Round 13 threw up a few surprises last week: indeed it had the feel of “this is what we have been waiting for” from a number of teams with the Reds finally clicking in attack and the bulk of the other games being decided by less than a converted try. This is what the fans want to see: close games fought out to the final whistle. Looking down the roster of games this week, this round of matches certainly projects to be no different!
Hurricanes v Chiefs
The first of two derbies between these two New Zealand conference stalwarts pits two teams that have faced off some 20 times in Super Rugby since 1996. It will surprise a few to realize that the Canes have had the best of this contest in the past having won 11 of those 20 games. Intriguingly across all of those games the average score between the Canes and Chiefs is 23 all. Did I mention this was going to be another round of close games?
The Canes come into this game off a high having bested the high flying Cheetahs last week albeit they have had to make the long trip home from Bloemfontein to host the Chiefs in this one. Despite that long trip home, they have made no changes for this game and that means Conrad Smith remains on the sidelines. The Hurricanes sit 4th on the New Zealand Conference table and again will be looking to perform their customary spoiler roll as we approach finals time. With players like Beauden Barret, Victor Vito and TJ Perenara in their ranks they will certainly have the talent to do that..
The Chiefs were somewhat less than impressive last week against the Force and have made one change to that line up with Pauliasi Manu coming into the front row. They will again be without Gareth Anscombe and Tim Nanai-Williams who also missed last weeks game. The Chiefs sit atop the New Zealand conference despite having struggled to finish off teams far below them on the ladder of recent times. This will be one game where they will be desperate to not take their foot off the pedal.
This should be a brilliant derby to get us off to a start to round 14. I am leaning toward the Chiefs who have only had to drive down the highway for this game and for whom there is much more to lose.
Prediction: Chiefs by 8
Rebels v Stormers
Given the Rebels lack of time in the competition these two teams have only faced off twice for two victories by the Stormers. A more compelling stat is that Rebels have never, I repeat never, defeated a South African Super Rugby team having come up empty on their 11 previous attempts.
The Rebels come into this fixture off a month where they have scored a mountain of points and played some of the most attractive rugby one is ever likely to see but they have continued to come up short. Therein lies the problem: in defence the Rebels are about as solid as a soggy tissue. I know they have lost their last four matches by six points or less but a season of 2 wins and 9 losses (with those two wins being against the Force) is not a season of good form. They lose James O’Connor for this one and are without Kurtley Beale indefinitely.
The Stormers have lost their last two fixtures whilst on tour and by their own admission they are being burned by individuals errors at wrong times. They have made seven changes to the team defeated by the Waratahs last week with Nizaam Carr coming in at number 8 and versatile Deon Fourie moving from hooker to the blind side of the scrum. Up for grabs for the Stormers, as strange as it is to say in season when they have only won four games, is their continued quest for a wild card in the finals so they will be desperate for a win here.
The Rebels have faced an emotional roller coaster of close losses week after week it seems and struggle against South African teams. I expect the roller coaster to come off the rails here in the absence of James O’Connor and am tipping the Stormers to return home to Cape Town with a smile on their collective faces.
Prediction: Stormers by 9
Western Force v Sharks
The Sharks hold a decided statistical advantage here having won all but one of the seven fixtures between these two sides and, indeed, the last five such games.
The Force have been roundly criticized by many, including your correspondent in these pages, but one has to have nothing but respect for their courage and application to the task in recent weeks. Off the back of a home win against the Crusaders, a draw against the Reds and a single point loss to last year’s champions, the Chiefs, show that they are a team to not be taken lightly despite their low standing on the table and challenged list.
The Sharks are in a form slump of epic proportions and the last thing they needed was their captain flirting with controversy about the racial mix of his team. They are without key players; actually that is an understatement, this team is unrecognizable in comparison to that which ran out in the final last year. They need a win here like a drowning swimmer needs air if they are to play any part in the finals this season.
If you had have told me at the start of the season that I would be tipping the Force in this fixture I would have given you my best Darryl Kerrigan impersonation. But I am here: the Force have been close in recent weeks and if they bring the form they showed in their last home game against the Reds I expect them to win this game here in a close one.
Prediction: Force by 2
Crusaders v Blues
If you have stayed patient and gotten through the last two games which, let’s be honest, could be a struggle, you will be rewarded with one of the matches of the season so far here. These teams have faced each other 22 times in Super Rugby with the Crusaders winning 12 of those games. At home though the Crusaders have been dominant though wining seven of ten games.
The Crusaders are putting together what can only be described as their standard season: slow to start, building momentum and now poised to swoop on their tired opponents. If the Crusaders were a race horse they would be the epitomy of a back marking swooper. At home they are hard to beat having won 29 of their last 32 games in Christchurch and they come into this game seemingly at the peak of their powers (all of a sudden) after their win against the Brumbies. Kieran Read returns to the line up after 7 weeks on the sideline.
The return of the Blues to something resembling their form of bygone eras after last year’s debacle has been one of the highlights of the season so far. John Kirwan has done nothing short of a sensational job with the Aucklanders. Importantly this week sees the return of Keven Mealamu from injury as well as Culum Retallick and Luke Braid coming back into the forward pack.
The Crusaders are rolling finally and come into this game off a bye. At home and with the finals looming I expect the Saders to put the Blues away here and win well.
Prediction: Crusaders by 14
Waratahs v Brumbies
Another classic derby match here (who good does this Saturday of rugby look by the way?) with the conference leading Brumbies travelling up the highway to face the, all of a sudden, resurgent Waratahs. In 21 fixtures between these two teams the Waratahs have won 11. A more telling stat is that the Waratahs have monstered the Brumbies at home having won 9 of 11 fixtures in Sydeny.
The Waratahs have won their last four matches against the Stormers, Chiefs, Force and Blues and have only been defeated once at home this season by the Cheetahs in round 5. They make two changes to last week’s lineup with Paddy Ryan and Drew Mitchell coming into the lineup. It would be fair to say that the Waratahs have won those last four games by doing the reverse of their 2012 game plan: they have kept the ball in hand and run the ball. They need to keep that style of play going here.
The Brumbies are the leaders of the Australia Conference however they come into this game off the back of a deflating home loss to the Crusaders before their bye last week. Scott Sio returns to the starting line up this week and Scott Fardy also comes into the team. They will be desperate to win this game to return their place at the top given that the Reds are now fast approaching and they have some big games to come.
This will be a classic encounter. Both sides will be desperate to win and there are Wallabies jerseys up for grabs. I think this will be a very tight game but I expect the Brumbies to benefit from their rest last week and come over the top of a Waratahs team that will not be disgraced.
Prediction: Brumbies by 6
Bulls v Highlanders
In the first of two games from South African to round out round 14 the Bulls host the bottom of the ladder Highlanders at Loftus Versfeld. In previous encounters between these two teams the Highlanders have dominated the Bulls with the Bulls only winning 4 of 15 with one draw since the inception of Super Rugby.
The Bulls come into this fixture unbeaten at home this season and on a four game winning streak since returning home from a disastrous tour East. They have made five change to the team that defeated the Hurricanes last week and will be well rested off the back of the bye.
The Highlanders put in their worst performance of the season last week against the Southern Kings and that is saying a lot when one considers the season the Highlanders have had to date. I can not really find any way for them to win this game because if they are unable to best the lowliest team in the South African conference it begs the question: how are they to fair against the best team in the same conference.
No more analysis needed: the Bulls to win and get the bonus point.
Prediction: Bulls by 19
Cheetahs v Reds
Round 14 finishes with a game that may well be a prelude to a semi final with the Cheetahs hosting the Reds in Bloemfontein. In matches at home (three to date) the Cheetahs hold the advantage over the Reds 2 to 1. Overall though the Reds hold the advantage having won 4 of 6 games between these teams.
The Reds come into this fixture having not been defeated in their last seven games and it is worth noting that they have not lost an away game since the first game of the season against the Brumbies. They are one point behind the Brumbies in the Australian conference and last week finally seemed to find their attacking mojo, in the first half at least, against the Sharks.
The Cheetahs are a running team and have effectively, so far, outlasted their opponents to put together a season that is already their best in this competition. The bye came at the worst possible time for them a fortnight ago and they will be looking to return to their winning ways as they jostle for a wildcard spot in the finals.
For the Reds, they must just keep winning which, funnily enough, is the same position that the Cheetahs find themselves in. Couple that desperation with the style of running rugby these teams play I am tipping this one will be a high scoring thriller. Despite the Cheetahs being at home I am leaning slightly towards the Reds here just because I think the Cheetahs bubble might have burst last week whilst for the Reds they are just starting to play the rugby Queensland fans know they can.
Prediction: Reds by 8