After a three week break for their respective international visits from Northern Hemisphere teams, the New Zealand and South African teams return to Super Rugby action this week. As I wrote yesterday, the race for finals places is certainly heating up and this round and the next present opportunities for leading provinces from each conference to secure their places at the top whilst some teams will be looking to play a spoiling role.
Obviously, no Australian teams are in play this week with most eyes from Australia focused on Wallabies v Lions test match to be played in Melbourne on Saturday night. It is important to remember though that the Australian teams DO NOT receive points for their “byes” of the next two weeks which could have a large bearing on the outcome of the “wildcard” spots for the final six.
Chiefs v Hurricanes
Waikato Stadium hosts the first game of part two of the Super Rugby season with the Hurricanes making what some would say is the most fear filled trip in Super Rugby at present to the home of the defending champion Chiefs. Looking at the statistics, nothing splits these teams with them having played 21 times in Super Rugby and each having won 10 games with one draw.
Statistics only tell a small part of the story here though: the Chiefs are at the top of the New Zealand conference and have been the dominant team from Shaky Isles this season whilst for the Hurricanes one senses this is another season that “might have been” given that they are already out of finals contention.
The break has been kind to the Chiefs with a number of players who have been out of action with injury, and who would have probably been selected for the All Blacks, now available for selection. Indeed the return of Tim Nanai-Williams to their line-up does nothing but strengthen one of the strongest squads in the game.
The Hurricanes line up has an experimental look about it this week with some young players getting opportunities to play here and some new combinations, particularly in the back three, getting a run.
The Chiefs have been a class above in the New Zealand Conference this year and I do not expect that to change in this fixture. Whilst “local” derbies in Super Rugby tend to be close run contests I can not see this as being anything other than a bonus point win for the men from the Waikato.
Prediction: Chiefs by 14
Highlanders v Crusaders
This is a must win game for the Crusaders: any other result will give some of the other teams with mathematical hopes of making the finals a little bit more light at the end of their finals “tunnel”. Forsyth Barr Stadium is the host of this fixture and in games in Dunedin (I am aware the bulk of these were played at Carisbrook) have traditionally been very even contests from the two provinces from the South Island.
Even with the Crusaders resting some of their All Blacks stars for this fixture the team named is still very strong. Indeed, any team with the names Carter, Guildford, Taylor and Dagg in the backline is replete with attacking options. Corey Flynn will play his 130th Super Rugby game. The Highlanders are yet to name their team for this fixture but one suspects that in the worst season in franchise memory they will have few surprises to pull line-up wise.
It is all to gain and everything for lose in this game for the Crusaders whilst the Highlanders have nothing to play for but pride, which is not a foreign position for them given their start to the season. I expect this to be another local derby that could be closer on paper than the form lines will suggest but I also expect the Crusaders to run away with the game in the last 20 minutes to collect a bonus point (I am aware of the internal inconsistency in that statement).
Prediction: Crusaders by 10
Sharks v Blues
The Sharks host the Blues in the first of three fixtures in South Africa to round out the first round of fixtures after the break. The statistics tell a tale of woe for the Blues given that they have only bested the Sharks four times in sixteen outings since the commencement of Super Rugby. More telling is that the Blues have not defeated the Sharks in the last eight matches between the two teams dated back to the 2005 season.
Worse still for the Blues, yes worse than having not been successful in Durban since April 2004, is that they have not had their All Black representatives with the team because they only arrived in Africa on Tuesday this week. That being the case, some of those All Blacks’ star (Mealamu and Ranger) have been named on the bench for this fixture.
It has been a week of change at the Sharks with long standing coach John Plumtree stepping aside. The old axiom that a team always puts in a massive performance in the week after a coach has been sacked could very well come into play in Durban this week.
When I wrote my Final 6 predictions article three weeks ago I tipped the Blues to win this game but the change of coach for the Sharks and the delayed arrival of All Blacks for the Blues has persuaded me to go with the Sharks afterall.
Prediction: Sharks by 8
Bulls v Southern Kings
Has there been a bigger mismatch this season? I suspect not and these facts leading into this match at Pretoria make sickening reading for Kings fans:
• The Bulls are on a seven match winning streak.
• The Bulls have not tasted defeat since 30 March 2013.
• The Bulls are on an eight match winning streak at home.
• Indeed in home fixtures the Bulls, since 2007, have won an astonishing 44 matches of a possible 53.South African Conference leaders the Bulls will look to cement their place in the Super Rugby play offs when they take on the Southern Kings at home in Pretoria on Saturday
Is anyone, after those statistics, prepared to tip anything other than a Bulls win? I, for one, am certainly not. Add the above that the Kings now face the remainder of the Super Rugby season without their talismatic captain, Luke Watson, and I fear the new boys in the competition could be on the end of a cricket score at Loftus Versfeld. There is not much more one can say about such a mismatched contest.
Prediction: Bulls by 30
Stormers v Cheetahs
No matter the result of the next 3 games this has already been the best Super Rugby season ever for the Cheetahs. Statistically this looks like an easy win for the Stormers given that the Cheetah have not won a Newlands since March 2006 and have only won three times in ten Super Rugby fixtures overall between the teams.
None of the statistics take into account the way these two teams have performed this season: the Stormers are not the team they have been in the past this season whereas the Cheetahs, as I noted in the preamble, have never played better than this season. The Stormers are still a statistically viable chance of making the finals and listening to their coach Allister Coetzee speak it would certainly seem on the face of it that they have not lost all hope yet. Nonetheless one senses they are really only in this contest to be spoilers for the Cheetahs finals charge.
One key factor in all of this could well be how the Cheetahs respond to the break in Super Rugby: the last time they had a bye (Round 12) they returned (in Round 13) looking lethargic and proved unable to best the Hurricanes at home. They will need to be better prepared here because it is certain that the Stormers will be looking for their scalp.
I think the Cheetahs can win this game and break their cycle of poor form at Newlands. A win locks away a wild card finals spot for them given that they have a bye up their sleeve to come and that factor alone should lift them against the listless Stormers.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 7