It was a week that gave the pundits for the finals little clue as to what the final make up of top six will be with the Crusaders, Waratahs and Reds all losing games that probably were must wins for them. Conversely the Chiefs, Brumbies and Bulls solidified their stranglehold at the top of their respective conferences. This week again throws up a plethora of must win fixtures for the finals contenders as, suddenly, the finals themselves are but a few games away.
Only six matches this week with the Sharks, Western Force and Chiefs all having the bye.
Crusaders v Waratahs
Statistically this is one of the most lopsided contests in Super Rugby with the Crusaders having won 15 of the 19 contests between these two teams including a streak of the last ten games in a row. The last time the Waratahs were successful against the men from Canterbury was in 2004 and they have only won once in Christchurch.
Both teams come into this match off a loss last week as the Chiefs bested the Crusaders in the Waikato and the Rebels broke their duck against the Waratahs in a fairly large upset. Both sides were on a four match winning streak that had many singing their respective finals praises before last week’s loses.
In team changes this week the Crusaders have made three changes from last week with the biggest being the inclusion of Dominic Bird in the starting line up in a move obviously focused on strengthening the Crusaders line-up. For the Waratahs, the experiment of playing Berrick Barnes lasted a week as he returns to the bench to prepare to play the Lions (sarcasm intended) whilst Pat McCutcheon comes into the line up at number 6.
The Crusaders are undefeated at home this season and have an imposing record against the Waratahs. I expect that to continue here.
Prediction: Crusaders by 11
Brumbies v Hurricanes
The second of two Friday night matches comes to us from Canberra Stadium as the Brumbies host the Hurricanes and where the Brumbies have won six of ten fixtures between these two teams to date. The Brumbies have won the last two games between the teams but given the fortress like nature of Canberra Stadium for the men from the nation’s capital it would fair to say that statistically the Hurricanes have had their measure there in the past (few teams could say that they have won 2 out of their last 4 at Canberra Stadium afterall).
Last week the Brumbies returned to the winners circle with an emphatic victory over the Auckland Blues at Eden Park whilst the Hurricanes will be fresh from the bye after a tour of Africa and a loss to the Chiefs. Looking at the table the Hurricanes are probably out of contention for the finals which puts them in their yearly favourite roll as finals spoilers. The Brumbies are leading the Australian conference probably wrap up a finals spot with a win here after a mid season brain melt that saw them draw two games and lose three games.
There is much to gain for both sides in this fixture: for the Brumbies they lock down a finals spot in my opinion and there are players on the fringe of Wallabies selection desperate to impress Coach Deans and the for Hurricanes a loss here extinguishes the last lingering flicker of the candle that is their finals prospects. I expect the class of the Brumbies to prevail over the scrappers from Wellington here.
Prediction: Brumbies by 9
Highlanders v Blues
I have been trying to think of positive things to say about the Highlanders all week in preparation for my preview of this game and it has been a struggle. Out of the last ten matches in Super Rugby between the Highlanders and the Blues the Highlanders have won just three. Further, since the start of Super Rugby the Highlanders have played the opponents from the North Island 21 times and they have won only 7 of those fixtures.
Recent form of these two teams makes easy reading from the stand point of tipping this game: the Highlanders are having a season that could only be described as their “annus horribilis” with only one victory from 12 matches so far. This was a season that promised much for the men from the deep south but has returned only a wooden spoon. The Blues have 50/50 record this season having won 6 and lost 6 and after a ripping start to the season they have stumbled in recent weeks to the Crusaders and the Brumbies.
The Highlanders could be spoilers in this game and ruin the chances of the Blues of making the finals if they win here. For the Blues they simply must win this game to keep pace in the New Zealand conference and to try to lock away a wild card final spot. I confess to having been burned by the Highlanders this year in the tipping them a lot and with them coming of a losses to the Western Force and Southern Kings I am even less inclined to tip them. That said I do worry that they might sneak one past the Blues here. Nonetheless I am going to tip the Blues.
Prediction: Blues by 8
Reds v Rebels
Much like last week this is a game in which the statistics tell us that the Rebels have never beaten the Reds having played five games against each other. This week’s Reds vs Melbourne Rebels clash puts Wallabies coach Robbie Deans’s selections to the test as Quade Cooper and James O’Connor go head to head.
The Reds have played the Rebels five times since the Melbourne franchise joined Super Rugby in 2011 and the Reds have won all five matches. So far this season the Reds have played seven fixtures at home for five wins, a draw and a loss whilst the Rebels have been competitive without winning away from home much and have pushed some much more fancied sides right to the final whistle.
The Reds, off the back of a disastrous sojourn in Africa simply to have to win this game, and one expects that they have to win with a bonus point to gain any comfort that they are on track for the finals. The Rebels are out of finals contention but seem to love nothing more than acting as spoilers for their Australian counterparts. This game has been pitched in the media as a battle between Quade Cooper and James “Haircut” O’Connor but it is much more than that. This is another one of those local derbies that might just turn up a cracking game. I think the Reds have too much to lose to drop this one and I am tipping them in a close one.
Prediction: Reds by 6
Stormers v Southern Kings
Another game and another local derby: this one pits a giant of the South African conference in the Stormers against the new boys in the Southern Kings. The Kings have yet to open their account against South African opponents whilst the Stormers have been a shadow of their former brilliant selves so far this season.
For the Kings, this match represents another change to break their home team duck and they will be buoyed by the news that Demetri Catrakilis is fit to play against a team he represented sporadically with distinction up to the end of 2012. They are presently 13th on the ladder and any points they get from this game will help them avoid the wooden spoon.
The Stormers have a very small window of opportunity to make the finals that rests in no small part on other teams loosing. Equally they need to keep winning and will need to win this game with a bonus point to be any chance of figuring in the finals. They were quite impressive last week against the Reds which, if nothing else, shows that when the pressure is on they can lift their performance to the next level.
I think the Stormers will win this game but I expect to the Kings to be valiant in defeat.
Prediction: Stormers by 13
Cheetahs v Bulls
What a fantastic fixture to finish this round of Super Rugby action. Simply put: the winner of this fixture will likely win (in my opinion) the South African Conference. Forget the usual statistics I go through in these previews: they are skewed massively towards the Bulls (in fact the Cheetahs have never bested the Bulls in Super Rugby competition after ten attempts) and this is a different Cheetahs team this time around.
The most compelling statistic is this: the Bulls lead the South African Conference on 50 points and 9 wins from 12 matches whilst the Cheetahs are in fourth place with 45 points also with 9 wins but they have played 13 matches. This is the return match this season between these teams with the Bulls winning the first time out in Pretoria 26-20.
The Cheetahs have an imposing record at home this season with 6 victories from 8 games so far and it goes without saying that this has been their best season in Super Rugby by some distance. I have repeated it every week but it is in their defence that the Cheetahs has shown significant improvement and it will be that defence steel again that will need to be on show in this game.
The Bulls are the form team of the competition at the moment having won six in a row since their terrible New Zealand / Australia tour and have transformed their formally dour play to be one of the highest scoring teams in the competition scoring nearly 30 points per match. A win here ties up the top stop in the conference I believe and they will also be desperate for a bonus point.
I expect the Bulls will win this game in a high scoring and entertaining encounter well worth getting up for if you are in Australia and New Zealand. This is surely the match of the round.
Prediction: Bulls by 8