What a weekend of rugby last week! There was some exhilarating rugby played, mixed in I concede with some dour arm wrestles, and the Western Force were the big story of the round with their belting of the Rebels in Matt Hodgson’s 100th game in the dark blue. There are seven big matches in this weekend’s round with the Bulls having the bye.
Chiefs v Stormers, Hamilton
As is customary the first match of the round comes from New Zealand with the Stormers continuing their “ANZ” Tour in Hamilton against the defending champions. The last four fixtures between these teams have been split two apiece. The Chiefs are in the midst of a five game winning streak having last lost in the penultimate round of the 2013 season to the Crusaders. The Stormers, ravaged by off season moves, have had a slow start to the tournament having only secured one win against the lowly Hurricanes.
The Stormers are in the midst of the toughest away tour for a South African conference member: having already faced the Crusaders, they now face the defending champions with the Brumbies and the Reds still to come. They will be heartened by their performance against the Crusaders last week that only saw them run down in the last 10 minutes of the game. That said it was a very physical encounter and they have now picked a up number injuries.
The Chiefs, conversely, are fresh off a bye which they needed to allow some of their players to get over some preseason injuries. The return of Brodie Retallick and Gareth Anscombe will be a big lift for the men for the Waikato. The Chiefs remain, in my view, the most potent attacking force in domestic rugby and showed that power two weeks ago against the Highlanders when they were able to out score their opponent despite having no ball.
The Chiefs are 9-1 at home whilst the Stormers are 2-6 away from home. This game pits a team at the top of its powers against one in a rebuilding phase and I cannot see the Chiefs being bested here. An interesting final note: the Stormers rarely lose by a large margin and that has impacted my thoughts on the likely margin here.
Prediction: Chiefs by 9
Rebels v Crusaders, Melbourne
The Rebels return to their home field with their metaphorical tales between their legs having gone west with a team replete with changes in the interests of “rotation” and been belted by the Force. They host the, frankly, struggling Crusaders. The Rebels have patchy form going into this game having split their last 8 games 4 win and 4 losses. The Crusaders broke a 3 loss streak last week against the Stormers.
It can be without doubt that the Rebels were very impressive in their first match of the season but let themselves down against the Force last week when they seemed under prepared and overwhelmed having found themselves trailing 32-0 in 26 minutes. The Rebels have gone back to the starting XV that was very impressive against the Cheetahs two weeks ago.
The Crusaders have struggled to score points and have shuffled their backline again to try and improve their thrust in attack. Colin Slade is starting a fly-half with Tom Taylor moving to inside centre. Ryan Crotty is outside him with Israel Dagg starting at fullback. The depth in the Crusaders squad is nothing short of impressive, given that they remain competitive whilst missing the two best players in the world in Dan Carter and Lord McCaw.
The Rebels were excellent in the pre-season and in their first game of the season and if they can find that form again this could prove to be a cracking game. The Crusaders travel to Melbourne with much to prove and will be looking to lift their performances having struggled all season so far. I have really struggled for a tip in this game: the class in the Crusaders line up against the home town heroes looking regain their mojo is an intriguing challenge. I am going to tip an upset here and go with the Rebels given the ordinary form of the Crusaders so far.
Prediction: Rebels by 8
Hurricanes v Cheetahs, Wellington
The first game of the Saturday’s quintet of the fixtures comes to us from Wellington with the Cheetahs continuing their ANZ tour against the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are seeking to avoid their 9th straight loss whilst the Cheetahs, coming off their promising 2013 season, have started the 2014 season with only 1 win in 4 fixtures so far.
Last season was highlighted by the Cheetahs massive improvement in their defence. They have always has an excellent attacking line up but last year it was the defence that got them into the finals. They have regressed back to the form of years gone by so far this season and have allowed 78 points in the last two games. Last week they simply could not stop the tide against the marauding Reds but showed again that they can score points often at will.
The Hurricanes have been very ordinary this season so far but it must be conceded that they have faced three quality sides in their three losses. What has cost the Hurricanes much so far this season has been their error rate. Last week against the Brumbies they only managed to get past four phases on four occasions and still managed to score enough points to pressure the Australian conference leader from last year. Cory Jane is out of this game with a broken nose.
These teams always entertain when they play each other having averaged 85 points per game in the last 3 fixtures. This game will be similarly as open and attacking I would suggest. The Hurricanes must break their losing streak at some point and against the traveling Cheetahs I suggest that this is their best chance to do so.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 10
Highlanders v Force, Dunedin
The Western Force have travelled from the west of Australia to the deep south of Dunedin in New Zealand to face the Highlanders. Both sides have, it must be said, patchy form with the Highlanders having won only 3 of their last 8 fixtures whilst the Force have the same record over the same span. The Force have won the last 4 encounters between these combatants both home and away.
After their season of much regret last season the Highlanders have been impressive so far in 2014 despite having a squad that it much more limited in quality. Lima Sopoaga has been impressive at stand off and they were very close to a victory against the Chiefs two weeks ago having won their first game of the season. They also come into this game off the back of a bye.
The Force were dominant last week against the Rebels for the first 27 minutes of the game before they took their foot off the pedal and could not score any further points. They were much better in defence last week than they were in their first two matches of the season against the Brumbies, where they leaked early points and could not recover, and the Waratahs where they were outmatched.
The Force come into this game on a high but they are, their recent record in Dunedin aside, often poor travellers. The Highlanders, last season aside, are historically strong at home. I expect this to be a free flowing game of rugby with the Highlanders breaking their streak of losses against the Force at home.
Prediction: Highlanders by 13
Brumbies v Waratahs, Canberra
The Australian conference leading Waratahs have driven down the Hume Highway to face the victors of the same conference last year in the Brumbies. There has been much hyperbole this week in the Australia press about this fixture alleging personal issues between the Brumbies and Waratahs player and, true or not, one expects this local derby to be more than a little bit spiteful. These teams have split their last 8 games 4-4 and the Brumbies have the benefit of a 3-1 home record against the Waratahs.
Australian rugby, or at least its commentators, has been agog with the recent form of the Waratahs. Yes they have been good so far this season, that cannot be denied but this game presents a different test than that which they have faced so far this season. They are, historically, poor travellers and proved that last year having won only 2 games of 8 played away. They have been solid in defence and excellent in attack and with the talent they have it no surprise that they are scoring freely so far.
The Brumbies have named an unchanged line up for this fixture and have made a habit, this season and last, of winning games “ugly” and when they are under pressure. They have lost David Pocock for the season but having Pat McCabe fit and in their midfield adds stability. Much maligned by some pundits for their difficulties in attack they will need to score points regularly in this game to overcome a rampant opponent.
The Brumbies are an excellent team at home and will be well set for this game. Whilst the Waratahs have the superstar backline, they may not get to use it if the Brumbies are able to win the battle at the breakdown. The Waratahs are rightly favourites for this game but the suggestion of sum that they will blow the Brumbies off the park is nothing short of hyperbole. I am going to tip an upset here and go with the Brumbies: I expect them to win the battle up front and strangle the Waratahs of ball which they will not react well to.
Prediction: Brumbies by 7
Lions v Blues, Johannesburg
Johannesburg is the venue for the first of two games in South Africa to finish off round 5 with the Lions hosting the travelling Blues from Auckland. The Blues have only won one game of their last eight in this competition but that win was an excellent scalp in the form of the Crusaders. The Lions have returned to the ranks of Super Rugby with 2 wins and 2 losses from their first four games this season.
The Lions did not have the quality in their line up to best the Sharks last week and Ellis Park will be present a welcome respite for them having been on the road for the last two weeks. They have won their only game, against the Stormers, so far this season and clearly enjoy playing there. They welcome back Elton Jantjies this week which sees the new “super boot” of South African rugby Marnitz Boshoff move back to full back.
The Blues were outclassed last week by the Bulls and that loss extended an away record which reads as 0-9. Simply put: the Blues seem to be bereft of ideas and losing Keven Mealamu for the rest of the current tour will not assist. Benji Marshall comes into the Blues line up for his first run on start in Super Rugby having defected from the NRL.
The Blues are out of form and away from home. The Lions have been resurgent since their return. They are at home and face a team that struggle most in foreign climes. I am tipping a Lions win and a comfortable one.
Prediction: Lions by 13
Sharks v Reds, Durban
The final match of the round pits the Reds, travelling overseas for the first time this season, against the South African Conference leading Sharks at Durban. The Sharks are unbeaten this season and, indeed, have been largely untroubled to date. The Reds rebounded from a thrashing against their arch rival Waratahs with a high scoring victory against the Cheetahs. Head to head the Sharks have the better of the last 5 games with a 3 wins.
The Reds were, at best, erratic last week against the Cheetahs and will need to be at their absolute best too press the Sharks. They have lost all four of their away fixtures in South Africa over the last two years. They also have not won in Durban in a decade. The Reds have made three changes from last week’s team with Lachie Turner returning on the wing and James Slipper and Saia Fainga’a back at the front of the scrum.
The Sharks are the strongest they have been in some time and have one of the best squads in the tournament. Patrick Lambie was missing with illness last week and the Sharks barely missed a beat with Frans Steyn stepping in and kicking 7/7. Lambie is back this week and JP Pietersen is available for selection. They are the form team, with the Waratahs, in the competition and the current short priced favourite, in your correspondent’s view, to win the whole competition.
The Reds have had a chequered start to this season and have struggled in South Africa. The Sharks are in, pardon the pun, red hot form. Whilst my heart says the Reds will win this game my head tells me that the Sharks will win this game and may well put a score on the Reds unfortunately.
Prediction: Sharks by 15