The first, albeit abridged, round of Super Rugby last week may have produced one of the upsets of the season with the Lions defeated the heavily fancied Cheetahs. In the other fixture the Sharks did what everyone expected of them by easily accounting for the Bulls.
This week is our first full round of rugby for the 2014 season with all teams in action but for the Melbourne Rebels who have the bye and will not start their 2014 campaign until Round 3 next week.
Crusaders v Chiefs
What a game to get proceedings underway in Round 2: the dual defending champions taking on the only team to have one this tournament three times in a row. Statistically the Crusaders have the edge having played the Chiefs 23 times since 1996 for 15 wins but that statistic only tells part of the story given the Chiefs recent domination of this competition.
Both teams come into this fixture with a number of new faces and positional changes from those which ran out towards the end of the 2013 season.
For the Chiefs the return of Mils Muliaina, playing for the first time in their line up since 2011 is a massive move whilst for the Crusaders they start this season without the best number 10 in the world Dan Carter. Tyler Bleyendaal has, it would be fair to say, massive shoes to fill for the men from Christchurch.
This early in the season this game is a tough one to call. Both sides are missing key players through injury, sabbatical and off season moves. The Crusaders are historically slow starters but have a massive home advantage having won 6 of the last 7 matches played by the combatants in Christchurch.
This will be a very tight match would could very well hinge on the battle between the experienced Cruden versus the inexperienced Bleyendaal. Whilst history is against them, I think the Chiefs can start their title defence with a victory here whilst the Crusaders get used to life without Dan Carter.
Prediction: Chiefs by 6
Cheetahs v Bulls
If you had have told me before last week’s fixtures that the Cheetahs would come into this game without a victory against the Lions I would have told you you were dreaming. That, however, is the reality that faces the Cheetahs this week after they lost last week in the shadows of the finishing post to the Lions. The Bulls, conversely, were thoroughly outplayed by the rampant, already, Sharks.
Despite the Cheetahs excellent season last season they enter this fixture having never defeated the Bulls in Super Rugby with 11 losses to their name in as many meetings since joining the competition in 2006.
Whilst both sides are winless it must be noted that the performances of both last week could not be more disparate: the Bulls were ineffective in defence and gormless in attack, scoring only a late try, whilst the Cheetahs scored all of the tries in their loss to the Lions whilst not allowing the Lions to score.
The Cheetahs are unchanged from last week (save for a change on the bench) whilst it has been a week of selection difficulties for the Bulls with Pierre Spies, their captain, withdrawing due to injury late in the week.
The Cheetahs were the big improvers in the competition last year and will be desperate to break their duck against the Bulls in this fixture. The loss of Spies during the week makes it even more difficult than originally considered for them to bounce back from their ordinary start in round one.
I am tipping the Cheetahs to break through for their first victory against the Bulls in what will be their 12th attempt in this game and to do so running away at the end of the game.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 12
Highlanders v Blues
The Highlanders commence their 2014 campaign looking for redemption after a season that could only be described as an absolute nightmare for them in 2013. They host the Blues in their 2014 at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
In the last five matches between these provincial rivals from opposite ends of New Zealand, the Highlanders have won three and at home in Dunedin they have had the better of Super Rugby encounters 6-5. Indeed at Forsyth Barr Stadium (where the last two games in Dunedin have been played) the Highlanders have won each encounter by more than 7 points.
Both sides have a number of players making their debuts either in Super Rugby or for their respective province. As I mentioned in the season preview last week, the Highlanders have had an almost complete sweep out of players from last seasons annus horribilus so one questions whether they have had enough time to gel over the break in season. Rugby League fans in Australia will have to wait until the second half of this match one suspects to see Benji Marshall run on as he is starting on the bench.
This is another tough match to predict: the Highlanders are nearly a completely new team whilst the Blues have made a poultice of changes as well. Ordinarily I would go with the home side by the Highlanders burned me far too many times last season for me to do so with any confidence here so I am going to tip the Blues in what presents as a tight dour encounter.
Prediction: Blues by 4
Brumbies v Reds
If the Chiefs v Crusaders game on Friday night is the match of the round, this fixture between the Australian conference’s two best teams is a close second “best” for Round 2.
The biggest changes in both camps over the adjournment of the season is in the coaching ranks. The Brumbies 2013 coach, Jake White, is now at the helm of the Sharks and the Reds 2013 coach, Ewen McKenzie, has a job many thought White would have as the Wallabies coach. Their replacements in Stephen Larkham and Richard Graham have been shoes to fill.
Recent form is no real guide in this match with the team having both won 2 games out of the last 5 played between them with the most recent encounter ending in a thrilling 19-19 draw at Lang Park.
The Brumbies possess one of the most consistent sides in the competition of late and that is reflected in the minimal number of changes to their roster since 2013. A big name “return” to the line up is that of David Pocock who finally is ready to alight a rugby field after his shocking knee injury. The Brumbies are only strengthened by his return.
The Reds come into this season looking to play more attacking rugby, having struggled to score at various intervals last season. They will be looking to their Wallabies halves pairing in Genia and Cooper for much of the impetuous for this and thus will have breathed a large sigh of relief that Cooper is fit to play this game.
Both sides seem evenly matched on paper. As is always the case when the Reds play the heart is saying that they will win. That said, the head keeps coming back to the fact that the Brumbies have dominated the Reds when playing in Canberra having won 10 of the last 12 fixtures there. That, coupled with the nearly unchanged line up from last year’s final causes me to tip them in what will be tight and hardly fought encounter.
Prediction: Brumbies by 4
Sharks v Hurricanes
This match presents for the first of three fixtures to end Round 2 that has the look of a mismatch about it. The Sharks are early favourites to win the South African conference with new coach White at the helm and come into this match off the back of a thumping victory over the Bulls. The Hurricanes have had a large number of changes to their line up from last season and come into this game off the back of what could be best described as patchy trial form.
It has been almost two years since these combatants last faced off, as they did not play each other in 2013 and statistically there is nothing between the teams with 15 matches played in Super Rugby competition for 7 wins a piece and a draw.
Jake White has named an unchanged lineup for this fixture from the team that was so impressive last week. The Hurricanes have named four new caps in their run on line up and also have 2 debutants on the bench. That being the case this is a new look and inexperienced Hurricanes line up that is being sent to face the Springbok filled and settled Sharks line up.
The Sharks are on a three match home winning streak in Durban against the Hurricanes dating back some years and I see nothing in the team sheets that would suggest to me that there will be not be a fourth win a row here for the Sharks who I expect to put on a score.
Prediction: Sharks by 19
Lions v Stormers
The exodus of players from South African provincial rugby at the end of the 2013 season was widely reported and effected a number of the provinces, none more so than that of the Stormers Indeed, it would be fare to say that the Stormers commence their Super Rugby 2014 campaign looking like a shadow of the team they were in 2013. The meet a Lions outfit that will be cockahoop after their stunning last gasp victory over the Cheetahs in round one.
The statistics around this game make for sorry ready for Lions fans: they are searching for their first victory over their powerful historical opponent. One suspects that if they are even to have a chance to break that duck then this game is that chance.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee has been forced by injury and the exodus to name five debutants for this fixture. That fact coupled with the return of high profile Schalk Burger to the line up after 2 years on the sidelines and the injection of Southern Kings discard Demetri Catrakilis renders this team virtually unrecognizable compared with that of last year.
The Lions come into this fixture with a largely settled line up, having made just the one injury enforced change to their midfield. That said, and despite their stunning opening win, they do still have a number of their class players on the side line returning from injury such at Elton Jaantjes who has returned to the squad after last years sojourn with this game’s opponents.
After the basting I gave the lines only a week ago in my preview to the season, I find it strange that I am looking for reasons to not tip them in this game. The fact is they are coming of a win, playing at home, against a team that has not had a run in the competition as yet and is in a state of flux. The Stormers line up still boasts a number of quality players but I am not yet convinced as to how this line up will gel.
That being the case I am going to tip the Lions as my “roughie” of the week and back them to repeat their success of round one in this match.
Prediction: Lions by 6
Waratahs v Force
The final match of the round comes to us from the Sydney Football Stadium on Sunday afternoon (Australian time). I, for one, love these afternoon matches and am looking forward to sitting down and watching this one.
The Force are the perennial strugglers of the Australian competition and come into this season with the unwanted record of being the worst attacking team in Super Rugby 2013. They just could not find a way over the try line last season and, despite having a backline that is tinged with Wallabies gold, the possible failure to score points again looks their biggest problem this year.
The Waratahs have picked up Kurtley Beale from the ashes of his campaign in Melbourne and have named in a new position at inside centre where he will be a key link man to a backline that looks as enterprising as it has done for many a season. Isreal Folau’s decision to stay in Rugby will have been a massive fillup for those south of the border and many will be look at his form from fullback to see if he suffers from a second season slump that impacts most players.
Statistically this game is a no brainer really: the Waratahs have it all over their opponents from the West when it comes to a numbers game. Add to that the class the Waratahs have across the field and it is difficult to see the Force challenging in this game. That said, these Australian conference match ups are always close encounters and, that being the case, whilst I am tipping a Waratahs triumph I do not believe this will be a blowout.
Prediction: Waratahs by 9
Match of the Round: The first match of the round between the two time champions and the, historically, best team in the competition from Christchurch is the best of this round for mine. I will be glued to my TV set watching the Crusaders host the Chiefs.
Match you can miss: The Sharks have a very dangerous look about them this season and whilst I know it is only early I suspect you don’t need to watch their game against the Hurricanes to be otherwise certain of the result.