Crusaders v Force, Christchurch Stadium
The first match of the round pits the surging Crusaders against the fairytale story Force in Christchurch. The Crusaders bounced back from a disappointing loss to the Sharks with only 14 men with a hard fought victory against Highlanders aways from home and will come into this fixture with some confidence having won 6 of their last 7 games. The Force are in the midst of their best season ever and will be keen to keep winning to secure second spot in the Australian conference. In team changes: Kieran Read returns for the home team having been out for 6 weeks.
Head to head these games have been evenly split between the teams over the last five years albeit the Crusaders have not been defeated by the Force at home in that span. I do not see this record changing in this lead off to round 16 though I do believe the game will be closer than many will expect.
Prediction: Crusaders by 11
Reds v Highlanders, Lang Park
The second Friday night fixture pits the bottom of the ladder Reds against the resurgent Highlanders at Lang Park. This has been a season to forget for Reds fans. More to the point: at home the Reds have been unable to convert fan pressure and the fortress atmosphere that comes from playing at Lang Park into victories having lost four consecutive home games this season. Add to that a long injury list and one wonders if the Reds will win again this season. The Highlanders conversely come to Brisbane in a diametrically different position to that which faced them 12 months ago: they were excellent against the Crusaders last week and are one of four New Zealand conference teams in the hunt for the top spot in that conference.
I am a diehard Reds fan and I just can not tip them here. Normally my heart yearns to tip the Reds even when the head does not but the defensive effort I witnessed two weeks ago against the Rebels killed even my heart’s yearnings. The Highlanders, on form, win this game: it is that simple. The margin will be tight though as the Reds have lost by less than 3 points in 3 of those 4 home losses noted above.
Prediction: Highlanders by 3
Chiefs v Waratahs, Yarrow Stadium
The first “super” Saturday fixture this week comes from the unusual surrounds of New Plymouth and Yarrow Stadium where the Chiefs host the Waratahs. The Chiefs, to put it plainly, were destroyed last week by the Hurricanes. The question now is whether that loss was an anomaly or indicative of the end of the Chiefs title defence. This is the start of four tough encounters to finish the season so they will need to find a way to defend against another rampant backline in this game. The Waratahs have a woeful record in games in New Zealand having lost their last 8 in the shaky isles. They come into this game off the back of a 3 game winning streak and with their player group cockahoop having dominated selections for Wallabies jumpers during the week.
The Chiefs surely can not be a bad as they were last week two weeks in a row and the Waratahs are known to get a bit ahead of themselves when they win 3 games in a row (memories of last year anyone??). I am prepared to forgive the Chiefs performance last week and tip them here in what will be another close encounter.
Prediction: Chiefs by 6
Blues v Hurricanes, Eden Park
Auckland is the focus of the last New Zealand based game of Round 16 with the Blues hosting the Hurricanes at Eden Park. This, on paper, should be an easy game to tip: the Hurricanes possess the most potent offensive line in the competition at the moment whilst the Blues are in the bottom quarter of teams when it comes to defence. Those two factors point directly to a Hurricanes win by plenty. That said, the Blues have been strong, and indeed undefeated until last week’s loss, at home and the Hurricanes’ form at times can be metaphorically akin to a weather vein spinning in a cyclone. Peeri Weepu returns for the Blues on the bench having been extracted from the South Auckland McDonalds he has been rehabbing in for the last 3 weeks and he will add some spark to this line up.
I know the Hurricanes can be hard to trust on form however if they approach anywhere near their form from last week they will blow the Blues off the park. This will be a high scoring encounter and the Hurricanes should win with the bonus point.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 16
Brumbies v Rebels, GIO Stadium
The only game in Australia on Saturday comes from the nations capital with the Brumbies hosting the Rebels. This game presents as another game that ought be easy to tip on paper: the Brumbies have gone 7-1 at home this season whilst the Rebels are 1-6 in games away from home (and that victory was against the woeful Reds). That said, the Brumbies will have been rocked by their poor tour of South Africa, the fruits of which have seen their finals aspirations go into free fall. The Rebels also will have been chastened last week by their flogging at the hands of the Waratahs, having been on a high only the week previous after their win against the Reds at Lang Park.
Despite the malaise that has gone over the Brumbies following their bad away trip to the Cape I expect them to come out firing in this game and to be desperate to get their finals path back on track. The margin in local derbies is almost always closer than one expects so I do not expect this to be a blowout.
Prediction: Brumbies by 9
Lions v Bulls, Ellis Park
The first of two mismatches to end Round 16 sees the Lions hosting the Bulls in Johannesburg. The Bulls come into this game in excellent form having won their last 3 games (following their return home from Australia / New Zealand) including a very impressive victory over the Brumbies last week. Their finals hopes have not been dented despite being in the midst of a 7 game losing streak away from home. The Lions started this season with much promise however, since they have not had a string of home games to rely upon, they have lost 7 in a row to plummet to the bottom of the South African conference. They have picked a new front row this week in the hopes of sparking some action in the pack.
Just can not see the Lions getting close to the Bulls in this game and expect the Bulls to snap their long away from home losing streak. This game might end up in a blow out with the Lions coming off the back of a long 4 week tour in Australia / New Zealand.
Prediction: Bulls by 13
Sharks v Stormers, Kings Park
The final match of the round is, simply put, the easiest to tip in my opinion: the Sharks are hosting the Stormers in Durban and should win this game in canter. Actually a canter may be too strong to say given that the Stormers have found some form in recent weeks and the Sharks are coming off an Australian / New Zealand tour. That said the Sharks have been very very strong at home this season (8-1) whilst the Stormers have fallen, like many other teams this season, to the “away from home curse” and are 1-7 on the road. They are also without their captain, Jean de Villiers, who will not be sighted again in Super Rugby this season.
This round finishes with an easy win for the Sharks as they continue their march to the top spot and home finals advantage. Factoring in the travel demands on them this week and the effect of this being a home derby I do not expect this game to be a blow out.
Prediction: Sharks by 10