We are not in the pointy end of the Super Rugby season which seems like a ridiculous statement given that there the finals will not start until July but with the international break looming the victors of some of the games this week could see themselves in prime position for a tilt at the finals.
The Crusaders have hit form, the Waratahs are all of a sudden (if you believe the Southern press and Foxsports) a finals contender and there are players from the Australian conference with points to prove after some high profile snubbing by Coach Deans this week. At the other end of the spectrum the winner of the wooden spoon will probably be determined this weekend as well.
The Hurricanes have a well deserved rest this weekend.
Chiefs v Crusaders
What a game to start off Round 15 of Super Rugby this week: the defending champion Chiefs hosting the best franchise of the first 20 years of Super Rugby the Crusaders. These two proud franchises have played each other in Super Rugby 20 times since the inception of competition and the Crusaders have won 14 of those matches.
The Chiefs come into this fixture on a four match winning streak, sit atop their conference and will be looking to best another New Zealand conference competitor here. They have been struggling in recent weeks to play out the full 80 minutes of games in no small part due to their injury toll. That injury curse continues to haunt them this week with Gareth Anscombe and Tim Nanai-Williams still on the sidelines.
The Crusaders belted the Blues last week and were ultra impressive the week before in demolishing the previous competition favourite Brumbies in Canberra. All of a sudden the Crusaders are in the top line of betting for the whole competition which looked an eon away as they struggled against Australian minnows, the Force and Rebels. They have made six changes to last week’s team with Dagg starting at fullback, Taylor moving to second fly half and Fruean gracing the pine.
The last time the teams played each other was in July last year in the Semi-finals and the Chiefs beat the Crusaders 20-17 at home. The Crusaders will be looking to exact some measure of revenge here and against a Chiefs team without their two top scorers I think they will have it.
Prediction: Crusaders by 8
Rebels v Waratahs
The second of two Friday night “derbies” pits the Melbourne Rebels against the social media inept (see this morning’s twitter fiasco) New South Wales Waratahs. The Rebels have played the Waratahs five times since they joined Super Rugby and they have lost all of those matches.
The stats around clashes between these teams are horribly skewed by the Waratahs demolition of the Rebels in the first meeting between the teams. This is one of those games where the stats go out the window though for mine.
It was a historic week last week for the Rebels: securing their first win against a South African opponent, the Stormers no less, is no mean feat. What was most impressive about that win was that they did it without their back line stars in Beale and O’Connor. They are also missing this week. The lead up to this game has also been less than perfect off the back of the news that their talismanic leader Gareth Delve will not be returning for them next year.
The Waratahs have peaked, as they seem to do, at the right time of the season: Wallabies Squad selection time. That is probably unfair (my Queenslander brain kicked in there for a minute) because they have actually put in a solid run of form to defeat the Chiefs, Kings, Stormers and Brumbies and are playing an attacking and aggressive style of play not seen from them for some time. Berrick Barnes returns for them which may see a return to the “kick away” style of the past which will only be negative for them.
The bandwagoners in the Sydney press and on Foxsports in Australia have circled the Waratahs and are now calling them finals contenders. If they are to contend for the finals this is a game they must win with a bonus point. If they come to AAMI Stadium in the attacking frame of mind of recent weeks they might just do that. That said, the Rebels are also attacking dynamos at times so this could be a high scoring and entertaining encounter. Waratahs for me.
Prediction: Waratahs by 13
Blues v Brumbies
Another cracking match with an impact on the finals starts us off on Super Rugby Super Saturday with the Blues hosting the Brumbies at Eden Park. The Blues and the Brumbies have played each other 18 times since the start of the Super Rugby competition and the Blues have won 11 and the Brumbies 7. At home that statistical advantage become even stronger with the Brumbies having only won three times at Eden Park after 10 visits.
The Blues have been in great form this year having won five of six at home including victories over the Crusaders and Stormers. They lost 23-3 to the Crusaders last week so they are looking at this match to return to the winners circle given that they have now dropped to third on the New Zealand conference table and a loss here would see them drop out of the finals wildcard for the first time this season.
The Brumbies were the form side of the competition for so long that it seemed inevitable that they would be hosting the final of this year’s competition. A lot can change in three weeks though: a draw with the Reds and losses to the Crusaders and the Waratahs will have dented their confidence and they now face one of the toughest road trips in the game. Equally, some of their players will have been stung by the insanity of Robbie Deans’ Wallabies squad during the week and will be looking to make their mark in this fixture.
The Blues have just been in too good a form at home this season to look past here and with the Brumbies on a seemingly downward trajectory form wise I expect them to continue their good winning form at home here.
Prediction: Blues by 9
Force v Highlanders
After what presents as three cracking games, a detour to mediocrity strikes in match 4 of this round of Super Rugby with the bottom dwellers of the Australian and New Zealand conferences, the Force and the Highlanders respectively, facing off at niB Stadium in Perth.
The Force lost to the Sharks last weekend in what must have been a deflating result for them given their form going into the game and the Sharks ER like injury toll. That said, they have been there or thereabouts against just about every combatant thus far this season having bested the Crusaders, drawn with the Reds and only been defeated by the Chiefs by one point. I am sure Coach Foley would have stripped the paint off the walls after last week’s second half capitulation so you can be sure they will be primed for this one.
The Highlanders return to ANZAC soil with their tail firmly wedged between their legs after a tour of Africa that saw any semblance of confidence arising from their first win of the season washed away by gormless and uninspiring losses to the Southern Kings and Bulls. Really, there is nothing more to say about the most disappointing team this season.
The winner of this game avoids the wooden spoon. The last four matches between these teams have all been won by the Western Force. Despite them burning me last week when I tipped them for the first time in a very long time I am sticking with the Force to make it five in a row against the Highlanders here.
Prediction: Force by 6
Southern Kings v Cheetahs
The Southern Kings host the Cheetahs in Port Elizabeth in another “derby” game that promises to be an exciting and attacking orientated encounter. The Cheetahs were successful against the Kings in their only meeting this season.
The Kings have already exceeded expectations this season having won three fixtures this season. Indeed, that result makes them the most successful “new” franchise in since the commencement of Super Rugby competition. They have shown significant character having performed brilliantly in Australia / New Zealand then came back after a terrible return to Africa with a solid win against the Highlanders two weeks ago.
The Cheetahs have exceeded expectations this season and have already completed their best season in their short Super Rugby history. The defensive lapses that cost them so greatly in previous years have been rectified and last week they took the most of their chances against the Queensland Reds to record another victory against a side that they might face come finals time.
The Cheetahs are on track for a finals spot but need to keep winning. If they are to continue their path to the finals they really need to win with a bonus point here. I think the Kings will lift here and whilst they are unlikely to stop the Cheetahs from winning I expect them to restrain the Cheetahs from a bonus point.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 11
Stormers v Reds
The Stormers have won each of the last five matches between these two franchises. That is another statistic that should be given limited lip service this season as this is far from the Stormers of old.
The Stormers return home for the first time a month and are in the midst of a three game losing streak in what has been their worst season in recent memory. In order to even be in the running for a wildcard for the finals they need to win all of their remaining games with a bonus point. This week they are without Deon Fourie, Andries Bekker and Frans Malbherbe to name but a few of their injury concerns.
The Reds come into this game as another team that needs to win to keep their finals hopes on track. Indeed a win this week could see them vault to the top of the Australian conference. The Reds have lost Digby Ioane to minor knee surgery but if there is one position they have well truly covered it is in the wings and three quarters. The Reds will have a number players with a point to prove after the snub of the Wallabies squad and will be looking to Quade Cooper in particular to spark their attack after a fairly uninspiring performance last week.
The Reds have more to gain from a win and the Stormers’ season is over. With the Stormer decimated by injury, I am expecting the Reds to be successful here and keep their finals dreams alive.
Prediction: Reds by 6
Sharks v Bulls
The last match of the round is another derby game and at the start of the season many would have looked at this game as one of the matches of the season. Unfortunately, the injury toll that has struck the Sharks has destroyed their season which leaves this match having the potential to be the biggest mismatch of the round.
These teams have an even record with 18 games between them in Super Rugby competition to date leading to nine wins for the Bulls.
The Sharks will be overjoyed to be returning home to Durban after a disastrous tour to Australia and New Zealand from which they picked up more injuries and only returned a victory against the Western Force on their way home. That victory represented their first victory after a string a five losses in what has fast become a season they would rather forget.
The Bulls, conversely, are riding high at the top of the South African conference and are in the midst of a five match winning streak. Importantly for the Bulls they bounced back decisively from a horror tour east and in recent weeks they have been not just winning but dominating teams.
The Bulls should win this match to solidify their standing atop the South African conference and should win it well. South African derbies are notorious for their closeness but I expect the winning margin to balloon in the second half of this fixture as the Sharks tire following there arduous trip home.
Prediction: Bulls by 16