AUCKLAND, NZ: Happy Easter to all you footy fans from down here in the windswept isles of New Zealand. While some of us may be out searching for Easter eggs this weekend you won’t have to search very far for some decent rugby action. Unless of course your country doesn’t show it on TV, in which case you will.
- The Blues drama over the number 10 jersey had another chapter written in it this week with Sir John Kirwan bringing back Chris Noakes to replace Simon Hickey, who will probably play club rugby on Saturday. 10 weeks in and not having settled on your most important position? Not good. The tide of public opinion is ever so slowly starting to turn on SJK, across town the Warriors have sacked their coach in recent weeks and the national media has a taste for blood now.
Chiefs midfielder Bundee Aki has announced that he has signed with Connacht following the conclusion of the Super Rugby season and also stated his desire to make the Irish national team. Just how much of that desire was borne out of a wad of Euros flashed under his nose rather than a deep love of the Blarney Stone will probably remain a mystery, however, the NZRU should probably take notice of this. Beforehand it was players who had missed their chance to play for the All Blacks getting signed by overseas club, now it’s guys with huge potential getting snapped up by overseas unions before they’ve even given getting a black jersey a real go. To be fair to Aki, a certain Sonny Bill Williams would’ve kept him on the reserves bench for the Chiefs next season anyway. Good luck to him in Ireland, I hope he likes Guinness and people reminding him of when Munster beat the All Blacks.
- Another governing body with a big problem on their hands is the ARU over their handling of the Israel Folau injury. The Waratahs and the man himself are fuming over his late withdrawal in their match against the Force, with Izzy quoted as saying it’s enough to make him want to quit playing altogether. Please don’t, then I won’t be able to shower you with praise every week.
Enough gushing, let’s get on to what’s happening this weekend. They say Friday night’s a great night for football (I absolutely insist you play that link while reading this column) and hopefully it’s just that in Wellington, where the Hurricanes battle the Blues. #HURvBLU
I’ve already covered the Blues merry-go-round at first five, but they have made some other changes as well with veteran front rowers Charlie Faumuina and Keven Mealamu returning. Canes prop Reggie Goodes gets his first start of the season and is the only non-All Black in either front row. Ma’a Nonu returns to his hometown wearing enemy colours yet again and will look to feed an exciting back line. The Canes backs are unchanged from last time, so this has the potential to be the shoot-out of the week. Both teams have been good at crossing the whitewash so far this year but have shown a little less enthusiasm on defence, so hopefully both teams did a bit of fitness work over the bye week. Hopefully enough Wellingtonians have stuck around this long weekend to go to the game, I’ll be a happy man when I can see more people than yellow seats in Westpac Stadium.
Prediction: Both teams are coming off a bye, so this one is hard to call. The Blues have been disgraceful on the road for the last two seasons, so I’ll say the Canes by 12.
Man to watch: Hurricanes fullback Andre Taylor is another player to sign with an overseas club at the end of the season, he’s heading to Japan. Which is a shame because he’s recaptured the form that made him a superstar a couple of seasons ago.
Later on Friday night the Rebels take on the Force in Melbourne. #REBvFOR
The Force, the revelation team of 2014 roll into Victoria full of confidence and a rare chance to sweep the Australian conference. Who would’ve thought? However, this one has all the hallmarks of a banana skin moment for the high-flying Force, who have made a couple of big changes. Halfback Alby Mathewson is out injured and is replaced by Ian Prior while fellow Kiwi Jayden Hayward is in doubt. The Rebels would’ve been pleased with pushing the Chiefs so close last week but should probably remind themselves they never really looked like winning that game. They’ve lost loosies Scott Fuglistaller and Lopeti Timani and will still be having nightmares of the opening 20 minute beatdown the Force laid on them in their last game in which they conceded 32 points.
Prediction: Despite their injury toll this one should result in a win for the Force, but probably not as entertaining and high-scoring as the past few weeks. Force by 10.
Men to watch: Two guys having monster seasons so far are Number 8’s Ben McCalman (Force) and Scott Higgenbotham (Rebels). Hopefully these two get a fair share of ball and smash each other relentlessly.
Saturday night has a showpiece game in the NZ conference when the Chiefs face the Crusaders in Hamilton. #CHIvCRU
It seems that a little South African trip has done the Crusaders a world of good, after two excellent wins they return back to NZ full of confidence. The Chiefs, on the other hand, are in an odd spot right now, getting results but not the way a championship team should. Brodie Retallick has satisfied the concussion testers this week and Tawera Kerr-Barlow retains his starting halfback spot. Owen Franks comes back in at prop for the Crusaders while the good form of Colin Slade and an injury to Keiron Fonotia means Tom Taylor will start at second five. Both teams problems – the Chiefs inability to hit top gear and the Crusaders inability to play properly for the first 60 minutes – could make this a painful game to watch, but hopefully they’ll iron out the wrinkles and put on a good show.
Prediction: The Crusaders have had a sniff of what it’s like to be a contender again and I think that’s all they need. It’ll be tight and come down to goal-kicks, so Crusaders by 3.
Man to watch: Crusaders loose forward Jordan Taufua gets his first start of the season, replacing George Whitelock. One thing is for certain: there will be one less bald spot on the field.
The late game on Saturday is in Sydney, where the Waratahs welcome the Bulls. #WARvBUL
The Bulls have shown a bit more fortitude than most would’ve expected from them on their tour abroad, they’ve only just lost their two games so far and showed a lot of enterprise in the first half last week against the Highlanders. They have the luxury of naming an unchanged lineup this week and also the unusual distinction of having beaten the Waratahs six times in a row, including three in Sydney. The Waratahs are largely unchanged with the obvious exception of a certain fullback coming into the lineup. Rumour has it Folau has blocked the ARU’s number from his phone and a security detail has been put in place around Allianz Stadium to prevent anyone doing a medical examination on him.
Prediction: Despite their good record against the Tahs, this one should be a bridge too far for the Bulls. Waratahs by 12.
Man to watch: Former Bulls flanker Jacques Potgeiter should get a rowdy reception from some of his old ‘friends’ when he turns out for the Waratahs.
The attention then turns to two all-South African affairs, the first of which sees the Sharks take on the Cheetahs in Durban. #SHAvCHE
The table-topping Sharks have had to field a few accusations lately of whether they are just pretenders this year due to the fact that they haven’t had to travel yet. That journey is on the horizon so first they just have to play what’s in front of them, which fortunately is a team in which ‘defence’ is a dirty word. One thing is for certain with the Cheetahs this year though, they’re never boring. They lose first five Johan Goosen to injury but bring back one guy who does know how to defend, flanker Heinrich Brussouw. Sharks coach Jake White has brought in record-holding former Springbok wing Tonderai Chavanga for the injured Akona Ndungane, I’m sure he could get six more tries on debut against this Cheetahs defence.
Prediction: The Sharks should deprive the Cheetahs of the ball and walk all over them in this one. Sharks by 25.
Man to watch: Heinrich Brussouw is renowned as a fetching flanker, so since they won’t have any ball he’ll come up with a lot of turnovers or get pinged off the park by the ref.
The last game of the round is in Cape Town, where the Stormers square up against the Lions. #STOvLIO
This one has a bit of an air of revenge around it, with the heroic Lions upsetting their more fancied opponents back in round two. Since then the Stormers have gotten a little better but haven’t really got the results while the Lions just haven’t quite kicked on from a promising start. That’s not to say they haven’t been kicking, though with most of their points coming in 3’s. Jean de Villiers comes back in at centre for the Stormers, who have also recalled first five Demetri Catrikalis and shifted Peter Grant back to fullback. The Lions make a change at hooker with Robbie Coetzee coming in for Willie Wepener.
Prediction: You’ll probably want to bring a pillow for this one, it will not reach any great heights and the score will be low. Stormers by 9.
Man to watch: Jean de Villiers is one of the best players of this generation and hopefully can get a bit of ball, even if it is by his trademark intercept.
The Highlanders, Reds and Brumbies all get the week to sit and contemplate what the rest of the season holds for them. One player taking a break from rugby and Snapchat is Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith, who sent a selfie he probably shouldn’t have.
On that scandalous note I’ll leave you to enjoy the footy this weekend. I was pretty good on the picks last week, feel free to use them for your advantage.
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.