What a week last week was in Super 15: there was some quality rugby played and upsets abounded. That is the strength of the Super 15 as a domestic competition: any team (within reason) can win on any given day.
This week is again replete with exciting fixtures, a couple of talent mix matches and a game that you can probably forget!
Chiefs v Highlanders, Waikato Stadium
Déjà vu all over again for these teams as two of the pre-season favorites for the Super 15 title face off for the second time this year in Hamilton. It was one of the matches of the season the last time they played and this game again presents as a good one.
Don’t be fooled by the failure of the Highlanders to win a game so far this season. Aside from a poor performance against the Cheetahs two weeks ago they have been valiant in defeat. They possess a classy, if a little aged, lineup and will be desperate for their first win of the season as they travel north here. Worryingly for the men from the deep south, they have been run off their feet already this season by their opponents here and this time will be without their home crowd.
The Chiefs possess some of the slickest backs in the competition without the reputations of some of their contemporaries and they give the impression that they are not all other bothered by the lack of plaudits they receive. In the forwards Liam Messam is to showing once again why he is one of the two best flankers in the land of the long white cloud with dominant performances week after week.
The Highlanders will be desperate for a win here but the Chiefs have too much fire power and, whilst I hate to admit it, my pre-season tip to win the New Zealand Conference is going to be winless from four outings have this game for mine.
Prediction: Chiefs by 13.
Crusaders v Kings, AAMI Stadium
The Kings have left the comfortable surrounds of Port Elizabeth for the first time this season and face one of the most imposing tests in domestic rugby: a wounded Crusaders line up looking to reverse their usual slow start to the season. Whilst the Kings have shown plenty of heart to date and have defended like men possessed at times an even cursory glance at their team sheet shows that they are outmatched in this game.
The Crusaders have been the dominant franchise in the whole of Super rugby for such a long time that sometimes it is easy to forget just how good a team list they possess. None of their best 22 would look out of place in an All Black jersey and in front of their home they generally simply do not loose.
There is no other result worth thinking about here other than a Crusaders victory. I have tipped the Kings to be smashed every game so far and they have proven me wrong week after week. That said one suspects that trend this week.
Prediction: Crusaders by 23.
Reds v Bulls, Suncorp Stadium
Both teams come into this fixture after what can only be described as terrible showings last week that saw them defeated in the worst possible ways. Simply put the Bulls were smashed by the Crusaders. There were no positives at all to come out the last fixture for them and that rating of their game is backed up by not only the numerous changes made to their line up for this fixture but also off the back of them flying in players from Pretoria.
The Reds come into this fixture after a loss that, frankly, they were lucky they were not booed by their fans after. They were just poor and have been further rocked by not only the announcement of E McKenzie plans for next season but also the injury to the forgotten flanker, Liam Gill. By all reports they have been belted by McKenzie and Graham on the training track this week and a repeat of last week moribund performance will not be acceptable to the Lang Park faithful.
Those changes made by the Bulls and the dropping of Steyn to the bench do nothing though to dispel the thought that they just do not have the cattle (pun intended) to score enough points in this one. The, one assumes, much chastened Reds to give their fans something to cheer about in their last game at home for a while.
Prediction: Reds by 9.
Force v Cheetahs, NIB Stadium
If you had have told me before the start of the season that I would starting my preview of this game with the words “Both sides come into this game off a victory last week …” I would have replied in the style of Darryl Kerrigan. However it is true: the Force defeated the Reds last week and the Cheetahs continued their excellent away form with a win over of the Waratahs.
There are not two more disparate styles of play in the Super 15 than those of these two teams. Where the Force are dour the Cheetahs are enterprising; where the Force show willing defence the Cheetahs lack discipline; and where the Force grind out games the Cheetahs often throw caution to the wind.
This is a battle between one of the more physical back rows in the game and an very exciting backline that will chance its arm from the first whistle. If the Cheetahs get off to their now customary fast start they will simply have too many points for the Force here. However, if the Force can contain their opponents from Bloemfontein they could just sneak another victory. At the end of a long tour, the Cheetahs may have one eye on the plane home and having tipped the Force to not win a game only two weeks ago I have a sneaking suspicion they might just make it two from two here.
Prediction: Force by 4.
Sharks v Rebels, Kings Park
In the aftermath of a shellacking from the competition front running Brumbies last week, the Sharks have made a number of changes to their line up this week with Frans Styen, Jannie du Plessis and Ryan Kankowski all dropped to the bench for this game while Lwazi Mvovo and Cobus Reinach return to the backline.
The Rebels have also made some changes to their line up for this game, the biggest being their captain Gareth Delve to the back of the scrum. If the Rebels are to have any chance in this game it will be off the back of the ball that the back row of Delve, Fulistaller and Higginbotham can provide to James O’Connor who is again without his attacking consigliore, Kurtley Beale for this fixture.
The Rebels are the Cheetahs of the Australian conference: they play an expansive game but can also fade out in the second half of fixtures. The Sharks will be looking for some measure of revenge in front of the same home fans that they were embarrassed in front of last week. I cannot go past the Sharks to win this game and win it well.
Prediction: Sharks by 14.
Stormers v Brumbies, Newlands, 4am (EDT) Sunday FS2HD
Is there a team in better form in domestic rugby at the moment than the Brumbies? The short answer is no. Any fair minded pundit would have thought that last week they may have struggled having lost their big off season recruit, D Pocock, for the season but on any viewing of last week’s fixture they seemed to revel in the challenge. Jake White has molded this young outfit into a quality outfit that has a strong scrum to complement a quality running game.
The Stormers have not been overly impressive so far this season and are continuing to play their style of game that regularly fails to impress but which also reaps results. They also have some injury woes at the moment with Schalk Burger and Bryan Habana unavailable for selection. They will again be relying on stifling their opposition and hoping for mistakes from the Brumbies that lead to points.
There will be a game in the near future where the Brumbies perfect start to the season will come to an end. I do not see it being this game however: the Brumbies are just in too good a form here and have a coach who will have prepared them for everything that the Stormers will throw at them.
Prediction: Brumbies by 10.
Waratahs v Blues, Allianz Stadium
Sunday afternoon football in Sydney this week sees the Waratahs host the Blues in the last match of a full round of Super 15. The renaissance of the Blues under the stewardship of John Kirwan has been one of the stories of the competition so far. This resurgence is no more obvious than when one considers the form of Piri Weepu this year. Whilst he still looks like he is a big mac or two over weight his drive of his team around the park has been one of the main reasons they have been so good so far.
There is only word to describe the Waratahs: moribund. They seem to lack attacking creativity at half back, five-eight and full back whilst at the same time do not have the forward back to maintain sufficient dominance and self discipline to wear down sides in the style of the Stormers. On paper they have one of the best forward packs in the franchise but if tournaments were won on paper the Waratahs would have a trophy cabinet replete with Super 15 titles instead of a bare cupboard filled with cobwebs.
If there is hope for the Waratahs it lies in its young guns: Hooper and Volavola but they cannot do it on their own and that being the case I cannot see the Waratahs scoring enough points, again, in this game to best the Blues.
Prediction: Blues by 7.
Match of the Round: It will be a battle royal in Hamilton in the first match of the round with the Chiefs hosting the Highlanders. Find a TV and watch it.
Turn off the tape: I cannot see the Crusaders v Kings game reaching any great heights.
Upset: I cannot believe I am tipping the Force to win again but I am. That is the upset of the round for me.