Super Rugby 2014: Round 8 Predictions
Highlanders v Rebels
The Rebels travel to Dunedin to start Round 8 against the Highlanders. Given the Rebels’ “junior” status in Super Rugby this is only the second time they have played in “the Deep South”. All up these franchises have faced off 3 times before with the Highlanders holding the advantage having won two of those encounters including the only previous visit by the Rebels which ended in a 43-12 victory.
The Rebels come into this game off possibly their greatest victory last week against the Brumbies at home having lost their previous three matches in a row. They have made four changes for this game with Tom Kingston out injured and replaced by Male Sau the biggest change.
The Highlanders were belted away from home by the Blues last week 30-12 which represented a significant reverse in form off the back of their excellent win against the Hurricanes the previous week. They have made a number changes for this game: Ma’afu Fia returns to the team in place of the suspended Kane Hames whilst Shaun Treeby and Kurt Baker return to the backline.
There are few more foreboding “away” trips in the domestic game than a trip to Dunedin. Neither team have hit any heights this season albeit the Rebels are likely to be more confident having had a great win last week. That said, the only venue at which the Highlanders have won this season so far has been Forsyth Barr Stadium so they certainly will pleased to have home ground advantage here. This should be an entertaining encounter and presents a difficult first game tipping wise. I am going to go with the Highlanders, based on their home town advantage, but with limited confidence.
Prediction: Highlanders by 8
Brumbies v Blues
The second Friday night fixture in Round 8 comes from Canberra with the Brumbies hosting the Blues. It would be fair to say that this fixture will have been circled on the Brumbies calender as one to be wary of given that, the past, the Blues have been a nemesis team for them. Indeed the Brumbies have only won 8 of the 19 games between these franchises since the start of Super Rugby.
The Blues have been one of the surprise packets of the 2014 season so far and current sit second in the New Zealand Conference and 6th overall. They have made two changes this week to the team that easily accounted for the Highlanders last week with Tevita Li getting a start on the wing as George Moala shifts in to the centre in place of injured Jackson Willison. The bigger loss is that of Luke Braid who has been replaced by Brendan O’Connor.
The Brumbies will have been rocked last week by the loss to the lowly Rebels outfit. That said, they still remain atop the Australian conference and are in second place in the overall standings. Stephen Moore, who has been nothing short of excellent for them this year, is a scratching for this game and is replaced in the line up by Siliva Siliva.
Canberra Stadium has been somewhat of a fortress for the Brumbies of late and whilst their record against the Blues belies that (4-4 from 8 home games), the Blues so far this season have been terrible away from home. They face the best team in the Australian conference here and I cannot see them improving on their away from home here. The margin is likely to be close though given that Brumbies do struggle to score points at times.
Prediction: Brumbies by 6
Hurricanes v Bulls
The first of Saturday’s quintet of rugby action starts in Napier with the Hurricanes hosting the Bulls. The South Africans will be confident coming into this game having not been bested by the ‘Canes in the last four encounters between the two teams. In home games the Hurricanes have not fared well against the Bulls generally having only won three of seven home encounters and having lost against them in their only other encounter in Napier in 2011.
The Bulls have recalled their captain, Flip van der Merwe for this fixture which will go some way to offset the surprising omission of Victor Matfield from the player portion of the squad for this tour. Their preparation for this game has been less than stellar having arrived late in New Zealand and they come into it having let a massive opportunity slip in the final moments last week against the Chiefs.
The Hurricanes welcome back Victor Vito, Brad Shields and Cory Jane to a line up that will have already been cockahoop after they bested the Crusaders last week in Christchurch in probably the biggest surprise of the season.
The Hurricanes lead in just about every category in attack statistically this season including tries scored, line breaks, carries and total meters gained. Conversely the Bulls are in the lowest quarter of each of those categories. Whilst the Bulls are an excellent defensive outfit, I wonder if they will score enough points to best the Hurricanes here particularly given that they have lost some of their advantage in the line up with no Matfield in the line up. That said the Hurricanes are about as consistent as the direction of a windsock in a cyclone so this game is hard to nail a tip. I am going with the ‘Canes but, again, with no confidence.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 9
Reds v Force
This is a round already where the combatants have appeared to be facing their nemesis and this game is no different with the Queensland Reds hosting the Western Force in one of Australian rugby’s ultimate grudge matches. The last encounter between the two teams was in Perth last year and ended in an 11 all draw. All up the Reds and the Force have faced each other 11 times since the Force (or Queensland “A” as they then were) joined Super Rugby with the Reds having won 6 of those encounters.
The Reds come into this game off the back of a win against the Stormers that did nothing for the blood pressure of their home fans (yours truly included) having returned from South Africa and a tour that they will have rather forgotten. Injuries have forced two changes to the Reds line up from last week with Dom Shipperly and Lachie Turner out and Jamie-Jerry Taulagi (on debut) and Ben Lucas coming into the line up.
The Force have been one of the stories of the season so far and come into this game on a three game winning streak, including a win against the defending champions. They have the benefit of a bye in the last round and welcome the return of Ben McCalman whose return has forced a reshuffle in the Force’s back row.
I tipped the Force to come last in the Australian conference and already have egg on my face in that regard. This game presents another big test for the men from the West as they will face a Reds team backed by a crowd that can be expected to give them a reception akin to that normally reserved to players in sky blue jerseys in May at Lang Park. For the Reds, a loss here will see, in my view, their chances of playing finals rugby dissipate and that, for me, will give them too much hunger for the Force. This will be a battle of attrition and do not expect the margin to massive.
Prediction: Reds by 7
Cheetahs v Chiefs
From the feel good story of 2013 to a year that has the look of an “annus horribilus” for the Cheetahs, it certainly has been a swift decline for the men from Bloemfontein in the first 7 rounds of Super Rugby 2014. Woeful on their ANZ tour, they will be happy to be home however they will be less happy with the team they face here as they host the Chiefs.
The Chiefs have a decided statistical advantage in matches against the Cheetahs having won 5 of 7 games between the two franchises and, indeed, have not been beaten in the last 5 games against them (4 wins and a draw).
The Cheetahs have made three changes to their team for this game: Trevor Nyakane replaces Caylib Oosthuiszen, Lappies Labuschange returns to the side of the scrum with Philip van der Walt ruled out (Jean Cook moves to number 8). They are anchored at the bottom of the table at the moment having not won since Round 2.
No team announcement has come from the Chiefs but you just know that they will have taken a large amount of confidence from their second half performance against the Bulls last week. They remain at the top of New Zealand conference and third in the overall standings.
The Cheetahs, on their tour form, will be lucky to win another game this season and will be against a team desperate for a win to rest a two game streak without a win for the Chiefs. The Chiefs will be just too classy for the Cheetahs in my view and I expect them to gain a much needed bonus point here.
Prediction: Chiefs by 15
Lions v Crusaders
If you had have asked they Crusaders at the start of this season how important this fixture at Ellis Park would be to their season I am certain they would have been non-plussed and considered it just another game. It is not though, given the start of the season the Crusaders have had, as, all of a sudden this game has taken on the character of a must win if they are to make the finals.
These teams have faced off 14 times in Super Rugby and the Lions have, so far, found defeating the Crusaders, very difficult having only won 3 games of those 14. The numbers are worse of late with the Crusaders triumphant in 4 of the last 5 between the teams. This is a very different Lions team though from that which we have seen before so reliance on those numbers is deceptive.
Indeed, it is worth highlighting that this season has been nothing short of exceptional so far for the Lions as they presently sit at number 4 on the overall rankings and second in the South African conference. They have taken some big scalps already this season and will be gasping for another one here. They had the bye last week and make three changes including Martin Muller coming from the injured Franco van der Merwe. Andries Cotzee comes in at fullback.
The Crusaders have again made a slow start to this season but, in a big change from previous seasons, they have been getting beaten at home in game that they would have been expected to win. Presently sitting at fourth in the New Zealand conference with only two wins they desperately need a win here. Injuries do not help their cause with their casualty ward added to by Kieran Read from last week’s loss.
The Crusaders are long way from putting their top line up on the field and whilst they will be desperate for a win here the Lions must not be under estimated here. Add to the fact that the Lions appear to have the ear of the referees in their home confines and this looks a difficult game for the Crusades to win. I am backing the Lions to take another very large scalp here at home.
Prediction: Lions by 5
Stormers v Waratahs
Newlands is the host of the final match of Round 8 and playing at home will never have been more welcome for the Stormers who faced the most difficult of tours to Australia and New Zealand seen in a long time and promptly lost all of their games on tour. They host the much hyped Waratahs who will be looking to break their away game hoodoo in 2014 here.
The Stormers have the statistical advantage in games between the two franchises having won 9 of the 16 matches between the sides since 1998 and, more particularly, having only lost twice to the ‘Tahs at Newlands.
The Stormers have had a season to forget so far having only won 1 game of 6 played. That form line suggests that they have been behind the pace this season and whilst they have to some extent they were impressive last week in defeat against the Reds, going close to winning the game at the end. They have made four changes for this game with the biggest being the loss of Jean de Villiers to injury. He is replaced by Damian de Allende who moves in from the win. Gio Aplon is a big loss for them from the Reds game as well.
The Waratahs were smashed by the Sharks last week and remain with their try scoring machine Israel Folau who still has a sore throat. Rob Horne is out for them too this week having been suspended. This is a very different looking Waratahs team to the start of the season with injuries playing a massive part in the reshuffling of their forward pack particularly.
The Waratahs looked a bit lost last week without Folau to finish their attacking moves and whilst they face a team that has been poor so far this season, the Stormers have been on the improve of late are due for a victory. Without the scoring power of Folau and against one of the best defensive units, still, in Super Rugby, I do not see the Waratahs winning this game and thus have to go with the Stormers.
Prediction: Stormers by 3