka appears to have had a limited influence on the game plan of the Waratahs with, seemingly, the focus, much like last year, continuing to be on field position at all costs.
The Chiefs come into this fixture having lost more than the game against the Reds as that loss cost them their much coveted top at the head of the Super Rugby ladder. They have made a number of changes for this game including the relegation of the Tim Nanai-Williams and Gareth Anscombe to the bench.
The Chiefs are focused on their defence of their title and this will be a fixture that they will be well aware they can not drop. I expect them to start swiftly against a Waratahs lineup likely to be slowed by the hangover of a bye week. The Waratahs will be willing and will be looking to challenge the Chiefs in the forwards however I think the Chiefs will simply be too classy for the home team here.
Prediction: Chiefs by 12
Crusaders v Highlanders, Christchurch Stadium
The Crusaders host the Highlanders in Christchurch in a battle of a team that lost unexpectedly last week and one still searching for their first win of the season despite possessing one of the most impressive lists in the competition. This is a classic derby game with the pride of the South Island of New Zealand on show.
The form of the Highlanders this season is simply inexplicable. The Highlanders have big problems as their game is just not delivering and nor are their big name signings from the offseason. Not only have they have yet to win this season, they have, most worryingly for them, been outscored by an average of 10 points in each match.
The Crusaders were somewhat less than impressive last week and have made three changes this week. Sam Whitelock returns for his 50th Super Rugby cap and, in a big game for the Whitelock family all four brothers have been named in the Crusaders squad this week. Zac Guilford also returns.
I have tipped the Highlanders for most of the season but I just can not tip them here. The Crusaders will be desperate for redemption after last week’s loss whilst for the Highlanders one senses that losing has become a habit that will be very to break here. The Crusaders should win this fixture and, sadly for Highlanders fans, may put a score on in this game.
Prediction: Crusaders by 19
Reds v Brumbies, Lang Park
The battle for the Rod McQueen Cup has extra spice this season with the combatants for the first time in Super Rugby history atop the Super 15 ladder with the reward for the winner not only the silverwere but also an early mortgage on a finals spot.
Historically, the Brumbies have won 17 of the 21 matches contested between these two side though, much like everything about the Reds they have improved significantly since Ewen McKenzie took the helm with the teams splitting their six matches played since 2010 with three wins apiece.
The Reds will enter the game with added confidence having scored four-try bonus points in their past two wins including their first win in Dunedin and their victory over last season’s champion Chiefs. Digby Ioane returns here in an otherwise unchanged lineup that is clearly thriving with the return of Messrs Horwill and Genia to their lineup.
The Brumbies have made two changes to the team that beat the Highlanders in Dunedin. Fotu Auelua starts in a move that forces Jordan Smiler to the bench and Tevita Kuridrani is the new outside centre for the men from Canberra in place of the injured Andrew Smith.
There are some brilliant battles across the park in this fixture: Genia v White at half back, Gill v Smith at openside flanker and McKenzie v White in the coaches box are but three.
On neutral ground I would be prepared to declare this game to close to call however with the Reds at home at Lang Park for the first time in a month and in front of an expected 40,000 plus crowd I am going to tip them win here in a titanic struggle.
Prediction: Reds by 3
Sharks v Cheetahs, Kings Park Stadium
The Sharks have just been battered by injuries this season with a whole cast of senior players missing for part or all of the season including: Bismarck du Plessis (knee), Willem Alberts (shoulder), Butch James (knee), and Lwazi Mvovo (hand). Coach Plumtree has made four changes to the team defeated last week by the Stormers with the biggest probably being Francois Steyn making way for Riaan Viljoen at fullback.
Despite all of those injuries Sharks have only been defeated at home once this season by the Brumbies at home and they have shown that they have the ability to score points when there opponents give them even a small window to attack with lax defence.
The Cheetahs five fixture run of victories was burst last week by the Bulls at home albeit that run of form has seen them consolidate their position on the ladder which could see them into the top six with a victory here. Johan Goosen is out of this fixture and may be out for some time having had surgery during the week to fix his ailing knee.
I like the Sharks here: they are at home, they are playing a team that is historically loose in defence and they will not want their opposition to streak past them on the table in the event of a loss. I suspect that last week might have been the bursting of the bubble for the Cheetahs and after the emotion of winning 5 times in a row the mental strength to bounce back might be a bit too much for them here!
Prediction: Sharks by 11
Southern Kings v Bulls, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
The Southern Kings have been one of the stories of the season. Written off by many, including me, at the start of the season they have thrived under the spotlight of Super Rugby and return home to Port Elizabeth with a win and a draw in their pockets.
What has been all the more impressive from the Kings is that they have been without their captain, Luke Watson, since he suffered a throat injury in round 2. He returns to their side for this fixture.
The Bulls have named an unchanged lineup for this fixture. They benefited greatly from a bye two weeks ago which broke up a three match losing streak from the men in pink and were solid in victory against the Cheetahs last week. They possess one of the biggest forward packs in the game and it seems like not a week passes without the pinpoint kicking of Morne Steyn playing a decisive part in a Bulls fixture.
I know the Kings have been better than expect this season and returning home to Port Elizabeth will only cause to give them more confidence. That said, I think this the Bulls will keen to stamp their authority on the competition new boys in this fixture and will look to strangle them in the forwards and reap the rewards from any ill discipline from their opponents.
Prediction: Bulls by 9
Bye: Stormers, Rebels, Blues