Another week of Super 15 action has past and it was another week of interesting results. The Kings surprised many with their spirited performance in Canberra, the Rebels won the battle of the wooden spooners in the Australian conference, the Cheetahs stayed on a roll and the Highlanders inexplicably continued their loosing streak.
This week’s round presents a full round of seven matches with the Waratahs having the bye which they sorely need after last week’s performance against the Hurricanes.
Highlanders v Brumbies, Dunedin
The Brumbies seem to have lost their edge and that was never clearer than last week against the Kings on their home track. I know that they have had some players out however they were nearly at full strength last week and could not find the try line. Jessie Mogg returns for them this week as they travel for the first time since their South Africa safari ended 3 weeks ago.
The Highlanders are 0-6 to start the season and the egg is well and truly on my face having tipped them to be the winner of the New Zealand conference at the state of the season. Just 9 rounds into the season and their season is offer for all intents and purposes. I have been saying it for weeks however they do not appear far away from their first win of the season and really need their stars in Nonu, Thorn and others to start performing at the level expected of them.
The Brumbies were under par last week. The Highlanders have been close to a win but have just come up short. I have been tipping the Highlanders every round this season and I am tipping them again here. The Brumbies are flat and the Highlanders luck has to change soon.
Prediction: Highlanders by 8
Chiefs v Reds, Hamilton
Both teams come into this fixture fresh of a well needed bye last week. The Chiefs are defending their title with the expected aplomb having not lost a game since round 4 and possess the most potent attack in the competition. Aaron Cruden will again be vital for the Chiefs as he continues to try to keep the young upstarts behind him from passing him as second in line from D Carter’s crown.
The Reds needed the bye last week: they were belted physically by the Highlanders in their last fixture. The return of Messrs Horwill and Genia have lifted this line up and, when Digby Ioane returns they will be at full strength for the first time in recent memory. Teams coached by Ewen McKenzie have a knack of winning ugly and the Reds are doing that again this season.
I would love to tip the Reds to continue their run of recent winning form against the Chiefs. This a battle that could come down to the match up of Cruden v Cooper and I do not think Cooper is in as good as form as Cruden just at the moment which means I have to tip the Chiefs.
Prediction: Chiefs by 11
Blues v Hurricanes, Auckland
The Hurricanes travel to the North Island to Auckland in this fixture which is the first derby match of the round. The Hurricanes have been winning games off the back of their enterprising attack whilst leaking tries like the metaphorical sieve. They are the Cheetahs of previous years in 2013. Beauden Barrett’s stock just continues to rise with each week however they need to tighten their defence if they are to challenge here.
I wrapped Rene Ranger last week in this column and he did not disappoint last week against the Highlanders. The combination of Piri Weepu and Chris Noakes is really starting to click for the Blues with Weepu starting to look like his old self (around 2008) with every game. Sir John Kirwan will have his team primed for this fixture and they will be looking to improve on their 3-3 record at home here.
This could be a very entertaining fixture in wish a lot of points are scored. I can not see the Hurricanes defending well enough to win here which will see the Blues score more than their share of tries and win at home.
Prediction: Blues by 8
Rebels v Kings, Melbourne
The Rebels are a conundrum: they have an impressive list, they are a basket case off the field and their only successes this year have been against the Western Force. Those results belie the quality in their line up and the sooner the trio of Higginbotham, Phipps and O’Connor start to work well together the better for the Rebels. The form of Mitch Inman has been a rare bright spot for men from Melbourne.
The Kings’ draw against the Brumbies was nothing short of miraculous. Actually, scratch that: credit where it is due must be given and the Kings have been what the Lions were not last year, resilient under pressure and competitive. They will not win many games this season however it is clear they are worthy participants in this competition.
Every week so far I have tipped against the Kings but a margin of more than 15. Yet again the egg is truly on my face. I think the Rebels will win this game in part because the Kings are at the end of a long tour however it will be a much closer contest than many expect.
Prediction: Rebels by 6
Force v Crusaders, Perth
The Crusaders have been decimated by injuries thus far this season and will not be happy with their 3-3 record to start things off. Even with their injury concerns and being at the end of a long trip, their line up is replete with All Blacks. Israel Dagg will continue to work his way into the season after his abridged start to the season and the Force will need to ensure he gets no free space at NIB stadium.
Round 5 and the Force’s only win of the season against the Reds seems like an eon ago and last week’s performance gave nothing to give loyal Force fans that a corner was about to be turned. They face the most storied line up in Super 15 history here at home and home ground advantage is just about the only positive they possess going into this game.
No matter how down on players and form the Crusaders might be and despite this being a stopover for them at the end of a long tour, I can not see the Force mustering enough fire power in this fixture to bother the men from Christchurch. If the Force are not on top of their game in the first 20 minutes well could be seeing a cricket score at NIB.
Prediction: Crusaders by 19
Stormers v Sharks, Cape Town
The Stormers are in disarray at the moment: down on results and struggling under the weight of injuries they can not seem to find a way to win games at the moment. Elton Jantjies, Peter Grant and Jaco Taute are all injuried for this game. The loss of their principal and back up kickers has to have an effect and this is even more so given the type of game plans the Stormers generally play.
The Sharks are in the form that took them to the finals last year. In fact they even be better than last year given that they possess the best defensive record in the competition. I commented a few weeks back that the Sharks are not trying scoring dynamos by any means however they are playing a positive brand of rugby at the moment of the back of the fast maturing Patrick Lambie’s boot.
The Stormers just seem to be missing a spark this year and the loss of Jantjies is a massive one for them. By the same token the Sharks again get to rally around their young star in Lambie. I think the Sharks will win this fixture and win it well.
Prediction: Sharks by 12
Bulls v Cheetahs, Pretoria
The last match of the round also presents as a classic derby match. In years gone past the Bulls would have been short priced favourites at home to win here. However this is not the Bulls of previous years and they return here off the back of a run of 3 consecutive losses before last week’s bye.
The Cheetahs are the surprise packet of this season and travel to Pretoria for this fixture looking for the sixth victory in succession. They are winning games not only off the back of their creativity with the ball but also with some steel in their defence which had been lacking in previous seasons. The work of their back three, particularly young Raymond Rhule who has 13 line busts to his name after 7 fixtures, has been impressive and will need to continue here to best the Bulls.
You could never have convinced me that the Cheetahs would win 5 in a row this season however I am tipping them to bring up their 6th win in a row in this fixture against a depleted Bulls line up still recovering from a long tour.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 6