The first full week of fixtures in Super Rugby 2014 last week was replete with interesting games and the odd upset. This week’s round of fixtures presents an equally interesting opportunity for some great match ups and, again, some upsets. If you had have told me at the start of the season of the season that the Lions, with a win this round, would be at the top of the table after 3 rounds I would have told you you were dreaming but that it the kind of start we have had to this year’s tournament.
Blues v Crusaders, Eden Park
The Blues host the Crusaders at Eden Park in the first match of the round. Neither side got off to the start to the season they would have been hoping for with loses to conference rivals the Highlanders and Chiefs respectively so both will be looking to open their accounts in this game.
These are two franchises steeped in history in Super Rugby and from the 23 encounters between the teams the Crusaders hold the advantage with 13 wins. In games at Eden Park the teams have split the spoils with five wins a piece.
This is a very different team running out for the Crusaders this weekend than that which lost at home last weekend. Kieran Read returns to anchor the scrum whilst Richie McCaw is back at the openside of the scrum. Matt Todd returns to the bench. Israel Dagg has been dropped with Colin Slade replacing him at fullback.
The Blues have pulled a massive surprise in their selection with Simon Hickey being elevated from the NPC competition to start at number 10 ahead of Chris Noakes and Benji Marshall. The reserves bench for the Blues has a distinctly All Blacks look to it with Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock the cornerstones.
The Crusaders missed seven penalty kicks last weekend and if they had have made just two of those it would have been a very different result. They will be desperate for a victory here. The Blues, conversely, were bested by a team considered by most as a lock for the New Zealand Conference wooden spoon and the selection of a rookie to face the might of the Crusaders only lessens their chances in my view. The Crusaders to win their first match of the season here.
Crusaders to win by 11
Rebels v Cheetahs, AAMI Park
It has been a long time coming for Rebels fans but finally their team will have a start in the 2014 season. They host a Cheetahs team that has played its first two games of the season and will have been very happy to have secured their first win of the season last week.
Obviously the Rebels’ form line is difficult to track given that they have not yet played a game this season. That said they were impressive in their trial win at Lang Park against the Reds a fortnight ago. That was no “B Team” from the Reds so they will take much confidence from that win. That said, they are running out a team with 8 new faces in it from last year including 3 debutantes.
The Cheetahs had a 2013 to remember. They made the finals for the first time last season and they come into this game having defeated the Bulls for the first time in Super Rugby history so they will be feeling confident. The Cheetahs success last year saw a number of their players receive higher honours and this team consist of more than its fair share of international players.
The Cheetahs have a bad habit of losing their first match on tour however they are undefeated in fixtures against the Rebels. All of this presents for a very interesting encounter between these two sides. It is a tough one to pick because of the Rebels lack of play this season. That fact alone has me leaning towards the Cheetahs in what I expect to be an interesting and try filled fixture.
Cheetahs by 9
Stormers v Hurricanes, Newlands Rugby Stadium
The first game of the round to come from South Africa comes from Cape Town. The Stormers host the Hurricanes in a battle between the teams who, perhaps, have been the most maligned in the press since the start of the 2014 season. The Stormers were ordinary last week against the Lions and the Hurricanes did not have a much better start to the season particularly in the scrum.
The Stormers have won four of the last five encounters between these two teams and overall have a 60% success record against them. The Hurricanes record at Cape Town is ordinary to say the least: they have not bested the Stormers there since 2006.
This is a very different Stormers team to that which has run out in these famous colours in the past. This franchise was the worst hit by the exodus of talent to club rugby that befell South African rugby at the end of last season. They have made two changes to their line up with Jaco Taute coming in at fullback and Damian de Allende moving to inside centre.
The Hurricanes have also made two changes, focused on improving their scrum, with the inclusion of John Schwalger and Mark Reddish.
Both sides were well beaten in the last round. Both teams are yet to open their accounts in 2014. This does not look like much of a game to be honest but the home field advantage has pushed me towards tipping the Stormers but without any significant confidence.
Stormers by 6
Chiefs v Highlanders, Waikato Stadium
This game presents an interesting battle of contracts: one team is the two time Super Rugby champions whilst the other is coming off its worst season in recent memory coupled with going through a significant restructure of its playing stocks. Both teams though secured victories first time out of the gate this season last week.
The Chiefs are the statistically superior team in the contest between the two teams having won 14 times out of the 21 games played between the two of them. At home the advantage is squarely with Chiefs which is no surprise given the fortress like nature of Waikato Stadium for them.
The Highlanders have been forced to make a number of changes as a result of injuries with Patrick Osborne out and Winston Stanley coming in in his place. The Chiefs, who were decimated by injuries last week during the game, have named an unchanged backline whilst they have rotated a number of players in the forward pack.
The Chiefs are the best team in the competition and have been for the last two years. Whilst this is a different looking outfit to last season the grit they showed in overcoming the Crusaders showed fans that once again they will be formidable opponents for any team they face particularly at home. The Highlanders were good at home last week but away they have a less than exemplary record. I cannot see the Chiefs doing anything other than win this game.
Chiefs by 13
Waratahs v Reds, ANZ Stadium
This game presents the latest instalment in Australian Rugby’s oldest and most hotly contested rivalry as the Reds and Waratahs contest the Templeton Cup. Both teams started the season last week with impressive victories. Indeed so impressive, to some, the Waratahs victory was the hyperbole surrounding a championship run for them has already started in earnest.
The first game between these combatants took place in 1882. Turning to more recent times, in Super Rugby competition the teams have played each other 21 times with the Waratahs winning 7 of those games. Interestingly those 7 wins all game in a streak for the Waratahs that ended in 2011. Since that time the Reds have won the last 5 fixtures.
The Reds were impressive last week and probably have not received the kudos they deserve for defeating their much more fancied opponent at a place where they historically have struggled. They originally named an unchanged line up for this game however Mike Harris has withdrawn so Anthony Faingaa returns to the starting line up from the bench.
The Waratahs, don’t get me wrong, were impressive in all aspects of the game last week against the Force. One has to remember that the Force are the worst team in the Australian conference of Super Rugby so the form line out of that game is not as impressive as it would have been. Dave Dennis is injured and has been replaced in the line up by Stephen Hoiles whilst Michael Hooper takes the captaincy.
This will be the match of the round against two fierce rivals. The Waratahs have suddenly become the “big things” in Australian rugby. Certainly the Fox Sports ruby commentators have gotten on the bandwagon. The Reds though have been the most consistent Australian team of the last 5 years and there is nothing a Queensland team hates more than losing to those from below the border.
I am going to go with the Reds in this game: they will put pressure on the Waratahs where the Force could not and the Waratahs focus under pressure has always been the subject of a question mark.
Reds by 7
Force v Brumbies, nib Stadium
The Brumbies and the Force are the combatants in the second of two Australian conference match ups this round and is the first home game of the season for the West Australians. The fortunes of the two sides could not have been more stark in 2014: the Brumbies led the Australian conference and played in the final whilst the Force resumed their role as the cellar dwellers of Australian rugby.
Since the Force entered the competition they have played the Brumbies 11 times and have been successful in 4 of those games with one draw. The Force have faired similarly at home having won two of six games with one draw in Perth.
The Force have made two changes to their forward pack for this game with Chris Alcock and Hugh McMeniman returning to the starting line up. The Brumbies have brought in Robbie Coleman to cover for the injured Joe Tomane whilst Tevita Kuridrani replaces Andrew Smith at outside centre.
The Force need to improve across all aspects of the game this week having been outscored and out played by the Waratahs last week as well as having their poor discipline cost them. The Brumbies will be desperate to stamp their authority on the Australian conference having lost in the first round. The Brumbies are a quality team and I expect them to bounce back well in this game. That said: conference games are normally close encounters so I am tipping there to be no more than two tries in this one.
Brumbies by 12
Bulls v Lions, Loftus Versfeld
Previously I would have written this game off as an afterthought and would have spent as little time as possible looking at it. The Lions have surprised everyone though with their start to this season which leaves them with the prospect of leading the South African conference with a win in this game. Conversely the Bulls have failed to open their account in 2014 and, frankly, have been somewhat less than impressive to start the season.
The Bulls are historically excellent at home at Loftus Versfeld where they boast a win rate of almost 65% in conference derby fixtures. The Bulls have played the Lions 17 times since 1998 and hold the advantage in those fixtures having won 12 matches.
The Bulls come into this game with the loss of their captain Pierre Spies for the season. Flip van der Merwe is the new captain and they have brought in Jacques-Louis Potgieter at flyhalf whilst the old warhorse Victor Matfield makes his first start of the season.
The Lions have been beset with injuries and have been forced to make two changes to their lineup with Warwick Tecklenburg coming in for Derick Minnie and JW Jonker replacing Alwyn Hollenbach.
I am tipping the Lions to win this game and to get off to their best start in their history of Super Rugby involvement. They have been the form team from South Africa and are facing side out of form and without their stars of the past.
Lions by 8