AUCKLAND, NZ: Welcome back to another round of Super Rugby action. It’s ANZAC Day here in NZ and Australia, which is our version of Memorial Day/Veterans Day/Rememberance Day. So it’s worth noting, for those who don’t know, that the captain of the All Black ‘Originals’ team Dave Gallaher was one of the many who fell in the First World War. The Originals were the 1905 touring side to Great Britain and France and lost only one match out of 32 played, setting the standard that the All Blacks keep today. Even though he was exempt from service due to his age, he enlisted and served on the Western Front. He was killed during the Battle of Passchendaele in April of 1917, making him one of 14 All Blacks to die in the First World War. Today, the Gallaher Shield is played for every year in the Auckland premier club competition and the Gallaher Trophy is played for between the All Blacks and France.
So, with that piece of knowledge from the past, we jump into the present with some…
- The big news of the week is that Blues league convert Benji Marshall has decided he’s had enough of sitting on the bench and is picking up his ball and going home. It’s a sad end to probably the most confusing code-switch of all time, with Marshall jumping right in the deep-end and struggling to stay afloat. In hindsight the move seemed doomed from the start, with coach Sir John Kirwan showing little faith in his abilities despite not having any clear-cut first five choices at the start of the season. Marshall can probably take a bit of blame for this, he spurned any opportunity to get some game time in the ITM Cup or go have an off-season contract in Japan or Europe before hitting Super Rugby. Even Sonny Bill Williams had to start out playing club footy in Christchurch before he got a run in the big time, so it Benji would’ve been wise to take a few baby steps.
Crusaders lock Dominic Bird was rightly sighted for his stupid shoulder-charge on Chiefs loose forward Liam Squire last week and given a one-week suspension (as well as the less-than-prestigious Idiot of the Week award). That’s right, not one game, one week. Given the Crusaders have a bye this weekend, Bird will miss a grand total of 0 minutes of rugby. The IRB are at fault for setting judicial punishments at weeks rather than games, but SANZAR need to carry the can for this one for not even realising the loophole in the draw that makes this ‘punishment’ completely meaningless.
Because ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, it’s fitting that we have three trans-Tasman matches this weekend. We start right here in Auckland with the Blues hosting the Waratahs. #BLUvWAR
Another week of drama will do little to help the Blues, although at least they don’t have to worry about where Benji will play in this game. First five Simon Hickey returns to replace Chris Noakes while Ma’a Nonu slots in outside him after being a late withdrawal last week. The Tahs come to town full of confidence after a gritty win over the Bulls last week but will need to be a bit more exciting, because, for all their faults, the Blues are capable of some stunning play when they want to. It’s a pretty much unchanged line-up for them, of course all eyes will be on Israel Folau who makes his first trip to NZ in a rugby union jersey. If there’s one battle the Tahs have already won it’s how to get the most of a league convert, Folau making Benji look pretty silly in terms of success on the pitch. It’s also been a hard week for billboard maintenance in Auckland, with pretty much all Blues signage having to be replaced following Marshall’s departure.
Prediction: Although they’ve managed to get rid of one distraction, the Blues season is looking pretty lifeless. They were horrible against the Hurricanes last week and need to improve by about 1000%. I doubt they’ve done that in a week. Waratahs by 15.
Man to watch: Folau’s attacking prowess could see space for the Tahs wingers to cut loose, so keep an eye on Rob Horne for a try.
The next ANZAC match-up is in Canberra, where the Brumbies meet the Chiefs. #BRUvCHI
This rematch of last year’s final should be worth staying up for. The Chiefs, despite their patchy record of late, are still a very entertaining side and the Brumbies have shown this season they have come a long way from the boring style of play they pioneered in the early 2000’s. The Chiefs have made a bunch of changes, most notably veteran lock Ross Filipo getting a start. The Brumbies have brought in a lock of their own, Sam Carter, from an injury-induced layoff. This is a match-up of the top NZ and Australian teams, so hopefully both can rise to the occasion and turn on a memorable game. The Chiefs managed to have an epic last week but ended up on the wrong side of the score-sheet, while the Brumbies are coming off a bye. A sad note to this one is that SANZAR decided not to allow the playing of the NZ and Australian national anthems before the match to honour ANZAC day, which defies belief.
Prediction: This one should be the match of the round, with both teams capable of stunning play. Tough one to call but I think home ground advantage should do it. Brumbies by 3.
Man to watch: Brumbies second five Christian Lealiifano gets a surprising nod ahead of the red-hot Pat McCabe. let’s see if it was a good decision.
A rare Saturday morning (for us here in NZ) game in Durban sees the Sharks welcoming the Highlanders. #SHAvHIG
The Highlanders have the toughest possible start to their overseas trip, taking on the competition leaders who are unbeaten at home. As well as this, they are heavily outweighed in the forward department and the giant Sharks loose forwards will look to run at their smaller counterparts at any opportunity. The Highlanders have had a slight reshuffle there, with Nasi Manu returning to Number 8 and Elliott Dixon moving on to the blindside. Tim Swiel gets the nod at first five in a sign that the Sharks are pretty confident about this one, Jake White naming a mostly unchanged team from last week. They’d better not treat it too lightly, while the Highlanders have been pretty up and down, when they’re up they are capable of knocking over anyone.
Prediction: If the Sharks don’t have their eyes on their formidable trip away next week, they should grind this one out. Sharks by 12.
Man to watch: Highlanders fullback Ben Smith is arguably the form player of the tournament so far. The Sharks better make sure they kick the ball out and not give him a chance to run.
The last ANZAC game of the round is in Wellington, where the Hurricanes take on the Reds. #HURvRED
The Hurricanes couldn’t have asked for a better opponent to continue their hot-streak of form, the Reds have been heading steadily downhill of late. The Reds will however be buoyed by the fact that outstanding captain James Horwill will be playing his 100th Super Rugby game, although the Hurricanes have similar cause for motivated by fullback Andre Taylor playing his 50th. The Canes are in the rare position of being able to keep a steady lineup heading into this one, the young half duo of TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett giving the All Black selectors plenty to think about recently. Their opposites will be desperate to recapture the form that won the Reds a title in 2011, who have been a real disappointment so far. If there isn’t a decent crowd for this game in Wellington then everyone must have a pretty damn good excuse for not being there.
Prediction: If last week was a statement game for the Canes, this will be the exclamation point. Hurricanes by 20.
Man to watch: Hurricanes winger Julian Savea has been in ominous form lately, he should cut loose and get over the line here.
The late Saturday game is over in Perth, where the Force meet the Bulls. #FORvBUL
Given the garbage state of the South African conference (aside from the Sharks, who admittedly haven’t travelled yet), this isn’t just a big game for the Bulls. A loss here could shunt them down the ladder and make it tough for SA to have more than one team in the playoffs. They have made a change at halfback, with Grant Hattingh moving in a slot from his usual first five position. The Force are still without regular halfback Alby Mathewson but welcome back Jayden Hayward at fullback and Sam Wykes at lock. Despite their loss to the Rebels the Force shouldn’t have too many problems drawing a crowd, they’re the hottest ticket in town at the moment.
Prediction: The Force will be desperate to make up for last weeks hiccup, while the Bulls should be pretty tired after their tour. Force by 16.
Man to watch: The returning Jayden Hayward should hopefully pick up where he left off and get amongst the scoring.
The last game of the round takes place in Bloemfontein, where the Cheetahs face off against the Stormers. #CHEvSTO
Two immensely disappointing teams have a go at each other in this match, which, given their form, is unlikely to go down in history. Unless the Cheetahs can do their old ‘we’ll score a bunch of tries but in a sporting gesture let them get a bunch too’ tactic, this one should be ground out by penalties.
Prediction: The worst attacking side meets the worst defence, so flip a coin. I’ll say Stormers by 1.
Man to watch: Referee Craig Joubert. Some rate him the best in the world.
The Crusaders, Lions and Rebels all get the week off. The Crusaders will be pretty happy with their last few weeks while the other two teams will most likely be figuring out how to salvage some pride out of season 2014 already. Perhaps they could all get together and the Crusaders could give them some tips over a few beers given they’ve beaten the Lions and Rebels already.
So there’s all the action on a weekend of remembrance in this part of the world. Wherever you are, say thanks to the men and women who serve to keep us free and able to enjoy simple things like footy on the weekends.
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.