Highlanders v Bulls
Round 9 of Super Rugby this week kicks off in Dunedin with the Highlanders hosting the travelling Bulls at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
The Highlanders have the advantage in games between these two teams, having won ten of the sixteen encounters over all. Dunedin has been a fortress for the Highlanders against the Bulls, with the Bulls only victorious once in seven attempts and that was in 2007.
The hosts enter his encounter in somewhat scratchy form having split their last four games for two wins and two losses. Brad Thorn and Kane Hames return for the Highlanders in the pack whilst in the backline Patrick Osborne comes in on the wing for Kurt Baker who is suspended.
The Bulls have been hit heavily by injury on tour in Australia and New Zealand and have been forced to include Victor Matfield, who was supposed to only be on tour as a coach, in the second row. Akona Ndungane injured his hamstring at training and has been replaced by Piet van Zyl with Francois Hoggard moving onto the wing.
The Bulls do not travel well and have again been found amiss on this tour. In New Zealand overall they win less than 20% of their matches. The Highlanders are always difficult to beat at home and given the Bulls are injury plagued I am tipping the Bulls’ issues in New Zealand to continue.
Prediction: Highlanders by 7
Reds v Brumbies
The second of two games this Friday night is the first of two Australian derbies for this week with the Brumbies travelling from the nation’s capital to face the Reds at Lang Park.
The Brumbies have long been a bogey team for the Reds having only lost to them five times in twenty-three encounters. In Queensland, the Reds’ record against the Brumbies does not improve having only been victorious on two occasions out of ten starts. The season commenced with the Reds besting the Brumbies in Canberra in Round 2.
The Reds have been struggling of late having again toured South Africa without success and then lost on the final buzzer against the Force last week. They have been ill disciplined and still lead the competition in penalties conceded. Chris Feauai-Sautia returns on the wing for the Reds whilst Anthony Fainga’a starts this week in place of Mike Harris who has been moved from the bench.
The Brumbies’ losses this season have been to the Reds and the Rebels both of which were surprises. Their team is stable and they welcome back from last week’s lineup Stephen Moore and Scott Sio to the front row. Tom Staniforth gets the start in the second row due to injuries.
The Brumbies have been the pick of the Australian teams this season and come to Brisbane seeking redemption for their loss earlier in the season to the Reds. The Reds’ ill discipline has cost them all season and one suspects that they will not improve in this aspect enough to best the Brumbies here. Whilst the heart says the Reds, the head says the Brumbies in what will be another epic encounter.
Prediction: Brumbies by 5
Chiefs v Rebels
The first of four games on Saturday sees the Chiefs return home to Hamilton from their South African tour to host the Rebels.
The statistics on this encounter are limited as the teams have only played each other twice since the Rebels joined the competition for two wins for the Chiefs. In both games the Chiefs scored 39 points.
The Chiefs have one of the deepest squads in the competition and have made eight changes to their line up from the team which drew with the Cheetahs last week. A massive loss for them is Aaron Cruden who is out for the next 6 weeks. Gareth Anscombe starts this week in the number 10 jersey. They come into this game having not won a game since Round 5 and have picked up a worrying trait of starting very slowly.
The Rebels come into this fixture off the back of a close defeat last week against the Highlanders having gone into that game on a high defeating the Brumbies in the previous week. Colby Fainga’a and Tom Kingston return for the Melbournians both having recovered from injuries.
The Rebels having only won 3 games away from home since they joined the competition in 2011 and all of those away wins have been against the Force in Perth. They face a side that has won its last eight games at home. I cannot see the Chiefs giving the Rebels the chance they have given their opponents in the last two weeks and am tipping them to defeat the Rebels handsomely.
Prediction: Chiefs by 18
Force v Waratahs
The second of the two Australian derbies for this week comes from Perth with the Force hosting the Waratahs who are returning from their tour of South Africa with a stopover in Western Australia.
The Force having only bested the Waratahs twice in the twelve encounters between these two franchises and have never defeated them in the six attempts at home.
The Force are the form team in Super Rugby at the moment and having watched them in the flesh last week I can report that they are nothing if not confident. They have made only one change to the team that defeated the Reds last week with Marcel Brache coming into the backline.
The Waratahs return from South Africa off the back of a win against the Stormers and they benefit here from one of the shortest return journeys possible after such a tour. In very positive news for the ‘Tahs Israel Folau returns from his sore throat.
The Force are gunning for their 5th straight win for the first time since they joined the competition. The Waratahs have had much hyperbole surrounding their early season form and with the return of Folau they get the main thrust of their attack back here. I suspect it will be a hard fought encounter and, off the back of what I saw last week, I am going to side with the Force to overcome the star packed Waratahs.
Prediction: Force by 3
Cheetahs v Crusaders
The South African swing of Super Rugby games for round 9 commences in Bloemfontein with the Cheetahs hosting the travelling Crusaders.
This game in Bloemfontein represents an opportunity for Crusaders to win there for the first time since 2007 which was the first and only year that the Crusaders has won there. Overall in Super Rugby fixtures the Cheetahs have defeated the men from Christchurch twice (both at home) in seven encounters.
The Crusaders bounced back to something resembling their usual form with a quality victory against the Lions in Johannesburg. They have been bolstered by the return of their captain, Kieran Read, in this game. This is the only change they have made from the previous week’s team that was so impressive.
The Cheetahs have had a season to forget so far and they will have been shattered last week to have allowed the Chiefs to get back into a game they had dominated. They have named the same side for this game as that team which went so close to pulling off an upset last week.
The Crusaders have not been at their best this season but the return of Kieran Read will improve their line up significantly. The Cheetahs are not the team they were last season and again appear to have lost the ability to defend which saw them so successful last season. I expect the Crusaders to continue their improvement on tour and win this game against the currently lowest placed side in the African conference.
Prediction: Crusaders by 9
Lions v Sharks
The final match of the round comes to us from Ellis Park in Johannesburg with the Lions hosting the Sharks.
Overall, these two teams have played 19 times in Super Rugby competition with the Lions coming out the victor on only three occasions with there also having been 2 draws. In home matches the record of the Lions is not much better having played the Sharks on 9 occasions for 2 wins and each of the two draws between the teams.
The Sharks sit atop both the South African Conference and the competition ladder overall and come into this game off the back of a bye last week having defeated the Waratahs in their last outing two weeks ago. They have made no changes to their starting lineup for this week however have added Paul Jordaan to their bench.
The Lions are in the heart of their best season in Super Rugby however they will have been shaken by their loss at home last week to the Crusaders. Their game plan is simple: get into the opposition’s half and then wait for a penalty infringement which Marnitz Boshoff then converts. He is kicking at a rate of over 90% and has scored more than half of the Lions points this season. They have made one change to last week team with Derrick Minnie coming in for Jaco Kriel.
This is a contest between the current top two teams in the South African conference and promises to be a quality encounter. The Sharks though look like they have too much class across the field here though they will need to be wary of given the Boshoff too many chances to convert penalties. The Sharsk should win this though and should garner a bonus point.
Prediction: Sharks by 13
Byes: Blues, Hurricanes, Stormers