After missing writing my preview last week due to work pressures, the preview is back strong this week with a bumper crop of games this weekend, some of which could have a large bearing on the final make up of the top six.
Chiefs v Hurricanes
There is only one game to kick the round off this Friday night and that game sees the defending champion Chiefs hosting the Hurricanes in Rotorua. The Chiefs have had a difficult season so far and are almost out of the running for the finals if they do not win this fixture. They have lost their last three matches and are on the bottom of the NZ Conference. The Hurricanes are playing their last regular season game this week (as they have the bye next week) and come into this game on a high have beaten the conference leading Crusaders last week. They have some significant injury concerns in their pack.
The Hurricanes won the first game between the teams this season 45-8 and I expect them to finish the regular season with a win here albeit I expect this to be a much closer encounter.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 7
Lions v Rebels
In the early hours of Saturday morning the Melbourne Rebels will take on the Lions in Johannesburg. This is only the second meeting between these two franchises and, in the grand scheme of the season, mean nothing at all to who might play in the finals. Both sides have, frankly, disappointed after strong starts to the season and I do not expect this game to reach any great heights as a spectacle.
The Rebels have never won a game off Australian soil and the Lions have won four of their six games in Jo’burg so this to me is looking like a fairly easy victory, on form, for the Lions here.
Prediction: Lions by 11
Crusaders v Blues
Saturday evening rugby in New Zealand comes from Christchurch this week with the Crusaders hosting the Blues. This is a game that could have large ramifications on the finals with the Crusaders sitting atop the New Zealand conference but only one win in front of the trailing Highlanders and Hurricanes and the Blues out of contention if they lose in this game. The Crusaders have had patchy form at home this season having only won only three of six games in Christchurch this year. Equally as patchy has been the Blues away form, they won away for the first time last week against the Force.
I struggle to see the Blues winning back to back games away from home given their recent form and that means I struggle to see the Blues winning this game. Equally: whilst the Crusaders sit atop the New Zealand conference they have struggled at home but that said, I expect them to win what might be a free scoring encounter here fairly easily.
Prediction: Crusaders by 14
Force v Reds
The Queensland Reds have travelled to the West to face a team that could rightly be called their nemesis in the form of the Force. In games between these two teams in Perth, of which there has been six, the Reds have only won two games. The Force were thrashed last week by the Blues which is out of character for a team that this season is having its best season ever. They are without Sias Ebersohn. The Reds are having a season of significant regret this year partially as a result of injuries to key players but they could not be said to be well coached this season either. They were very impressive last week against the Rebels and have won two in a row.
My head here says the Force should win but my heart is saying (hoping) that it will be the Reds third win in a row. For the purposes of this preview I am going to tip the Force but with limited confidence.
Prediction: Force by 5
Stormers v Bulls
The first of two Saturday evening fixtures from South Africa comes from Cape Town with the Stormers hosting the Bulls. These two teams are the historical powerhouses of South Africa’s representation in Super Rugby albeit this year has been a season of lament for both teams with both having played 14 games and won six. This is a very easy game to tip though on form given that the Bulls have failed to win a game away from home in all seven away games they have played in 2014. I can not see them breaking that duck here.
Prediction: Stormers by 4
Cheetahs v Sharks
Bloemfontein is the scene of the second of the Saturday evening fixtures in South Africa as the Sharks travel to face the Cheetahs. This year the Sharks are clearly the best team in the South African conference whilst the Cheetahs having clearly been the worse this season. Statistics are also against the Cheetahs as they have only bested the Sharks once in the five games they have hosted in Bloemfontein.
The Sharks have already made the finals but will be looking for a bonus point here to try to rest the top spot back off the Waratahs. The Cheetahs are just waiting for the season to be over and I expect them to get touched up in this game.
Prediction: Sharks by 19
Waratahs v Highlanders
The final match of the round is close to the match of the round with the tournament leading, Waratahs, hosting the Highlanders (currently 4th on the table) on Sunday afternoon in Sydney. The Waratahs were just ruthless last week in besting the Brumbies and have made one injury enforced change with Dave Dennis out of the season and Stephen Hoiles coming in to replace him. The Highlanders are the form team of the New Zealand conference at the moment having defeated the Chiefs last week and bring the same team as ran out in that game.
The Waratahs have the distinct statistical advantage in home games between these two teams having won six of the eight games between the two in Sydney and I expect them to move it seven wins from nine games here to consolidate their position on top of the ladder.
Prediction: Waratahs by 11