What can one say about last week? Teams that were expected to win simply did not, the Cheetahs pulled off the surprise of the round, the Kings were not as bad as we thought they would be (again) and it was a punter’s nightmare.
A possible preview of the final of this year’s competition between the Stormers and Chiefs presented the match of the round in a pulsating encounter.
This week’s fixtures present a mix of mouthwatering contests and talent mixmatches that becomes the norm for this part of the competition with the final match of the around another possibility for a final preview as the Sharks host the top of the table Brumbies.
Highlanders v Hurricanes, Dunedin
After falling at the final hurdle against the Reds a fortnight ago, the Hurricanes snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against the Crusaders with a last minute intercept try. Beauden Barrett has bounced back from his injury of last season and looks another quality number 10 in the New Zealand system. In particular his kicking from the tee has been spectacular and will again be a focal point for the point scoring efforts of the ‘Canes in this one. They have some injury concerns in the pack, particularly at hooker.
The Highlanders were some pundits (including yours truly) pick to lead the New Zealand conference this year and frankly their form so far could not have been further from that. They were terrible last week against the travelling Cheetahs; notorious bad travellers. A particular concern for the Highlanders is that they have received nothing really so far from their “stars”. If they are to win this game they will need those “stars” in Hore, Smith, Gear and Nono to lift after a couple of ordinary weeks.
Forget where they are sitting on the table; these long time rivals will rip into each other this game and provide another of those quintessential New Zealand derby epics. I have been on the Highlanders since the start of the season and whilst they have let me down so far I am sticking with them at home in this game, if nothing else, because they will be chastened after last week’s performances and will not want to put on another display like that in front of their fans.
Prediction: Highlanders by 9
Waratahs v Cheetahs, Sydney
The Waratahs were belted last week by the high flying Brumbies and have made sweeping changes to their lineup to for this game. Berrick Barnes returns to the back line in this fixture though it has to be conceded that no player last year caused more handwringing and social media comment over his form last season than him. If he kicks the ball away in the style of last year the Waratahs will struggle. However, if the Waratahs can find a way to get the ball to there, admittedly, classy back line they should score some points. That will require though their much vaunted “Wallaby” forward pack to win at the gain line and in the set pieces: something they have struggled with so far.
The Cheetahs’ win over the much fancied Highlanders in Dunedin was one of the highlights of the round last week and again showed what an exciting lineup they can be. Enigmatic is one way to describe the Cheetahs and really it is difficult to tip which side will show up in Sydney for this game. Their excellent form has been centred on the form of their half backs, with, in particular, Johan Goosen in excellent form with the ball in hand and with the boot.
If the Cheetahs that turned up last week turn up in Sydney they will win this game. If the Cheetahs of previous seasons on the road run out then the Waratahs are in with a chance. This is a difficult one to pick however the head is saying the Cheetahs and I will stick that thought here.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 6
Kings v Chiefs, Port Elizabeth
The Kings have defied expectations so far and were impressive last week in denying the Sharks a try. Defence and attitude have gone a long way to making the introduction of the Kings one of the stories of the Super 15 far. It must be conceded that playing at home exclusively so far has also assisted them. They go into this fixture with high hopes one expects but again are without their injured captain, Luke Watson.
The defending champion Chiefs came off second best against the Stormers in the match of the tournament so far. By far the pick of the teams from across the ditch so far, they possess fire power in attack seemingly unmatched by any other province. The resume of the heir apparent to Dad Carter, Aaron Cruden continues to grow with each week and he will again be their focal point in attack.
The Kings face by far their sternest test to date in a team that averages 40 point per game and will be smarting after last week’s loss. Having been expected my most to implode already in a fixture this season, this may well be the game the pundits get their wish. The Chiefs win this game with the margin the only question make.
Prediction: Chiefs by 30
Crusaders v Bulls, Christchurch
Is this the traditional slow start from the Crusaders or are there bigger demons at play for the men from Canterbury? That is a question that fans of this iconic team will again be wondering. There were distinctly positive signs for the Crusaders last week that they had got their attacking groove back and it must be conceded that when they click there are few teams in the competition that can match them.
What a wonderful week last week for the men from Pretoria: oft maligned for their attack they crossed the white paint 3 times to best the previously undefeated Blues in Auckland in a result all the more significant because it presented as the first time the Bulls have defeated the Blues at Eden Park. It will not be in attack though that the Bulls will need to lift against the Crusaders: it will be in defence. The Bulls will need to bring every bit of their defensive A game to stifle the Crusaders and with this in mind they will be heartened by the news that Dewald Potgieter has been passed fit to play in Addington.
The Crusaders vex me at this time of year and it comes back to the old conundrum: are they foxing or are their bigger issues in their lineup? The still possess the stars of previous campaigns but they are all one year older. Ultimately though I think they have a few to many points in them for the Bulls and expect them to win this fixture in what presents as a quality game of rugby.
Prediction: Crusaders by 7
Reds v Force, Brisbane
The only Australian conference “Derby” of the round sees the Western Force make the long trip to Lang Park to face the Reds. What can be said about the Force’s season so far? Save for their first half effort against the Rebels in round 1 they have been less than impressive with their poor form reaching its epoch in their loss to the Kings. Michael Foley has the toughest task in Australian rugby albeit with a list that boasts more talent than their results suggest.
Reds fans are dancing down Caxton Street and around headquarters at Ballymore at the moment with the news they have long been waiting for: talismatic half back Will Genia is back in the number 9 jersey. The fact that the Reds have only lost one game in his absence is a testament to the game plan of the coach and a willingness of this team to “win ugly”. The young back row for the Reds has been on fire (although you wouldn’t know it to read the southern press) and they will again be called on to lay a solid platform for a backline that has not reached its potential this season.
After a week of mild controversy with the standing down of the Digby Ioane and in front of the largest membership group in Australian rugby no other result other than a Reds win is contemplatable in this fixture.
Prediction: Reds by 14
Sharks v Brumbies, Durban
The Sharks top the table in the South African conference and have done so without crossing the try line in their last two fixtures. Much like the Reds have been in the Australian conference they have found a way to win and you can not ask much more than that! They do have some injury concerns going into this fixture with Jean Deysel and Jacques Botes both ruled out for extended period.
The Brumbies have been the most impressive team in the tournament to date and rightly head the table off the back of their bonus point win last week against their arch rivals the Waratahs. Obviously massive news in the Brumbies camp has been the season ending injury to David Pocock but it has to be said that in George Smith they have an exemplary replacement who may just prove to be the buy of the year. With the Sharks kickers in ridiculously good form they will need to be mindful of any ill discipline inside their own half in this game.
If this is the season the Brumbies are to win the tournament (again) they will need to win games like this. Equally the Sharks are in form, winning ugly, and will be in front of their home crowd. This will be the closest match of the round I am tipping the Sharks to just sneak home.
Prediction: Sharks by 2