The last round of Super Rugby this season is upon us and the final six has already been confirmed, thanks to the Cheetahs bye this week. All that remains up for grabs this week is who gains the week off and who gets home field advantage during the course of the finals.
As noted above, the Cheetahs have the bye which moves them clear enough of the those teams behind them to secure them at least 6th spot. For the remainder, there are some cracking contests which await us this weekend.
Crusaders v Hurricanes
The Crusaders go into this fixture with a slim hope of winning the Nez Zealand conference. To do so they need to win this fixture with a bonus point and then rely on the Chiefs to score no points at all against the Blues on Saturday.
As with the bulk of teams in Super Rugby, the Crusaders have an excellent record against the Hurricanes having won 15 of the 24 contests between these two franchises. In a quirky statistic the Hurricanes have had the better of games in Christchurch of recent times having won 2 of the last 3 there.
The Hurricanes come into this fixture off the back of an embarrassing loss to the Highlanders last week in which they allowed the worst team in the competition at the moment to score 49 points against them. They have lost their last 4 games and are looking forward only to Mad Monday.
The Crusaders are in the midst of the 9 game winning streak at home and are in some of their best form of recent memory. The return of their All Black stars, in particular Kieran Read seems to have been the tonic they needed and, if last week is anything to by, they are in breathtaking form.
The Crusaders are irresistible in this game based on last week’s form.
Prediction: Crusaders by 17
Rebels v Highlanders
A game with no bearing on the finals is the second Friday night game this week with the Rebels hosting the Highlanders in Melbourne. The Highlanders have won both of the encounters between these teams since the Rebels joined the competition in 2011.
The Highlanders have had a season to forget but can finish on a high note here by winning their third game in a row to finish the season. It was their best performance of the season last week against the Hurricanes and they will again look to the excellent Colin Slade for inspiration this week.
The Rebels could potentially end up having their best season in this competition if they win this game but you would not know it given that they have dismissed their coach, told their best player he can look elsewhere for a contract and face an exodus of other players in advance of next year. In all six players are playing their last match in a Rebels jersey this week including James O’Connor who has been dropped to the bench.
This is a tough one to pick: the Highlanders have been woeful for the bulk of the season and do not travel well whilst the Rebels seem to be in disarray. I am leaning the Highlanders way here just off the back of how good they were last week.
Prediction: Highlanders by 8
Blues v Chiefs
The Chiefs sit atop the New Zealand conference and could secure the top spot in the whole competition with a victory here if the results go their way later in the weekend. The statistics between these teams gives no no advantage to any team with these franchises having faced off on 20 occasions since 1996 for 10 wins a piece and having played at Eden Park 10 times for 5 wins apiece.
The Blues are out of finals contention having lost their last five matches in this competition. They also return home after a testing tour of Africa that saw their first choice fly half and half back on the injured list. Weepu returns for this fixture in a move that may lift a struggle and weary team.
The Chiefs were embarrassed last week by the Crusaders however they are the defending champions and have simply too much lose by taking the Blues lightly here. A loss, coupled with a win by the Brumbies would see the Chiefs hosting a qualifying semi final next week. They certainly have not left anything to chance in their team selection, with Coach Rennie selecting a near full strength lineup for this game.
The Blues are another team with one eye firmly on mad Monday and whilst these New Zealand derbies are often closely fought, I expect the Blues to win this fixture and win it well.
Prediction: Chiefs by 19
Waratahs v Reds
The Reds come into this fixture knowing they are already in the frame to play finals football with only the position they end up in up for grabs. They could end up anywhere between fourth and sixth on the ladder depending on results. The Reds are on a four game winning streak against the Waratahs and have won 12 of the 20 fixtures between the teams since the start of Super Rugby.
The Waratahs are already out of the selection frame but, based on Coach Cheika’s comments during the week, would love nothing more than to best the Reds to finish another disappointing season for them. They will be missing the likes of Palu, Ashley-Cooper and Folau for this fixture and will be playing for pride alone against their long time arch rival.
The Reds are without James Horwill and Will Genia for this match and bring in Ed O’Donoghue and Nick Frisby. Concerningly, given the likelihood of an away final, they have not won away from home in their last three matches. That said, the core of this team has not been involved in the Lions Tour so they can be expected to be primed and ready for this game off the back of the long break. If there is a better performing back three in Australian Super Rugby this year than Quirk, Gill and Schatz then I have missed them and I expect them again to dominate at the breakdown.
The Waratahs are out of contention but no fixture between Queensland and New South Wales is likely to be easily won and this game is no different. The Reds, despite their bad away form, are impressing again at the right time of the season and with so few players backing up from last week’s test I expect them to get over the line in a close one.
Prediction: Reds by 6
Force v Brumbies
The Brumbies have already won the Australian conference and are playing this weekend in the hope of jumping the Chiefs and getting a week off next week. They also come into this game having won the last three matches between these two franchises and have won seven of the ten games since the Force’s introduction to Super Rugby.
Previewing this game is pretty easy to be honest: the Brumbies are at nearly full strength and will be desperate for a bonus point to give that chance of a week off next week. Their back line class in Toomua, Tomane, Lealiifano, Speight and Mogg presents possibly the most potent backline in Australia domestic rugby whilst in the back row they possess an Australian captain in waiting in Ben Mowen and the desperately unlucky Peter Kimlin.
The Force conversely have had another season to forget but for their play against the Reds. It is that resolve to perform against the home franchises that fans like about the Force and whilst I can not see a way for them to win given that their season has been long over. They have all but avoided the overall wooden spoon but no result will lift them from the bottom of the Australian conference.
An easy game to tip: there are no circumstances in which I can countenance anything other than a Brumbies bonus point victory.
Prediction: Brumbies by 18
Sharks v Kings
Another game of zero consequence is the first game out of South African on Saturday night with the Sharks hosting the Kings at Kings Park Stadium. I will not spend much column space on this game because, aside from pride, this game has no bearing on on the finals. So much so that the Kings have decided to rest a number of front line players for this game to get them right for the upcoming relegation series they will be playing against Lions in coming weeks.
With the weak line up the Kings are putting out there, no other tip that I can make than to tip the Sharks by plenty.
Prediction: Sharks by 30
Stormers v Bulls
The final match of the round robin of Super Rugby pits the top of the table Bulls against the very disappointing Stormers. The Bulls need to win this weekend to ensure they do not need to leave South Africa during the finals period. The other end of the spectrum is that if they lose this game they could possibly end up in 3rd position and face either the Reds or the Cheetahs next week.
The Bulls are in the midst of the best streak in Super Rugby at the moment having won their last 9 games. Indeed since they returned to Africa they have been unbeatable which is another nod to just how important this game is for them. Historically the Bulls do not travel well to Newlands and they will have to face one of the more partisan crowds in rugby. Equally, any side with Steyn in the lineup is a danger to a Stormers side that has been ill disciplined at time this season.
The Stormers are at nearly full strength for this game and, one suspects, would like nothing more than besting their foes from Pretoria in a game where they are playing to restore some pride after a terrible season. Jean de Villiers returns for this match.
I think the Bulls will be desperate to win this game and given what they have to loose by virtue of a loss I expect them to lift and win here to secure the top spot in Super Rugby.
Prediction: Bulls by 9