After an abridged start to the season with only Australian teams in play last week, this week dawns with a full round of matches.
This week is another “derby” round in the most part and includes, at least in Australian circles, the most hard fought derby of them all: Queensland v New South Wales. Equally, I think eyes will shift across the Tasman for the match of the round which, as always seems to be the case, is the first one.
Highlanders v Chiefs, Dunedin
Round 2 of the Super 15 commences at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin with the Highlanders hosting last seasons champions, the Chiefs. In my preview of the season a couple of weeks ago I pinpointed this game as a key to the highly fancied Highlanders season and nothing has changed my view. With new signing Ma’a Nonu and Tony Woodcock in the Highlanders side for the first time they will be keen to make a swift start against the Chiefs and Woodcock in particular will need to be contained by the Chiefs in the set pieces if they are to win.
The Chiefs are the reigning champions and with that comes the added pressure of retaining that championship. Also comes with it the keenness that every side that comes up against them will now have to “knock them” off. In addition the Chiefs season has not gotten off to a great start with Richard Kahui injured and out for possible the first month of fixtures. The form of All Black understudy to Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden will be vital their fortunes as will the form of rising star, lock Brodie Retallick.
It will be a close game and the match of the round. I am tipping the Highlanders to ride the wave of crowd support they will inevitably have and start the season with a win.
Prediction: Highlanders by 2
Rebels v Brumbies, Melbourne
The victors of the first round of the competition face each other at AAMI stadium seeking top spot in the Australian conference and a flying start to their respective 2013 campaigns. On paper this is a mouth watering contest with the battle of the players with 9, 10 and 15 on their backs quite possibly being largely determinant of who will win this fixture. Phipps, Beale and O’Connor are the linch pins for the Rebels and will be for every game this season. If they fire, assuming their forwards give them enough ball, there will be few teams in the competition, certainly the Australian conference, that could match them in attack. They were ugly in victory against the, it must be admitted, out of classed Force and will be again in front of the excellent home town support.
The Brumbies may have been flattered by the final score last Saturday but there can be cavil that they were the best team on the night. The addition of David Pocock to the Brumbies line up and the return of Matt Toomua and Christian Lealiifano have strengthened their line up from the one that missed a finals campaign at the last stride last year. It is in defence that they were most effective last week and they can again be expected to be extremely competitive at the break down and willing in the set pieces. They are well drilled by one of the best coaches in the business in Jake White and will be primed for this fixture.
The Brumbies were dominant in defence and at set pieces last week and I expect that to stifle the Rebels attack and thus am tipping the Brumbies to win this fixture.
Prediction: Brumbies by 11
Bulls v Stormers, Pretoria
The final Friday night fixture (Saturday morning for those watching in Australia) sees the Bulls host the Stormers at home in Pretoria. The first South African derby comes from Pretoria as the Bulls take on the Stormers. The Stormers are without their inspirational captain Schalk Burger and young star Eben Etzebeth which may lead to some difficulties for them in the set pieces and at the breakdown. If they can get on top of the Bulls at the breakdown they possess excitement machines in the backline in the form of Bryan Habana and Gio Aplon who are among the fastest players in the world game.
The Bulls are without Akona Ndungane and Jacques Potgieter. In Francois Hougaard and Morne Steyn they possess one of the most consistent 9 / 10 combinations in the competition and the outcome of the battle between Steyn and new Stormers recruit Elton Jantjies could well be vital to who wins this fixture. The Bulls backrow of Stegmann, Potgieter and Spies have the potential to be brutal at the breakdown and I expect them to dominate the Stormers back row in this game.
Another very close call, but I am going with the home town Bulls to get their season off to a great start here.
Prediction: Bulls by 4
Hurricanes v Blues, Wellington
In the first Saturday game of Round 2, the new look Blues line up under the stewardship of John Kirwan travel down to Wellington to take on the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes surprised a few pundits last year, winning a number of games against more fancied opposition, however they faded twoards the end of the season once injuries started to take their toll. Veterans Conrad Smith and Victor Vito return this season for the ‘Canes and will again be vital to their chances as their calming influence within such a young team was a key to their success last year. Young number 10, Beauden Barrett, returns from injury and will be looking to start this season the way he started last season.
The Blues will come into this game on a high given their positive form in the pre-season exchanges and they possess two of the most experienced players in the New Zealand game in Ali Williams and Piri Weepu. If Weepu plays well for the Blues that will go a long way to determining not only how they go in this game but also the hole season. Kevin Mealamu is missing from the Blues lineup and he leaves a large hole.
The Blues have not been given much of a chance in the New Zealand conference this season but they have the ability to surprise their more fancied opponents when everything clicks. I cannot see this happening in Wellington however and think the Hurricanes will win this fixture in a closer game than many expect.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 10
Reds v Waratahs, Brisbane
A centuries long battle between the Red and the Waratahs resumes at Lang Park on Saturday night and the fighting between both camps has started in earnest this week with inflammatory comments coming from those south of the border setting the tone for what is likely to be a firey encounter. The Reds were disappointing last week and with Horwill, Genia and Faingaa on the sidelines will be looking to the enigmatic Quade Cooper to lead them to victory in this fixture. One of the biggest problems for the Reds last week was their execution in the set pieces and with the Waratahs running out a basically all Wallabies forward back the Reds forward back will need to be at their best to win this game.
The Waratahs start their campaign in 2013 on the hallowed turf of Lang Park and, as noted above possess a forward pack replete with Wallabies. It was not their forwards that lost them so many games last year, it was their generally negative game plan that seemed to rely on kicking the ball at all costs. Whether new coach, Michael Chieka has had enough time to work them out of that mindset remains to be seen. Berrick Barnes is missing for them this week and the debut of two code turncoat Israel Folau may well represent a new or false dawn depending on whether he performs at the level those below the Tweed expect from him.
I am tipping another home town victory at Lang Park for the Reds in front of one of the more loyal fan bases in the competition.
Prediction: Reds by 8
Cheetahs v Sharks, Bloemfontein
The first of two games from South Africa to finish this round of Super 15 action sees the Cheetahs host the Sharks in Bloemfontein. Both teams have been beset by turmoil close to the start of the season with Juan Smith retiring leaving a massive hole for the Cheetahs and Willem Alberts being out for the first month of the season being similarly felt by the Sharks. How both sides react to those setbacks could be a key factor in this game.
A key battle in this game will be the contest between the two emerging half back stars in South Africa Johan Goosen and Patrick Lambie. The player that gets on top in that contest will be able to release two of the better backlines in the competition. In particular the Cheetahs backline were nothing short of thrilling last year when they were allowed to run amok. The Cheetahs possess in Adriaan Strauss an inspirational captain who will be driving his team to improve on last year’s promising performance. The Sharks will come into this season hurt by their loss in last season’s final and keen to go one better this season.
The Cheetahs are looking good and come into this game off the back of a solid pre season and I am tipping them to give us the first upset of the season in this game.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 6
Kings v Force, Port Elizabeth
It would be fair to say that the Super 15 organisers have left the worst game of the round, and possibly the season, till last with this fixture. The Southern Kings get their Super Rugby existence off to a start against the Force at home in Port Elizabeth. The Kings failed to win a pre-season fixture against, it must be said, sub-Super 15 class opposition and frankly it is impossible to get a guide to how they will go this season save to say that many, including me, think they will fail to win a fixture this season.
The Force impressed many with their performance last week against the Rebels. That said it has been outside of Australia that they Force have struggled the most to win games and perform at an optimal level. Wallabies Matt Hodgson, Nick Cummins and Salesi Ma’afu are players a class above anything in the Kings lineup and they will be keen to open the Force’s account for 2013 in this game.
I can not tip anything other than a Force win here and whilst I would generally avoid sitting up to watch this game I am intrigued as just how bad the Kings might be so I will be up in the early hours of Sunday morning to watch this one.
Prediction: Force by 17