Another week and another pulsating round of Super Rugby last week. Having tipped the Highlanders to lead the competition at the start of the season, I would never would have guessed that we would be waiting until Round 12 for their first win and yet again I underestimated the Waratahs and they came back to bite me on the backside with their devastating attack (I can’t believe I just wrote that) against the Kings. A Reds draw may have put a large dent in their chances of finals football given the games teams from other conferences have in hand.
This week presents an abridged round of fixtures with the Bulls, Brumbies and Crusaders having a bye. Those watching from Australia / New Zealand will be a little less bleary eyed come Sunday morning with only one fixture on Saturday night out of Africa.
Chiefs v Force
This is the first a few mismatches between teams at polar opposite ends of the table this week. The Chiefs lead the New Zealand conference whilst the Force remain anchored in their now customary position at the base of the Australia conference ladder. The Chiefs have a decided statistical edge in encounters between the two sides having won five of the six fixtures between them to date and the last three.
The Force continued their role as Lex Luthor to the Queensland Reds’ Superman and with some shrewdly worked defensive kryptonite battled out a draw last week that would have felt as good as win in the grand final given the build up to the game. That said, their last win was against the travelling Crusaders in Round 9 and they have terrible away form having only won one game away all season.
The Chiefs have made a number of tactical changes to their team this week with Gareth Anscombe starting at fly half and Save Tokula coming at outside centre. Aaron Cruden and Asaeli Tikoirotuma will be off the bench for this game as the Chiefs take a long term strategy to their player management.
The Chiefs obviously see this game as a “free hit” and will need to be wary of a Western Force lineup that loves nothing better than rubbing opposition faces in the tactical misstep that comes from taking them too lightly. If this was a game at home for the Force I might be tempted to consider an upset here but it is not and the away form of the Force convinces me this will be a Chiefs win though not by the margin many expect.
Prediction: Chiefs by 12
Reds v Sharks
If the Force are the kryptonite to the Reds’ Superman as I posit above then in recent times the Sharks present a whole other level of villain for the men from Ballymore. The Sharks have had the better of the last three encounters between these teams including their win in the qualifying final last year on their way to the grand final.
The Sharks’ season has been derailed by injuries, so much so that despite the return of Willem Alberts this week the team that will run out onto Lang Park is a shadow of that which would have been projected at the start of the season. They have lost their last four matches including becoming the first team to be bested by the herethereto winless Highlanders last week.
The Force and the Brumbies before them have provided the other teams in this competition a template for defeating the Reds: tight close in defence stifles the Reds and at the moment they seem to be without a plan B in attack. That will need to change for them in this fixture if they are to win. They will be without their talismatic skipper, James Horwill who has failed to recover froma head knock.
The Reds will need to find a way to turn superior field position into points: something they have failed dismally at in recent weeks. That said, the Sharks are running on empty both in players and confidence and I expect the Reds to exact some measure of revenge for last week’s final loss here.
Prediction: Reds by 11
Cheetahs v Hurricanes
The Cheetahs are having their best season of Super Rugby and come into this fixture with one eye on consolidating their wild card position in the finals. Matches played between these teams have been statistically evenly split with the four games between the two in Bloemfontein shared two apiece.
The Hurricanes were burned by two intercept tries early in their game last week against the Bulls and ended up on the wrong side of a 48-14 belting by the Bulls at altitude. In a big loss for them Conrad Smith is out this week after suffering a concussion against the Bulls. Victor Vito takes over as captain for this fixture.
Having previously been one of the most entertaining and, it must be conceded, inconsistent teams in the competition in previous years this is a Cheetahs team showing defensive steel like they have never shown before. Like many teams this season they desperately needed they week off they had last week with the bye and will be refreshed for this fixture.
The Cheetahs have much to gain and much to lose in this fixture. They are inside the wildcard zone for the finals at the moment but there are a number of teams chasing them. The Hurricanes are skipper less and will need to lift significantly to overcome last week’s betling. I think the Cheetahs will continue their strong season and prevail here.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 13
Blues v Rebels
This game presents as another of those mismatches of which I spoke earlier in this preview. The Blues are second in the New Zealand conference, hot on the heels of the Chiefs, and the Rebels are fourth in the Australian conference. Much like the Cheetahs in the South African conference they Blues need to win here to keep their quest for a wildcard final spot alive whilst the Rebels will not be figuring in the finals.
The Rebels have given the other two teams in the New Zealand conference battling for finals contention a real contest in the last two weeks having pushed the Chiefs right to the final whistle last week and coming heartbreakingly close to besting the Crusaders in Christchurch the week before. For all of that good form they are, again, failing to close out games and have only won two of their eleven games this season. Kurtley Beale is again out of the team because of behavioural issues.
The Blues have been the big improvers in the New Zealand conference this season and showed last week that they are again making Eden Park their fortress with a gritty one point victory against the always tough Stormers. I expect them to play the style of game they showed against the Reds a couple of weeks again when they ran the ball from just about any position on the field and, but for some costly errors, would have won that game.
There are some excellent personal contests in this game: the in form Chris Noakes against James O’Connor (and his haircut), Rene Rangers against Mitch Inman and Ali Williams against Hugh Pyle are but three to look out for.
I expect the Blues to be too strong for a Rebels line up again in turmoil and to win this game well.
Prediction: Blues by 19
Waratahs v Stormers
The Stormers have a distinct advantage in the games played by these two teams having won ten of the fifteen fixtures since 1998. In Sydney the results are split with both sides having won three games of the six played at Allianz Stadium.
This has been a season that started with much hope and a much hyped fly half recruit in Elton Jantjies for the Stormers that has been distinctly disappointing for them. The fact is that their strategy in the past has been worked out by basically every team in the competition and they are seemingly without a plan B when it comes to attack.
The Waratahs would have to be confident after their shellacking of the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth last week. Having been pilloried by many including this writer for showing a distinct lack of flare in attack and seemingly only having a game plan that revolved around kicking the ball away they found their attacking spark. Coach Cheika will need to work hard this week to ensure last week’s result does not lead to an over inflation of ego or complacency given their opposition.
In a quirky fact the Stormers have actually travelled the shortest distance to this fixture and need to win this game desperately to retain any small hope they have of making the finals. That said I think the Waratahs may also now be starting to think about their chances for the finals and this makes this fixture a must win game for them. In front of their home crowd I expect them to sneak home here, but not with, I must concede, any confidence.
Prediction: Waratahs by 4
Southern Kings v Highlanders
The last match of the round pits the two worst teams on the competition ladder against each other in Port Elizabeth in what may be the fixture that determines which of the two teams wins the wooden spoon.
The Highlanders finally won last week having lost their eight previous games. They will have had to have taken confidence from that win. Every week I look at their player list and every week I find my head shaking until my neck hurts at the position they find themselves in. This is a fundamentally good squad but they have just not found a way to win so far this season.
I tipped the Kings to beat the Waratahs last week and unfortunately they “chose” that week to put up their worst game of the season by a long way. I had previously posited that their “bubble” had not yet burst this season but I have to confess that I now think that it has. They have a bye next week and will be going into this fixture with one eye on the rest they have coming.
Having gone from tipping them last week I just simply can not bring myself to do the same this week. I expect the Highlanders to win this game and, given the form of the Kings last week, to win it well.
Prediction: Highlanders by 14