Round 3 of Super Rugby in 2014 was a round that saw a couple of fancied teams being bested, a couple of the favourites for the title being tested and an old rivalry reignited with the Waratahs thrashing of the Reds (for the first time in seven games). At best this season of rugby could be described by tipsters as consistently inconsistent given the form of teams like the Lions and the besting of fancied lineups like the Cheetahs and the Crusaders.
There are only six games this week with byes for the Chiefs, Highlanders and Waratahs giving us another truncated (of sorts) round.
Hurricanes v Brumbies (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
This fixture will have a sense of déjà vu about it for the Brumbies as they prepare for another season without their iconic flanker David Pocock. They travel for this game to Wellington where they face the Hurricanes playing there first home game of the season.
These teams last played against each other May of last year when the Brumbies won at home 30-23. The last five encounters have been shared slightly in the Brumbies favour with a record of 3-2 albeit the Brumbies have won those three encounters in a row.
The Hurricanes have not started the season well with losses on tour in South Africa to the Stormers and the Hurricanes. To go with a five game losing streak to end the 2013 season that means they are now winless in their last 7 Super Rugby outings dating back to 10 May 2013. They have made two changes to their starting lineup that faced the Stormers last week with Adam Hill replacing Faifili Levave at number 6 and James Marshall starting at fullback.
It has been an emotional week for the Brumbies with news of David Pocock’s injury no doubt jolting them. Pocock’s injury has necessitated a reshuffle of their back row with Jarrad Butler moving from number 8 to the side of the scrum, Ben Mowen moving back to number 8 and Scott Fardy moving from lock to blindside flanker. The other big selection news is dropping of Pat McCabe to the bench in favour of Andrew Smith at inside centre. After dropping their first game to the Reds at home, the Brumbies got on the competition score board with a win against the Force that was somewhat less than impressive.
The Brumbies were last season’s finalists and will be looking to stamp their authority on this game against a Hurricanes looking to break their current losing streak. All good streaks have to come to an end at some point but I think the Brumbies will be too classy here.
Prediction: Brumbies by 9
Reds v Cheetahs (Lang Park, Brisbane)
This is the Reds first home game of the season and a rare Friday night fixture at the home of all things football in Brisbane, Lang Park. They host the traveling men from Bloemfontein, the Cheetahs.
Head to head these sides have met three times in Super Rugby competition with the Reds holding the advantage 2-1. The last time the two teams met was during the Reds disastrous tour to South Africa last year when they lost to the Cheetahs 27-13.
The Reds will be absolutely furious after their belting by their arch rivals, the Waratahs, last week and have made 5 changes to their line up for this fixture. Rod Davies returns to the Reds for his first game back from a knee reconstruction in the place of Lachie Turner who has been rested. There is a new centre pairing for the Reds with Mike Harris and Chris Feauai-Sautia replacing Anthony Fainga’a and Ben Tapuai both moved to the bench. In the forwards Saia Fainga’a and James Slipper have been moved to the reserves bench with James Hanson and Ben Daley replacing them respectively.
The Cheetahs have also been forced to make a number of changes to their line up for this fixture as a result of injuries coming out of their game against the Rebels last week. Max van Dyk replaces Coenie Oosthuizen in the front row after Oosthuizen’s neck injury. Willie le Roux swaps to the left wing in place of Raymond Rhule with Henni Daniller replacing him on at full back. The Cheetahs were one of the stories of the season in 2013 but have gotten off to a slow start having been bested in round one by the Lions and the Rebels last week.
Both sides will be desperate for a win in this fixture however the Reds, returning home for the first time, will be in front of their adoring fans and will be looking to reverse the memory of last weeks debacle. I expect a big game from Quade Cooper who is now only 9 points adrift of Elton Flatley’s Super Rugby points scoring record and when Cooper plays well the Reds generally win.
Prediction: Reds by 15
Crusaders v Stormers (AAMI Stadium (Addington), Christchurch)
The first of four Saturday games to round out round 4 comes to us from Christchurch where the Stormers have travelled to face the Crusaders. This is a fixture between two of the most storied franchises in Super Rugby however this year the Stormers come into this game as significant underdogs after the en masse changes to their line up at the end of 2013.
In head to head battles between these two teams, the Crusaders have won the last four encounters, all but one of which has been in South Africa. The last time the Stormers bested the Crusaders was on 30 April 2010 when they won at home 42-14.
The Crusaders come into this fixture off the back of a three game losing streak highlighted by their upset loss to the Blues in Auckland last week. They will, much like the Brumbies and David Pocock, be in a state of shock having lost the great Richie McCaw to a broken thumb. Todd Blackadder has rung the changes for this game with seven new faces in the starting line up from that which played last week. Matt Todd has the enviable task of replacing the great Lord McCaw whilst up front Wyatt Crockett will start in favour of Tim Perry. Israel Dagg has returned to the wing and Willi Heinz has gotten the nod at scrumhalf ahead of Andy Ellis.
The Stormers have had a start to the season they would rather forget with a loss to the Lions in Round 2 and a last minute victory against the terrible Hurricanes all the reward they have for their efforts so far. They have made four changes for this first game on tour. Rynhardt Elstadt and Siya Kolisi are out injured and have been replaced by De Kock Steenkamp and Schalk Burger. Nic Groom makes his first start of the season at scrumhalf.
No matter how I look at this game I just can not see the Crusaders losing this game. With two early season losses already, another loss here will have the alarm bells ringer in Christchurch. ON the other hand the Stormers are a shadow of the team they have been in previous seasons and that only served, potentially, to exacerbate their generally poor form whilst travelling.
Prediction: Crusaders by 22
Force v Rebels (NIB Stadium, Perth)
When I first saw this game in the schedule my initial thought was that this was likely to be another one of those games during a long Super Rugby season that I can be satisfied just watching the highlights. After all, this game pits the, generally regarded, two worst teams in the Australian conference against each other. The Rebels excellent start to the season (4 games including trials on the trot) and the Force’s fight against the Brumbies last week have been enough to convince me to ensure that I watch the game live.
Head to head the Rebels have the advantage over the Force with the last four games between these two sides falling in the Rebels favour. Two of those fixtures have been in Perth where the Force are normally at their strongest. Interestingly in the last 6 games between the teams the heaviest margin of victory is 7 points and the average margin is 3 points.
The Force took some big scalps last season within the Australian conference, none bigger than in their performances against the Reds (a win and a draw). They have started the season with two losses to conference rivals that sets them on the path, already, for the wooden spoon in the conference. They have made a number of changes to their line up for this game with Angus Cottrell replacing Chris Alcock at the side of the scrum and rookie star Jayden Hayward returning at fullback with Luke Morahan returning to the wing the biggest of the changes.
The Rebels also have made a number of changes for this fixture and has a number of players making their run on debut for the Melbourne franchise. Max Lahiff, Colby Fainga’a and Tom Kingston will all make their first run on starts for the Rebels in this game. Angus Roberts replaces Bryce Hegarty at flyhalf. The Rebels are off to their best start to a Super Rugby season since joining the competition and will be keen to keep their excellent record against the Force going in this game.
The Force will be desperate for a win in what is a historic game for the franchise as Matt Hodgson becomes the first Force player to don the dark blue jersey 100 times. The Rebels are cockahoop at the moment having started so well and have oft proven a bogey team in the Australian conference for the Force. I am going to tip a (minor) upset in this game and rely on the emotion of Matt Hodgson’s 100th game in front of one of the most ardent of home crowds in Super Rugby to get the Force over the line in a close one.
Prediction: Force by 6
Bulls v Blues (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
The Blues have made the long flight to Pretoria from Auckland now doubt ecstatic with their win in Round 3 against the Crusaders and with an eye on getting off to a flying start to the South African leg of their away tour against the home town Bulls.
Head to head these sides have not played each other much over the last 4 years with only 3 games scheduled in that time. The Blues have the advantage in these games by 2-1 albeit the Bulls won the last encounter between the two teams in Auckland 28-21 last year.
The Bulls had started the season poorly with losses to the Sharks and the Cheetahs in the first two rounds of the season before redeeming themselves somewhat against the resurgent Lions. I have said already in this preview and will say it again: this is a very different Bulls squad to that of previous year following the departure of a number of their stars to Europe and Japan. At the time of writing, the Bulls have not yet named their line up for this fixture.
Before their victory last week against the Crusaders, the Blues had not registered a victory in their previous seven games including a round 2 defeat at the hands of the Highlanders in Dunedin. Sir John Kirwan has named an all All Black front row for this encounter with Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock set to make their first starts of the season in Pretoria.
The Bulls have been installed as favourites by many in this game largely because of the effect of the long haul flight on the Blues. The Bulls are always powerful at home and it is important not to get too excited about the Blues result last week given that their form line prior to that game is far from impressive. I am going to stick with the home team in this game largely for that reason: the Bulls are very difficult to defeat at home.
Prediction: Bulls by 6
Sharks v Lions (Kings Park, Durban)
The finals game of round 4 pits many pundit’s favourite to win the South African conference and the title, the Sharks, against the surprise packet of the tournament so far the Lions in Durban.
The Lions won the last encounter between these two teams all the way back in June 2012 38-28. Before that they had failed to register a victory against the Sharks in 4 previous fixtures (albeit they did procure a tie at home in 2011). Games between these two teams have historically been high scoring encounters with mean score between them resting in the Sharks favour 30-24.
The Sharks come into this game fresh off the bye last week and have so far been very impressive in their two wins so far this season, both of which were by margins of more than 15 points. They have named the exactly same team to that which won two weeks ago.
The Lions have gotten off to their best start to a season in Super Rugby after spending last season out of the tournament. They will need to be at their very best in this game to best Jake White’s red hot Sharks outfit. At the time of writing they have not named their team for this game.
It is hard to resist the Sharks in this game. They have the best squad in the South African conference for mine and close to the best coach in the domestic game at the moment. I do not think this will be a blow out by any means but I think the Sharks will win comfortably.
Prediction: Sharks by 11