Highlanders v Hurricanes, Dunedin
The first match of the round is a New Zealand derby from Dunedin between the Highlanders and the Hurricanes. The last time these two teams played they scored a combined 93 points in a Highlanders 49-44 victory in Wellington.
These teams have played 21 times in Super Rugby since 1996 with the advantage over that span with the Hurricanes who have won 12 of those fixtures. In 11 home games for the Highlanders they have won 5 and lost 6.
The Highlanders started the season well however they have been disappointing over recent weeks and lost last week at home to the Western Force. They have won one game from their three fixtures thus far and need to at least win at home if they are to improve on last season’s poor performance.
The Hurricanes finally broke their long losing streak last week with a dominant and freeflowing performance against the Cheetahs that saw them pummel their opponents from Bloemfontein. To be fair though, the Cheetahs have just terrible on tour so far so the form line from that win does have a question mark over it.
This is a tough game to start round 6: on the one hand you have a team that lost to the Force last week and on the other you have a team that defeated an opponent swiftly becoming the worst team in the South African conference. I am going to go with the home side here in a game that really is a flip of a coin option.
Prediction: Highlanders by 6
Waratahs v Rebels, Sydney
The second of the two Friday night fixtures is also a local derby, this time in the Australian conference, pitting the New South Wales Waratahs against the Melbourne Rebels.
The last time the Rebels played the Waratahs they defeated them for the first time and won the Weary Dunlop Shield. That win aside, the Waratahs have won the five other encounters between these combatants. The Waratahs are unbeaten at home in three contests with the Rebels.
The Waratahs, who have been the subject of much hyperbole about their performance and their alleged favouritism for the Australian conference title, fell back to earth and were bested by the Brumbies in Canberra. They have made four changes for this game and are replete with talent in the backline. Rebels alums Kurtley Beale and Nick Phipps will face their former team in this fixture.
The Rebels, much like the Highlanders, started the season impressively however they have stumbled in recent weeks having been smashed by the Force a fortnight ago and last week being bested by the Crusaders in a scrappy and uninspiring fixture. They have made two changes having lost Laurie Weeks and Jason Woodward to injury.
The Waratahs are short priced favourites to win this game and I cannot see any reason to go against the market in this one. They will have too much fire power for the Rebels and have the inside track on their strategy given the presence of some key position players in their team who were in Rebels colours last year. That said, the last 3 games between these combatants have been decided by 11 points or less so I am tipping this to be closer than many expect.
Prediction: Waratahs by 10
Blues v Cheetahs, Auckland
After the promise of last season, the Cheetahs have found themselves mired in a form slump that has fans recalling their “bad” days of previous seasons and they travel to Auckland for the last game of their ANZ tour looking to procure their first victory against the Blues.
The Blues have the superior record in match ups between these two teams, having won 5 of the 7 encounters between them. In home fixtures for the Blues against the men from Bloemfontein, the Blues are undefeated (in 3 fixtures).
The Cheetahs, as I noted earlier, have lost their last three games (all on tour) and were smashed last week by a Hurricanes outfit searching for their first victory in 10 attempts. They have named Adriaan Strauss to lead the team in his 50th captain as captain whilst also including Jean Cook in the forwards in the place of Lappies Labushagne. They have also made a couple of changes in the backs with Hennie Daniller and Ryno Benjamin coming in.
I cannot tip the Cheetahs this week on the back of their performance on tour so far. They will be looking get this game out of the way and get home for a bye next week. The Blues have much to prove after being denied a victory by bad refereeing last week. I am tipping to get their second win of the season at home.
Prediction: Blues by 8
Brumbies v Stormers, Canberra
The second match of the five Saturday games this week comes from Canberra with the Brumbies hosting the Stormers. The Brumbies will be replete with confidence this week having bested their long time rivals, the Waratahs, last week to snatch the top spot in the Australian Conference whilst for the Stormers they are seeking their first win in 3 games.
The Brumbies have the clear advantage in match ups between these two teams having beaten them 10 times in the 15 games played. In fixtures in Canberra, which really has become a fortress for the Brumbies of last, the Stormers have only won once in seven encounters (a 16-3 victory in 2011).
The Stormers have struggled all season and there can be little surprise in that given the massive amount of change to their squad in since last season. After looking like they would best the Crusaders on their first game on tour right up until the last 10 minutes of the game they never looked like they were in the game against the defending champions last week. The Stormers have made five changes for this week with Gio Aplon shifting to fullback and Sailosi Tagicakibau coming in at No.11, with Peter Grant coming in at flyhalf for Demetri Catrakilis the key changes.
The Brumbies, since losing to the Reds in their opening round of the competition have been, as you would expect any Brumbies side to be, consistent and well drilled. Last week they defeated the Waratahs by out thinking them and by dominating them in the forward exchanges and they will need to that again against a quality Stormers pack. They have also made a number changes to the line up from last week with, notably, Joe Tomane returning to the team whilst Tevita Kuridrani has been given leave for personal reasons.
The Brumbies impressed last week and will be too strong for the Stormers in this one. This is another game where I cannot tip one of the combatants on form: this time it is the Stormers who are, historically, terrible tourists as well as out of sorts.
Prediction: Brumbies by 13
Force v Chiefs, Perth
If the form of 2013 was anything to go by for this match you would say that this game presents the biggest of mismatches as last years champions travel to Perth to face last years worst team in the Australian conference. That said, the form of 2014 presents this game as a very different story and close to the match of the round.
History is certainly against the Force in this game, the men from the West having played the Chiefs seven times since 2006 for only one win. That win was at home in 2008 however the Chiefs have had the better of the 3 other matches between the sides in the West.
The Force should rightly be confident in this game: they had, until last week, never strung together two bonus point wins in a row in Super Rugby competition. They have been playing enterprising rugby and have started to score points which is something that this team has struggled to do. Ben McCalman has been up there with their best this season and his suspension leaves a massive hole for them.
On the other side of the ledger, the Chiefs have made a number of changes for this game, none more poignant that the naming of the veteran Mils Muliaiana on the wing. There is the look of the experimental about this Chiefs line up and whilst the Chiefs have been impressive in defence of their title so far this season they have, it must be conceded, not set the world on fire so fire.
The Force are probably the best roughie of the round, facing an experimental line up at home whilst on a winning streak certainly pits a number of matters in their favour. The Chiefs though are a class outfit and will be a significantly more difficult opponent than the two faced by the Force in the last fortnight. I expect, therefore, this to be close game with the Chiefs ultimately being just a touch too classy for the Force.
Prediction: Chiefs by 11
Lions v Reds, Johannesburg
The first of the two Saturday night games from South Africa comes from Johannesburg with the Lions hosting the touring Queensland Reds. If anyone had have said to me that at the start of round six the Lions would be 4 slots above the Reds on the overall competition ladder and in line for a finals berth I would have told you you were dreaming however a cursery examination of the competition reveals this dream to be reality. This makes this, if nothing else, an acid test of both teams, one desperate to retain its spot in the top six and the other seeking to return to that position. The Lions have won just 3 of the previous 15 encounters between these two franchises. The Lions have won just once in 8 home encounters between the two teams. Incongruously, the Reds have not won in South Africa since 2011.
The cornerstone of the Lions performance this season has been the play of flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff. Mostly he has received kudos for his goal kicking but he also must receive significant praise for his calm temperament and his using of the drop goal as an attacking weapon in the right situations. If he gets enough ball and is given opportunities to score by the Reds he will be tough to stop. Any forward momentum the Lions can give to their key man will also be of significance in the ultimate outcome of this game.
The Reds have been disappointing so far this season, despite their opening win against the Brumbies. They have been consistently ill disciplined and have conceded the most penalties and free kicks per match in Super Rugby 2014. That said, they have been excellent in defence so far this season and will be looking to exert some defensive dominance in Johannesburg as a platform for creating opportunities for what is a Wallabies strength back line.
This game could come down to the battle of the flyhalfs: Boshoff v Cooper. One suspects that whichever player of these two has the more dominant game will be on the winning side come the final whistle. The Lions had a lucky escape last week whilst the Reds were beaten by the competition favourites and their own bad discipline. I expect the Reds to bounce back here in what will be an extremely entertaining game of rugby.
Prediction: Reds by 6
Bulls v Sharks, Pretoria
The final match of the round puts the tournament leading Sharks into unfamiliar surrounds for the first time this season: that’s right, they have not yet played an away fixture in 2014. They travel on Saturday night to Pretoria to face the Bulls in what presents as a mismatch to end this round of matches.
These teams have a proud and close history in Super Rugby competition having played each other 21 times with the Bulls holding the advantage having come out victors on 11 of those 21 occasions. The Sharks have travelled to Loftus Versfeld on 10 occasions and have left victors on 4 occasions.
The Bulls have improved markedly since they were bested by the Sharks only four weeks ago in Durban 31-16 however they have also had significant injuries befall them with them now being forced to name their 3rd captain in 6 rounds in the veteran Victor Matfield. Dewald Potgieter comes in at number 8 whilst Sampie Mastriet comes in on the wing in the other changes for the Bulls.
The Sharks starting XV is unchanged from last week’s team that bested the Reds in Durban. They have been super impressive to start the season and already a streets ahead of their nearest opponent in the South African conference. They have been defensively superior to any other team in the competition so far having conceded fewer line breaks and missed fewer tackles than any one else and in Patrick Lambie and Frans Steyn they possess two of the best in the business.
Matched between these two giants of the South African game have been decided by less than 7 points the last 6 times they have played albeit I expect this match to be a little bit easier for the Sharks than those over the preceding years and I am tipping them to win this game with a bonus point.
Prediction: Sharks by 14