Last week saw the continued rise from the ashes of last season for the Auckland Blues, the Reds sneak to win against the unlucky Hurricanes, the Chiefs confirm their favoritism for the whole competition with a dominant display against the Cheetahs and the Force continue only the path to not winning game this season which now seems to have to the feeling of the inevitable about it.
This week’s games are again replete with local derbies as well as a fixture that some pundits may have been tipping to be the final of this year’s competition when the Stormers host the Chiefs at Cape Town.
Hurricanes v Crusaders, Wellington
The Crusaders, having only played one game in the first three weeks of the season, have again gotten off to their traditional slow start to the season. They will be very disappointed with their performance with their performance against the Blues where their much vaunted attack was as penetrative as a plastic spoon. Dan Carter was a bit down on form last week and will again be vital to the chances of the Crusaders in this fixture.
The Hurricanes have been unlucky thus far this season when injuries cruelled their momentum in their first fixture and then were denied by the TMO against the Reds. They showed a significant lack of composure in their last fixture and were unable to convert basically 100% possession in the Reds half into points despite numerous attempts. Conrad Smith had the look of a very angry man at the end of the Reds fixture and will have his team primed for this contest.
The battle between Carter and Barrett will be a highlight of this game. The Hurricanes have shown promise in their first two games of the season but have lacked composure and attacking flair at key moments. The Crusaders, despite their poor start last week and the name McCaw missing from their team sheet, are a quality lineup and I expect them to be more composed at those keys moments and win this game.
Prediction: Crusaders by 8
Rebels v Reds, Melbourne
The Rebels are yet to record a victory this season and whilst they were competitive against the Waratahs last week they again did not play out the full 80 minutes. This week presents another tough test for them and this fixture has now been made all the tougher by the withdrawal of Kurtley Beale for the next month. The hole left by Beale will rest more weight on the narrow shoulders of James O’Connor who will need to step up to be the principal attacking option for the Rebels.
The Reds bounced back from their first game loss away to the Brumbies with two fairly unconvincing wins at homes against the Waratahs and the Hurricanes. The Reds are still without their injured leaders Genia and Horwill but welcome back Anthony Faingaa to the midfield. Liam Gill was dynamic last week and with Ed Quirk and Jake Schatz is forming one of the most formidable back rows in the competition. That back row will be looking to again dominate at the break down to lay a strong foundation for the enigmatic Quade Cooper.
The Rebels late fade outs in games so far this season is a worry and if they stumble late against the Reds they will be punished. The battle between Liam Gill and defector Scott Higginbotham will be a highlight of this fixture. The Reds will have too much class in this game though I expect it to be closer than many think.
Prediction: Reds by 9
Highlanders v Cheetahs, Invercargill
In the early Saturday afternoon game the rested Highlanders host the Cheetahs at Rugby Park in Invercargill. Coming off the bye last round the Highlanders will be looking to avenge their round 2 loss to the Chiefs before their adoring home crowd. They will play an attacking brand of football in this fixture but will also be looking to the experienced Hosea Gear and Ma’a Nonu for some more composure in attack which was sorely lacking against the Chiefs.
The Cheetahs were belted by the Chiefs last weekend, but only after they had resisted the Chiefs for the whole of the first half. These second half fade outs from the Cheetahs have become a common problem for the Cheetahs when they abroad. They have only made one change to the team that played last week with Heinrich Brussow returning to the bench. Johan Goosen will again be the focal point in attack for the Cheetahs and if they are to have any hope in this game he will need to play the game of his Super 15 career.
The Highlanders at home looking for redemption after round 1 are irresistible in this game and if the Cheetahs have another late game fade out in the deep south of New Zealand the Highlanders could raise a half century in this game.
Prediction: Highlanders by 21
Brumbies v Waratahs, Canberra
In another local derby, the Brumbies return to competition play after a bye last week against their neighbours the Waratahs at Canberra Stadium. The Waratahs come into this fixture off the back of a win last week against the Rebels and will take some confidence from that performance. They will be without Wycliff Palu in this fixture and welcome the return of Wallaby Berrick Barnes for this game after he tore a PCL in the lead up to the season.
The Brumbies stocks in Australian rugby have continued to rise during the week with the signature of George Smith solidifying an already quality back row for the men from the nation’s capital. The battle of the forwards in this fixture will be willing and if David Pocock continues to dominate as he did before the bye the Brumbies have the class in back line to put a score on the Waratahs in this game. Jesse Mogg’s star continues to rise and there is now talk of him being in the frame for higher honours: his battle with Israel Folau will be a stark example of a journeyman challenging a superstar.
The Brumbies have been untroubled thus far this season and I don’t expect that to change here.
Prediction: Brumbies by 14
Stormers v Chiefs, Cape Town
Are we witnessing a preview of the grand final for Super 15 2013 in this round 4 fixture from Cape Town? Many think this to be the case however whether it is or it is not this is certainly the match of the round.
The Chiefs are in very good form having put ten tries past their opponents in their two fixtures to date and have shown yet again that they can score points from any part of the field. Their 20 minute onslaught that blew the Cheetahs out of the game was breaktaking in both its efficiency and flair and they will again be looking to get quick ball from their unheralded forward pack to allow their backline to run amok. Liam Messan has lambasted his team for their first half performance last week and they will be looking to put on an 80 minute performance in this game.
The Stormers are yet to open their account in 2013 having recorded losses to both the Bulls and the Sharks in rounds 2 and 3. Their season has been a direct contract to that of the Chiefs having only scored two tries in their first two games and not looking like scoring last week. Adding to the woe for the Stormers is news coming out of the Cape that they will be without Juan de Jongh and Jaco Taute for this fixture.
The Chiefs are the form team in the competition at the moment and it will take a massive improvement from the Stormers to succeed in this fixture. On current form I cannot go past the Chiefs here.
Prediction: Chiefs by 13
Kings v Sharks, Port Elizabeth
After a week off last week the Kings return to Super 15 action in a bouyant mood after their first up victory over the Western Force in the battle many expected to be for the wooden spoon. Despite that win a perusal of the team sheet for the Kings continues to fail to impress and news that Luke Watson may be struggling to make the team with injury will be a major worry for the Kings faithful. This game, to state the obvious, presents a much sterner challenge than their initial introduction to Super 15 play.
The Sharks come into this fixture also on a high after besting the Stormers in a fixture last week that was as dour as it was filled with tension. They possess a perfect record in Super 15 play thus far and will again be looking to their Springbok filled forward pack to dominate in this fixture and lay a foundation for their backline which was starved of the ball and opportunities last week.
I cannot tip against the Sharks in this fixture though I again expect the Kings to lift in front of their home crowd particularly as this will be their first competition fixture against a conference member.
Prediction: Sharks by 23
Blues v Bulls, Auckland
The final match of the round would have been penciled in by many as a win for the Bulls before the season started however 3 rounds into this competition the Blues have been nothing short of impressive and have earned the moniker of favorite for this game. Coming off the back of an excellent win against the Crusaders, Kirwan’s men will be looking to continue to play their expansive and confident style of play against the travelling Bulls.
The Bulls have failed to impress anyone so far, particularly last week when they were expected to dominate the Force and instead they only pulled away from the Force in the last 10 minutes of the game. In the 13 matches played between the two, the Bulls only won four, with one draw, but often lost heavily. In fact, the average score between the sides is 38-25. The Bulls start probably the toughest overseas tour for a South African team (they also play the Crusaders, Reds and Brumbies on this tour) here and will be hoping to get off to a good start here.
The Bulls are next to impossible to back here on form but there is also a part of me that is expecting the bubble of the Blues to burst. I do not think that will happen in this game though and thus I am tipping them to make it three wins from three starts here.
Prediction: Blues by 9