AUCKLAND, NZ – Super Rugby is back! Well, sort of. The June tests are all over in NZ and Australia, but not South Africa. The Springboks are taking on Scotland so it’s just a trans-Tasman round this weekend. To be fair, if you can remember back to week one it was just our South African friends playing, so they are owed a week off. So who can remember what’s going on? I’ll do my best to refresh your memory:
The NZ conference has been very even throughout, with each team having patches of brilliance and having to deal with some serious setbacks. The most consistent side has been the Crusaders, who had a great trip to South Africa and returned home with three wins. They’ve had to make do without their two biggest stars, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter for most of the season, McCaw out with an injury for a long stretch and Carter only scheduled to return from a long lay off this weekend. Last year’s champions the Chiefs have been hit hard by injury from day one and have done an admirable job to overcome these setbacks. They were in the lead of the conference for a long stretch but have fallen away recently and the play-offs will be a tall order. The Hurricanes have had a very Hurricanes-like season, summed up by their last two games in which they thrashed the Chiefs and then got whipped by the Blues. The Highlanders have toiled hard, getting a few more results than most expected, while the Blues have been the biggest disappointment. The boys from Auckland haven’t been able to settle on a first five all season and are at the bottom of the conference.
Meanwhile, things have been just as tight over the ditch. The Waratahs shot out of the blocks early, but had a horrible time in South Africa which was a momentary setback. They’ve been in hot contention for first place with the Brumbies, who also suffered on their overseas tour. The surprise package of the year has been the Force, who have racked up a record number of wins for the team and are playing good, tough footy. The Rebels have lived up to everyone’s expectations of them this season, which weren’t high. The biggest disappointment has been the Wallaby laden Reds, who have been awful apart from a couple of upset wins.
In South Africa it’s a bit more clear cut. The Sharks are the best team in the conference, with daylight second. They managed a brilliant away tour that saw them pick up victories over the Crusaders and Blues and looked like they were odds on favorites for top overall till a shock loss to the Stormers at home. Best of the rest will be the Bulls, who have impressed despite being very much in a rebuilding year. They’ll benefit heavily from a very favorable draw over the next few weeks. The Stormers have been good for a few results and can count themselves unlucky, but the the Cheetahs have just been flat-out awful. The Lions have picked up the out grinding win but have relied on defensive rugby that won’t make it to many highlight reels.
So, an all-Aussie and Kiwi round sees a few less games but some all-important local derbies. We start on Friday night in Dunedin when the Highlanders host the Chiefs. #HIGvCHI
Both of these teams have had key players in action over the last few weeks on international duty, most notably Aaron Cruden for the Chiefs and Aaron Smith for the Highanders, who both started all three tests at first five and halfback respectively. Augustine Pulu comes in at halfback for the Chiefs after an injury layoff, displacing All Black squad member Tawera Kerr-Barlow. Also a notable return is that of enigmatic centre Robbie Fruean, whose career has promised much but has been curtailed by an on-going heart problem and untimely injuries. This game has all the makings of a shootout, indoors at the Forsyth Barr Stadium means no problems that would usually occur on a winter’s night in the deep south are a thing of the past. The last match between these two sides at the same venue last year was an absolute classic, with a magnificent game by Tim Nanai-Williams being the highlight. Hopefully these boys have been keeping up with their fitness over the lay-off, this one will test the lungs of players and supporters alike.
Prediction: The Chiefs are coming off back-to-back losses while the Highlanders had a shock loss to the Reds in their last outing, so this one is really up in the air. How much motivation the returning All Blacks will bring with them will be key, but I reckon home ground advantage will pay off here. Highlanders by 10.
Man to Watch: Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith was under fire heading into the last test but made it count with a two try performance. Look for a big game from him here.
The late game on Friday is over in Melbourne, where the Rebels meet the Reds. #REBvRED
The two lovable losers of the Aussie conference do battle south of the border in Victoria. Since the Wallabies have essentially been picked already there’s little individually to play for other than perhaps adding a bit more value to a potentially Japanese or French contract for the journeymen in each team, of which there are plenty. However, their last meeting was a memorable one, with the Rebels getting up in a high-scoring affair up in Brisbane. Hopefully both teams give the fans a reason to part with their money and come watch them, this one could be a repeat in terms of tries scored.
Prediction: Again, it’ll be down to motivation, but from everyone. Home town advantage should carry the Victorians over the line. Rebels by 9.
Man to watch: The Rebels standout loose forward Scott Higginbotham is one of the success stories of the season for the Rebels, if they are to get home it’ll be on his back.
On Saturday night in Wellington it’s the second big local derby of the weekend, with the Hurricanes welcoming the Crusaders. #HURvCRU
The Canes have been hit hard by the international injury toll, losing captain Conrad Smith for the rest of the season with a broken thumb. Ironically, another man who just recovered from the same injury, All Black captain Richie McCaw is injured as well. Turns out he played the entire second and third tests with a broken rib and will take some time off to let that heal. However the Crusaders will welcome back Dan Carter for the first time this season off the bench. Boom winger Nemani Nadolo is also out for the visitors, leaving them with a little less strike power out wide. The Crusaders do have the advantage of actually playing a game in the last three weeks, however that was when they were thumped by England in a game which was hard to take any positives out of. The weather will play it’s part in this one, knowing Wellington it isn’t going to be great at this time of the year.
Prediction: This one will be a low-scoring, kick-driven affair with both first fives looking to control the game. Very difficult to call given both sides respective injuries. Crusaders by 5.
Man to Watch: While the All Blacks were playing the Hurricanes had a number of reps in the Manu Samoa team as well, including second five Alapati Leuia. He’s having his best season so far and will benefit from some good ball from his forwards.
Straight after full-time in that match we’re heading over to Sydney, where the big Australian clash sees the Waratahs face off against the Brumbies. #WARvBRU
This is the match that most definitely has the most riding on this weekend. The Tahs currently sit top of the Australian conference, but the Brumbies will overtake them with a win here tomorrow night. a loss for either team won’t spell disaster, but life won’t be exactly easy for them for the rest of the season. The big loss for the Brumbies is first five Matt Toomua, who will be replaced at first five by Christian Leali’fano, with Andrew Smith slotting into the midfield. Another big hole is left by injured hooker Stephen Moore, who may have to be replaced by prop Ruadhri Murphy. The Waratahs want to keep their momentum going that they had before the break that’s seen them overcome a dip in form mid-season. They’ll look to build on some strong performances by their Wallaby contingent over the international window.
Prediction: Given the Brumbies shocking injury crisis, this one could be one-way traffic for the Tahs. However, they shouldn’t take this wounded Brumbies outfit lightly. Waratahs by 6.
Man to Watch: Tahs loose forward Will Skelton was an absolute beast in his start against the French last weekend. The Tahs will want to get the ball in his high hands as often and early as possible.
The last game on a big Saturday night is way over in Perth, where the Force battle the Blues. #FORvBLU
The boys from WA will want to pick up where they left off before the break with a solid win here to cement their place in the top six. Their approach of very much playing a simple game plan within their means has brought great success in 2014 and will be cheered o by a big home crowd. The Blues, unbelievably, still actually have a shot at the playoffs, even though it’s very slim. They haven’t been affected at all by the attrition rate of the test series, more so the Under-20 world champs in which they lost first five Simon Hickey. Given coach Sir John Kirwan’s musical chairs rotation policy in that position he probably would’ve been on the outer anyway and Ihaia West would’ve got the start regardless. The Blues will look to start over with a new positive game plan and run the ball through an in-form Ma’a Nonu and feed the ball to top age-grade winger Tevita Li.
Prediction: Another case of home town advantage being the deciding factor. As well as the fact that the Force are a much more consistent team playing better rugby. Force by 15.
Man to Watch: Blues winger Tevita Li shone bright early in the season, disappeared for some reason then came roaring back to relevance with a huge Junior World Champs campaign. He can only get better from here.
As I mentioned earlier, the South African teams take an extra week off and will most likely get together to watch the Springboks. Maybe they’ll have a braai and some beers at Victor Matfield’s place. Have fun wherever you’re watching this weekend as we all get used to domestic footy again.
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.