Hurricanes v Blues
This weeks first game comes to us from Wellington with a local derby between the Hurricanes and the Blues.
Head to head in the last 7 games between these two franchises the Blues have the edge having won 4 of those encounters. The Blues were not bested by the Hurricanes last year in the home and away season and, indeed, there is no real home advantage for the Hurricanes in this game, as they have only been successful once at home against the Blues since 2010.
The Hurricanes got off to an ordinary start to this season however they have improved in recent weeks with back to back wins against the Bulls and Crusaders leading into their bye last week. The team for this week is largely unchanged from that which won two weeks ago against the Bulls save for the inclusion of Reggie Goodes who replaces Ben Franks. There are some changes on the reserves bench with Tim Bateman and Chris Smylie returning from injury.
The Blues also had a bye last week and have made seven changes to their line up from that which lost to Brumbies in Canberra. The most important of those changes are the return of some of their stars from injury with Keven Mealamu, Patrick Tuipulotu and Tom Donnelly all returning. Luke Braid has been selected to start having been benched two weeks ago. Before their loss to the Brumbies, the Blues were on a two game winning streak and will be looking to return to that form.
This is a tough game to tip at the start of the round however I think the Hurricanes have a slight edge form wise and being at home always helps them (their poor form against the Blues at home notwithstanding). This will be an entertaining game if nothing else with lots of tries on the offing.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 8
Rebels v Force
The second game for Friday night is an Australian Derby coming from Melbourne with the Western Force travelling to face the Rebels.
The Rebels have the statistical advantage in games between these franchises having won 5 of the 7 games played between the two teams. The Force won the first encounter between the teams this year in Perth 32-7 having lead 32-0 at half time.
The Force are on a record breaking winning streak having not lost a game since that win against the Rebels on 8 March 2014. They have taken some big scalps in that time, including the Chiefs, Reds and Waratahs, and will be rightly confident to extend their winning streak to six in this game. They have lost Sam Wykes, Alby Mathewson and Luke Morahan for this game. They are replaced by Adam Coleman, Ian Prior and Patrick Dellit.
The Rebels have only made one change to the team that was bested last week by the Chiefs in Hamilton last week with Hugh Pyle dropped to the benched and Cadeyrn Neville stepping into the second row to replace him. It has been a hit and miss season for the Rebels so far with only two wins to their name, albeit one such win was possibly their biggest since they have been in the competition against the Brumbies.
Inexplicably, bookmakers in Australia have installed the Rebels as favourites for this game. I presume that they do not actually watch rugby. The Force are in form, have a confident line up and have broken their away from home hoodoo. They will this game in what will be a tight fixture, as all local derbies are.
Prediction: Force by 4
Chiefs v Crusaders
In a round of local derbies, this is probably the most expected one and is certainly the one with the most storied history.
The Chiefs have dominated encounters between these two teams with the defending champions having been successful 5 times in the last 7 games played including two finals. The last time the Chiefs last at home to the Crusaders was in July 2012: since then they have won three home games against the men from Christchurch. The Chiefs won the first encounter between these sides, which started their seasons, 18-10.
The Crusaders have returned from South Africa off the back of the best tour by a foreign side to those shores this season. They won both of their games in the Cape, albeit those results must be taken with a grain of salt given that they were playing the Cheetahs and the Lions in those games. Todd Blackadder has made three changes for this game with Owen Franks returning to the starting line up from the bench as do Tom Taylor and Jordan Taufua.
The Chiefs returned from a difficult South African trip last week with a win against the Rebels 22-16. It would be fair to say that they are playing scrappy rugby but keep finding ways to get results and remain at the top of the New Zealand conference. They have only lost once this season to the Force. Two draws, coming home with wet sails, in South Africa mean they are on a three game non-loosing streak. They continue to rotate their players and have made 6 changes for this game.
This will be a cracking game of rugby. I can not tip against the defending champions at home but again think this game will be a tight encounter.
Prediction: Chiefs by 8
Waratahs v Bulls
The only non-derby match this round comes from Sydney with the returning Waratahs hosting the travelling Bulls.
The Bulls have not been defeated by the Waratahs in the last 8 encounters between these teams and have dominated the ‘Tahs in Sydney in the last 3 games held there.
The Bulls have had an interesting start to the season: they have not been defeated at home whilst not troubling the scorers away from home. Interestingly though they have not been beaten, their first game loss against the Sharks aside, by more than 7 points in their away losses. Frans Ludeke has named the same side as that which lost in Dunedin lost week.
The Waratahs will be overjoyed with the return of Israel Folau after the, allegedly controversial, decision that he not be selected last week against the Force. Wycliffe Palu returns from the bench having also been missing injured last week. The Waratahs received almost all of the hype from Foxsports and the press at the start of the season but have not lived up to the hype without Folau in their line up. In their last 5 games they have followed a loss with a win so they will looking for that record to follow again here.
The Waratahs returned home the easy way from South Africa via Perth and welcome back their best player for this game. The Bulls struggle away from home and had an injury ravaged before they arrived in New Zealand / Australia. This is an easy one to tip albeit again I expect this to be a close game.
Prediction: Waratahs by 9
Sharks v Cheetahs
This round of rugby finishes with two local South African derbies, the first of which sees the Sharks host the Cheetahs at Kings Park.
The Cheetahs have always struggled against the Sharks and have only won twice against them in the last seven games between these franchises. Both of those wins for the Cheetahs have come in games at Kings Park so any fortress like quality the Sharks have at Kings Park is lessened when the Cheetahs come to town.
The Sharks have been nothing short of excellent this year and are the best team in the competition so far having only lost one game (against the Bulls three games ago). Jake White has been forced to make two changes for this game with Tim Swiel replacing Fred Zeilinga at flyhalf and Tonderai Chavhanga gaining his Sharks debut in place of the injured Odwa Ndungane.
The Cheetahs, there is no way to sugar coat this, have been terrible this season and have only won once so far (as well as drawing with the Chiefs 43-43 two weeks ago). They have made two changes for this game Heinrich Brussow returns from injury to the side of the scrum in place of the now injured Lappies Labuschagne and Johan Goosen is out with a concussion sustained last week with Elgar Watts replacing him.
This is a game of two contrasting defensive teams: the Sharks have the best defensive record in the competition with the least points scored against them whilst the Cheetahs have the worst such record having had the most points scored against them in 2014. This is the easiest game of the round to tip: the Sharks will win this by plenty.
Prediction: Sharks by 19
Stormers v Lions
The final match of the round comes to us from Newlands where the Lions travel to face the struggling Stormers.
Before the Lions were “rested” from the competition in 2013, the Stormers dominated encounters between the two teams having won the last six games between the two before the Lions short exile. Upon the Lions return to the competition they won their first encounter between the teams at home 34-10.
The Stormers have had a season to forget and are in the midst of a five game losing streak, four games of which were on the road against Australia and New Zealand’s best four teams. They have made five changes for this game the biggest of which is the return of Jean de Villiers. Nic Groom and Demetri Catrakilis are the new halves pairing for the Stormers with Peter Grant moving to fullback.
The Lions have also made several changes to the side that lost last week to the Sharks at home. In the forwards Robbie Coetzee and Jaco Kriel return to the starting line up whilst in the backs Ross Cronje, Anthony Volmink and Chrysander Botha all start. The Lions have been one of the surprise packets of 2014, albeit they have also had one of the best draws having played their last 4 games at home and not having left South Africa as yet.
Again I am puzzled as to why the Stormers have been installed as such heavy favourites in this game. I expect this to be closely fought tussle and I am tipping an upset with the Lions besting a Stormers line up down on form and confidence. Losing has been become a habit for them and that is a habit that is hard to break.
Prediction: Lions by 4
Byes: Brumbies, Reds, Highlanders