Last week’s round saw, for the first time this season, the favourites in each game winning. For some teams the victories were closer than they would have expected, in particular I am thinking of the Reds victory over the Blues, the Stormers defeat away against the Hurricanes and the Crusaders struggling to get over the top of a valiant Rebels. Match of the round was undoubtedly the revisitation of last year’s final at Waikato Stadium where the Chiefs got off to a flying start but the Sharks kept coming back in a cracking game.
This week presents another full round of fixtures with some matches that will have an impact on the ultimate make up of the finals. The Cheetahs, who probably are the last team that wanted a bye at this stage of the competition given the form they are in, have the bye this week.
Blues v Stormers
North Harbour Stadium hosts the first match of the Round this week. The Stormers come into this game off the back of a close win against the Hurricanes whereas the Blues were pipped at the post by the Reds away last week.
Overall these two teams have faced other fifteen times with the honours basically even between albeit in the Stormers have won the three most recent encounters (two of which have been at home). This is the first time these two teams have faced off in North Harbour where the Blues have a less than impressive record having only won two of five games there.
The Blues were the better of the two teams in their one point loss to the Reds and will be very disappointed to have lost that fixture. Equally they will take much from last week: they played an up tempo style of football and kept the ball in hand at every opportunity. This plan served them well against the Reds and one expects it will serve them equally as well against the massive Stormers attack. Watch for Ranger terrorising opponent backs in defence on the fringes.
The Stormers this season have not been the Stormers of old and have been particularly hard hit with injuries. If you had have told me at the start of the season that the Stormers halves would be Dewaldt Duvenage and Gary van Aswegen I would have had a Darryl Kerrigan moment and told you are dreaming but that is indicative of the injury plague that has beset this team That said, despite them not being at their usual level of form they are still one of the strongest defensive line-ups in the competition. After a close win last week they will be looking to make the most of their second week on tour here.
This presents as a close encounter. The Blues will be looking to right the “wrong” of last week and will have the home ground advantage whilst the second time out on tour is notoriously difficult and will be again for the Stormers. I am leaning to the Blues.
Prediction: Blues by 4
Rebels v Chiefs
This is a tale of two teams at the opposite ends of the Super Rugby spectrum: the Rebels have had a season they would rather forget whilst the Chiefs are going all out to defend their 2012 title. These two teams have only played each other once in Super Rugby and that, unsurprisingly, that fixture ended in a convincing victory for the Chiefs.
The Rebels went very close to defeating the Crusaders last week and will gain some confidence from that. They will also be happy to see the return of the Kurtley Beale from the bench. A massive question for me with the Rebels is the five day turnaround they face having only played on Sunday in Christchurch.
The Chiefs had had a mid-season lapse in form however they returned to form last week to defeat the Sharks with a bonus point in what was close to the match of the round. Their combination of Aaron Cruden at fly half and Gareth Anscombe at the back has been shown to be one of the most solid in the competition and I expect them to run a lot of their plays through their boom outside centre Tim Nana-Williams.
Despite their impressive performance last week, I do not expect the Rebels to trouble the Chiefs here. Equally, the Chiefs should be aware that if they are slightly off their game the Rebels are renowned as a team that can pull an upset against a more fancied team. I am sure though that the Chiefs will be up for this game.
Prediction: Chiefs by 13
Highlanders v Sharks
How can you tip the Highlanders? They have not won a game this season and, if you count their finish to last season they are now on an eleven loss losing streak. The statistics around this game do not give any joy for the Highlanders as they have not defeated the Sharks since the 2006 season which represents a run of six games. During that span the Sharks have won four times in Dunedin.
The Highlanders come into this game off the bye and boy did they need it! The word from Dunedin is that the players have had the week off last week to refresh themselves. If ever a team needed a victory this is the time now for the Highlanders as they do not have the easiest of finishes to the season as they are still to tour South Africa. Extra incentive for the Highlanders is that it is Brad Thorne’s 100th Super Rugby game.
The Sharks have been struggling to score points until last week when they scored four tries against the Chiefs. They are missing a number of their regulars to injury and are in the midst of a three match losing streak. With a changed team again this week and playing their second game on tour (always the toughest assignment) they face a significant test here.
I know I have said that I could not tip the Highlanders again: but I am going with them here. In their last game before their African safari against a depleted Sharks line up in this simply is a must win for them.
Prediction: Highlanders by 7
Force v Reds
I have been more than a bit negative of about the Force’s form in this column. So much so that when then the Force defeated the Reds earlier this season I wrote an open apology to all Force fans. The fact is that the Force have had the better of the Reds in their last two encounters and when they play the Reds at home the Force have won three of the four encounters.
The Force have lost their last two matches after the emotional high of defeating the most storied franchise in Super Rugby history in the Crusaders. That form line has a question mark over it given that the Crusaders were coming off a long tour to South Africa. The Force will be looking to continue their “dominance” of the Reds in recent times and always lift for this contest.
The Reds have won seven games out of their ten so far this season and last week ground out a victory from the jaws of defeat. As I commented on twitter at the time that is the way a champion team wins and they will need again to bring their best to this game to win it. Will Genia and Quade Cooper have fired in recent weeks and their combination will again be vital to Reds success in the west.
On form the Reds are irresistible here however, much like the Chiefs in Melbourne, they will need to have their guard up for this one as the Force will be desperate to spring a surprise.
Prediction: Reds by 14
Kings v Waratahs
Written off by all at the start of the season off the back of some ordinary pre-season form The Southern Kings have shown they belong in this competition through, in no small part, their excellent performances against teams from Australia against whom they are yet to lose. They come into this match having gone try less in their last two fixtures which has led to many wondering whether their “bubble” of form has been burst.
The Waratahs have been terrible on tour for some time and their efforts in South Africa reflect this given that they have lost their last eight matches here. Overall the statistics also do not paint a pretty picture with the Waratahs having only won fourteen of thirty eight games overall all in the Republic. Whilst their form has not been good throughout the season they have improved in recent weeks and the big scalp of the Chiefs before they went on tour will give them confidence going into the run to the international break.
This is the Waratahs second week on tour and consistently this is when teams tend to struggle. The Kings will be desperate to keep their unbroken run against Australian teams intact and will be playing in front of their swelling home fan base. Waratahs fans will hate me for this but I am going to tip an upset here and go with the Kings.
Prediction: Kings by 5
Bulls v Hurricanes
The Hurricanes have been a bit of a bogey team for the Bulls if you discount the last three fixtures between these franchises. Before the Bulls most recent run of victories the Hurricanes had won seven of the eleven encounters between the two teams.
The Hurricanes come into this fixture off the back of a loss at home to the Stormers that was an evenly contested fixture that also saw a four match home winning streak for the Hurricanes come to an end. Whilst the Hurricanes have been strong at home they have been pretty ordinary on the road and now they face the most taxing of challenges away from home: playing at altitude in South Africa.
The Bulls are leading the South African conference off the back of excellent home form. They are yet to be beaten this season at home and, indeed, one has to hark back to June 2012 for their last loss at their fortress. It is no surprise that the form of the Bulls has lifted with the return to form of Morne Steyn and, as is usually the case when one faces the Bulls, they will be looking to strangle the Hurricanes into ill discipline to open up the opportunity for points.
The Bulls are too polished and are on a roll at home. The Hurricanes are perennial struggles away from their “friendly confines”. The Bulls will win this game and win it well.
Prediction: Bulls by 11
Brumbies v Crusaders
The final match of the round see a return to Sunday afternoon football in the nations capital in the form of a rematch between the combatants of the 2000, 2002 and 2004 Super Rugby finals.
The Crusaders have been more inconsistent this season than any time in recent memory. When they are “on” they are irresistible. When they are “off” they are woeful. Last week one such performance when their attack was just not working. The other recent example of an “off” game for them was their loss to the Force three weeks ago. The name Dan Carter is back on the team sheet for the Crusaders which will make their fans smile but this really is a case for them of which team will actually show up when it comes to how they will go.
The Brumbies lead the Super Rugby competition at the moment and have only lost one game and drawn two games this season. They are the current benchmark in a return to their glory days of the earlier 2000s. Whilst they have recruited well it is through their young talent that they are shining this season with the form of Jesse Mogg, Matt Toomua and Christian Lealiifano all making the Wallabies fan in me imagine them in the gold jumper later in the season.
Will the real Crusaders show up? I think they will but I think regardless the Brumbies will be too strong here and will retain their place at the top of the Super Rugby tree.
Prediction: Brumbies by 9