It has oft been said by those across the ditch that the Australia conference is the “inferior” conference in the Super Rugby competition. I defy anyone to make the same statement this week after the victory of the Waratahs against the previously impressive Chiefs and the “Battle of Brisbane” between the competition leading Brumbies and Reds. In other games, the Cheetah’s form held and the misery that has been the season of the Highlanders continues.
This week presents a full round of fixtures with the Highlanders recording some points from their second bye of the season.
Hurricanes v Stormers, Palmerston North
The Hurricanes host the Stormers at FMG Stadium in Palmerston North to kick off round 11. The Stormers have the statistical advantage over the Hurricanes having won four of the last five encounters between these two side.
The Hurricanes come into this fixture off the back of a solid victory against the Western Force last week. They have returned Beauden Barrett to the fly half spot however Julian Savea is still out. They have played 8 games thus far and have won 5 and, again, appear to be relishing their underdog status in the New Zealand Conference.
The Stormers return to Super Rugby action after a bye last week. The form of the 2013 Stormers has been patchy at best given that they have only won 3 of their 7 games to date. This is a much more positive team than those of previous years that were more focused on penalties than tries and whether the experiment of a new playing style has been a success is questionable at best. Bryan Habana returns for the Stormers for the first time since March which will be a big lift for them.
The Hurricanes are notoriously difficult to defeat at home and they come into this fixture with a richer vein of form than the men from Cape Town who are struggling to find their way this season. I like the Hurricanes at home in this one but, as with most Stormers games, it will be a tight margin.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 6
Reds v Blues, Lang Park
In the second Friday night fixture of this packed round, the Reds host the Blues at home. Historically the Reds v Blues fixtures have been tightly contested albeit statistically the Reds hold the advantage in home fixtures for them having won 7 of 10 games between these two teams at Lang Park.
The Blues are atop the New Zealand conference having being victorious in 4 of their 7 games thus far this season. John Kirwan’s team have exceeded the expectations of many so far this season and will be looking to win on Australian soil for the first time in 2013 here. They come into this game off a bye last week and thus will be well rested for this challenge.
The Reds scored 3 tries to 1 against the Brumbies at home and were aggressive throughout but will have been left with a somewhat sour taste in the mouths to only get the draw. They have made two changes for this fixture with Saia Faingaa coming at hooker for James Hanson and Ben Daley getting his first start of the season at loosehead at the expense of Greg Holmes.
The Reds need to keep winning to keep the pressure on the Brumbies for the top stop in the Australian conference and are also aiming at sweeping the New Zealand franchises for the first time in their history if they win this fixture. The Blues also need to keep winning to retain their top billing in the New Zealand conference. This presents a mouthwatering encounter between two form teams.
The Reds will by stinging from last week’s draw and they should win this game in front of their home army of fans.
Prediction: Reds by 9
Chiefs v Sharks, Waikato Stadium
The Chiefs host the Sharks in the first Saturday game of the round in what is the rematch of the grand final combatants from 2012. In that game, as in the last four fixtures between these two teams, the Chief got the better of the Sharks.
The Chiefs come into this fixture off the back of their worst performance of the season against the Waratahs and coach Rennie has wasted little time in making significant changes to the team that lost last week. In all nine changes to that lineup have been made. This week is the Chiefs’ opportunity to show that last week’s loss and that the week before the Reds were merely blips and that they remain contenders for the 2013 title.
The Sharks also come into this fixture off the back of a loss in a game that they were heavy favourites to win. Last week’s fixture against the Cheetahs was another of the many games this season that the Sharks looked to struggle to score points in attack albeit in the rain of Durban they can be forgiven for that. Much like the Chiefs they have made a number of changes to their lineup though rather than changes based on form the changes for Sharks here are mostly injury related.
The last time these two combatants met it was a 37-6 victory to the Chiefs and with the Sharks both having injury woes and struggling to score points this fixture has the potential to end with a similar score line. Being on the first game on the road also presents a mark in the negative column for the Sharks.
Prediction: Chiefs by 13
Brumbies v Force, Canberra Stadium
At the start of the season I think I would have tipped this fixture to be one of the most lopsided of the season between the heavy favourites to win the Australian conference and the perennial wooden spooners of said conference. That said, the Force appear to have been somewhat of a bogey team for the Brumbies with the Brumbies having only won 5 of 8 matches since the Western franchise joined the competition.
The Force travel to Canberra probably still basking in the glory of their home victory a fortnight ago against a weary Crusaders line up despite them having lost to the Hurricanes last week in Wellington. For all of the negativity, some of it from this writer, about the Force this season they have been far from disgraced this season and always lift for fixtures against their conference mates.
The Brumbies are a conundrum: they lead the Australian conference however in recent weeks have stumbled to a draw against the lowly, albeit surprising, Southern Kings and then to the Reds in a game their were outscored 1 try to 3 might make one think that they are down on form and whilst they seem to be a little bit lost in attack at the moment defensively they are close to, if not the, best defensive unit in the competition. One suspects they need a blow out victory to regain some confidence after those two results which will also have the effect of keeping them ahead of the Reds. In one change to last week’s line up Scott Sio comes in for Dan Palmer.
The Force are not the greatest travellers and the Brumbies need to win to stay on top. At home I can not see anything other than a Brumbies win.
Prediction: Brumbies by 13
Bulls v Waratahs, Loftus Versfeld
The Waratahs kick off their South African campaign against the Bulls in Pretoria in the first of two games in the usual Saturday night double header from South Africa.
The Bulls come into this fixture off the back of a thrashing of the Southern Kings on their home patch and after a disastrous Australian / New Zealand tour they seem to finding some form now they are back on home soil having bested the in form Cheetahs two weeks ago also at home. They strengthen their side from last week with four changes to that lineup.
The Waratahs had a last gasp victory last week against the 2012 champion Chiefs in a game they, it must be said, had the better of for most of the game. Indeed they are fast becoming the kings of the last gasp result, either in victory or defeat, this season with a number of their games going down to the wire. They will be confident coming off that victory and have named the same line up save for Tom Kingston coming into the line up for Drew Mitchell.
The Bulls have not been defeated by the Waratahs in their last 7 encounters and I expect them to extend that run to 8 in a row here. The Waratahs will be valiant and take the game to the Bulls but I expect them to fade in the second half as the combined influence of a long flight over and altitude take effect.
Prediction: Bulls by 11
Cheetahs v Southern Kings, Vodacom Park
The only “derby” of the round comes to us from Bloemfontein where the Cheetahs host the new boy Southern Kings.
The Cheetahs are on fire at the moment: they have won 6 of 9 fixtures so far and will approach this game replete with confidence having already defeated the Stormers and the Sharks this month. The Cheetahs’ play has always been defined by its flamboyance but last week they showed that they have the ability to knuckle down and grind out a victory in their rain soaked 12-6 besting of the Sharks. They will have extra cause for celebration with a win here as it is Coenie Oosthuizen’s 50th match in the Cheetahs colours.
The Southern Kings were not disgraced on their sojourn to Australia and New Zealand with a win against the terrible Rebels and, more impressively, a draw against the Brumbies their results from that tour. Less impressive was their capitulation against the Bulls last week that saw them seemingly with out answers to stop their rampaging opponents.
The thought that the bubble have may finally have burst for the Kings has crossed my mind more than once since last weeks result and with the Cheetahs in the form of the franchises lifetime I can not see them getting close in this game.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 23
Crusaders v Rebels, Christchurch Stadium
The SANZAR schedulers have given us on of the biggest mismatches of the season in the final match of the round with the Crusaders hosting the Rebels in a Sunday afternoon fixture in Christchurch.
The Rebels have been nothing short of woeful this season. There is no way to sugar coat it: they are terrible and since their victory in the first match of the season have not won a game including a loss to the Southern Kings before their bye last week. They anchor the Australian conference and one can not see them being anywhere other than in that slot at the end of the season.
It has been a mixed season for the Crusaders so far including a loss to the Force that game out of the blue and probably their worst tour to South Africa for some time . The returned home to a victory against the Highlanders last week and will be desperate for a win here given that next week they travel to Canberra for one of the matches of the season against the Brumbies.
Simply put: the Crusaders will have too much fire power and class for the Rebels here and the score line could get very embarrassing very quickly for the Rebels if they do not defend well which is a distinct possibility.
Prediction: Crusaders by 35