Crusaders v Hurricanes
The first match of this week’s round comes from Christchurch with the Crusaders hosting the Hurricanes. Both sides are off to a very slow start to this season and will be very unhappy with how they have played so far.
The numbers are stacked significantly in the favour of the Crusaders who have won 3 of the last 5 games between the two sides and overall in Super Rugby have over 60% the teams encounters. At home, in Christchurch, the teams have played 13 times for 9 wins for the men in red.
The Hurricanes were gallant in defeat against the Highlanders last week in Dunedin having thrashed the woeful Cheetahs the previous week to open their account for season 2014. Tim Batman returns to their line up after a long injury lay off in a largely unchanged line up from those vanquished in the deep south.
The Crusaders had the bye last week and boy did they need it! They have only made one change to their team from two weeks ago against the Rebels, a game which they won, and that is on the bench. The Crusaders are always slow starters however it is apposite to say that if they lose this game their season could well be over before it began which they will be desperate to avoid.
It is Kieran Reads 100th Super Rugby game and it is a home game for the Crusaders that is nearly a must win. The Hurricanes are the worst team in the New Zealand conference on form at the moment. Those factors equate to a win for the Crusaders for me.
Prediction: Crusaders by 8
Rebels v Brumbies
The Brumbies travel to the alleged sporting capital of Australia (true fans know it is Brisbane but that is an argument for another day) to face the Rebels in the Australian opener to Round 7. The Rebels are languishing at the bottom of the Australian conference table whilst Brumbies are in the top spot with the Waratahs hard on their heals so there is much to play for for both teams.
The Brumbies, unsurprisingly, have the advantage on the numbers. Undefeated by the Rebels in the last 5 encounters between the teams, the only time the Rebels have been on the winning side of one of these encounters was the first time the teams met in Melbourne in 2011.
The Brumbies got the job done last week against the travelling Stormers and will be happy have to have kept their winning streak since their first up loss to the Reds at home going. Before that they were ultra impressive in besting the hyperbolic Waratahs. For this game they have kept their pack in tact from last week whilst welcoming the return of Christian Lealiifano and Tevita Kuridrani.
The Rebels were easily bested by the Waratahs last week and have made a number of changes to that side so comprehensively defeated. Nic Strizaker replaces Luke Burgess and Tom Kingston comes in for Lachie Mitchell in the backs whilst in the forwards the Rebels will have a new look front row seeking to combat the Brumbies Wallabies scrum.
The Brumbies are the best team in the Australian conference at the moment (no matter what Waratah’s fans say) and are on a winning streak that one expects will be difficult to break for the Rebels that just look a little under class here. These matches though are oft decided by less than 10 points so I am not expecting a blow out for the Brumbies in victory.
Prediction: Brumbies by 9
Blues v Highlanders
The Blues, and indeed the rugby community, have been rocked this week by the news of Peeri Weepu’s stroke. The focus on Saturday though will be the Highlanders who travel to face them from the deep South in the second of two New Zealand conference derbies for this round.
The Blues and Highlanders have played each other some 23 times since they joined Super Rugby with the Blues having the advantage having won 14 of those encounters. Despite the Highlanders having the advantage in recent fixtures between the two teams (4 wins from the last 5 games) the Blues have made Eden Park their fortress having won their in 8 of the 10 visits by the Southern islanders.
Last week the Blues were impressive in defeating, it must be conceded, a terrible Cheetah’s line up at home having returned from a difficult South African tour winless. John Kirwan has made 5 changes to the team that won last week with veterans Ma’a Nonu and Jerome Kaino getting starts for the Northerners.
The Highlanders have the same team as that that best the Hurricanes at home last week.
This is a difficult game to tip. The Highlanders very rarely win two games in a row and are not renowned travellers. Equally the Blues have not been great this season so far and struck a terrible Cheetahs team last week to return to the winners circle. Neither is great in defence so it will be try fest. I am tipping the Blues here, with very limited confidence levels, only because they are the home team.
Prediction: Blues by 6
Reds v Stormers
After a tour to forget to South Africa, the Reds will be happy to be back in the friendly, albeit sodden, surrounds of Lang Park for this game against their, oft, nemesis from South Africa, the Stormers. Neither team has set the world on fire this season thus far and, again, this a game were both sides are desperate for a victory to save their respective seasons.
The visitors have had the best of the encounters between these teams in Super Rugby having won 10 of the 16 encounters between the sides overall and having split the eight home encounters between the teams 4 and 4. Of the last five games between the teams the Stormers have the advantage 3 and 2 and they won they last encounter between the teams at Lang Park in 2012.
Reds coach, Richard Graham, has made a number of changes to the line up defeated by the Lions last week with James Hanson replacing Saia Fainga’a who will have to wait until the second half to receive his 100th cap. Beau Robinson gets his first start of the season and Dom Shipperley returns . Ill discipline has cost the Reds dearly this season 9they remain the most penalised season in the competition) and they will need to watch this aspect of their play this week given the sharpshooters in the Stormers line up.
The Stormers have had the toughest road trip in Super Rugby for a South African team facing the last four champions in a row. They looked desperate for home last week against the Brumbies and have made 7 changes to the line up bested in Canberra. Their backline looks its strongest of the tour with Juan de Jongh returning to partner Jean de Villiers.
The Reds, rightly in my view, are aghast at their treatment by the officials in South Africa and have much to prove against the former talisman for the South African conference. Jet lag might well be a factor and that could closen the score line here however with the Stormers at the end of their tour and ready for home I am tipping a Reds victory in the rain at Lang Park.
Prediction: Reds by 7
Bulls v Chiefs
The Saturday fixtures from South Africa are both contenders for match of the round status and the first of those games comes from Pretoria where the Bulls host the defending champion, Chiefs. These sides could have had more disparate paths to this game with the Chiefs coming via Perth and a surprise loss to the Western Force whilst the Bulls notched the scalp of the Sharks at home last weekend in somewhat of a shock.
These sides have not played each other since 2012 (a Chiefs victory at home) however the Bulls hold the advantage in the last 5 fixtures between the two teams having won 4 of the them. That advantage is more impressive at home for the Bulls who have only lost twice at Loftus Versfeld against the Chiefs in eight encounters.
The Bulls are on a three match winning streak and they will have been buoyed by their victory against one of the outright favourites for the title in the Sharks. They have welcomed the return of Akona Ndugnane to an, otherwise, unchanged line up from that which was so impressive last week.
The Chiefs have been off the pace in their most recent fixtures and were particularly disappointing at the set pieces against the Force last week. They have made a whopping eight changes to their starting line up for this week with the biggest shake up being in the forwards with Pauliasi Manu, Rhys Marshall, Matt Symons, Tanerau Latimer and Kane Thompson all coming in to the line up for this fixture. Hopefully this helps their line out as Victor Matfield will be lurking.
The Chiefs suffered their first loss of the season last week so they remain at the top of the NZ Conference. Equally, when they have been winning they have been winning “ugly”. They come to a venue that they have struggled at in the past and face an opponent in the midst of a three game winning streak. I am leaning towards the Bulls in this one given their home town advantage and the fact they are in form where the Chiefs have a question mark over how they are going.
Prediction: Bulls by 4
Sharks v Waratahs
The final match of the round is from Durban where the table topping Sharks will be looking to avenge their first defeat of the season last week against the travelling Waratahs. This is the second of two cracking matches to end the round coming out of South Africa and could well be a preview of a final in a couple of months time.
No matter how you look at it the Waratahs have had the advantage over the Sharks in Super Rugby with Sharks having won just 1 of the last 5 games between the sides and overall just 4 of the 16 played in this competition all time. The sides have only played 7 times since 1999 in South Africa with 3 wins apiece between them and one draw.
Israel Folau is a massive loss for the Waratahs this week, particularly given that he seems to score half, if not most, of the tries they score. Jono Lance, a former Queensland Red, has been brought in as cover in a total of six changes for this game. Benn Robinson and Wycliff Palu return to the run on side in the other big changes.
The Sharks have been put into a difficult position with injuries with Pat Lambie and Cobus Reinach out and Fed Zeilinga and Charl McLeod coming into last week’s line up for them. They have also moved Lwazi Mvovo to fullback.
The Sharks are unbeaten at home this year, have the class line up in the South African conference and face an opposition without the player that scores the majority of their points. I think they will win this game and retain their place at the top of the Super Rugby standings.
Prediction: Sharks by 11
The Lions, Cheetahs and Force have the byes this week.