AUCKLAND, NZ: You know that feeling when you go out to have a big night but you get to the bar too early? You’re ready to tee off and get rowdy but the place is more or less empty and no one is sharing your enthusiasm for a good time. That’s what Super Rugby felt like last week.
But now there’s more patrons in the bar, the music’s going and you’ve downed a few cold ones. Things feel a lot more like they should this week where all three conferences hit the paddock and all but one match is a local affair. Home sides are named first.
We kick off with the Crusaders at home to the Chiefs #CRUvCHI
The champion Chiefs head down to the South Island to what will be one of the tougher tests of their season. Much has been said about the Chiefs depth being potentially exposed this year, but bringing back Mils Muliaina to shore up their backline is a pretty good response to that problem (he’s only played 100 tests for the All Blacks). Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has decided to reward pre-season form by dumping renowned alcohol connoisseur Zac Guildford for the promising Johnny McNicholl and going for Berrick Barnes look-alike Tyler Bleyendaal (RWU Class of 2012 member) over recent All Black Tom Taylor. (Bleyendaal is in ball carrier).
Prediction: This should be a close one, early season rustiness might keep the score low so it’ll come down to goal-kicking. Chiefs by 5.
Who to watch: There’s been big talk of a potentially big future for Chiefs hooker Rhys Marshall. Let’s see if he can make 2014 his breakout year.
Next up it’s the Cheetahs entertaining the Bulls #CHEvBUL
No one else has even played yet and we’ve already got a match-up of two winless teams. The Cheetahs will be desperate to get their season back on track after a shock loss to the Lions last week and have named an unchanged lineup. They’ll be wanting to give former team mate Marcel van der Merwe and Piet van Zyl (not the guy who attacked the ref back in 2002) as hostile welcome as possible. It’ll be another tough ask for the rebuilding Bulls, who need a far more accurate kicking game from first five Louis Fouche.
Prediction: The Cheetahs should click for this one and take it, leaving the Bulls with more than a few headaches for the rest of the season. Cheetahs by 15.
Who to watch: Bulls flanker Jacques du Plessis was the best on the park for the men in blue last week, hopefully he can inspire the rest of the team.
We head back to the South Island of NZ on Saturday night for the Highlanders up against the Blues #HIGvBLU
This is a potentially fascinating match. No one is expecting anything of the Highlanders so they could throw the ball around all season and no one will mind, win or lose. The Blues have got one some of the most exciting All Blacks of recent time in Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua and are under the more pressure to perform than a male adult movie star. Returning Blues legend Jerome Kaino may find himself at 8 due to Luatua’s dominant form, both will be a handful for the Highlanders.
Prediction: This is my pick for the highest scoring game of the round and hopefully the one that catches the public’s attention. Blues by 7 but bonus points for both teams.
Who to watch: Blues halfback Piri Weepu has his share of detractors, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can convert a few with a decent showing.
We go across the ditch for the Brumbies vs. the Reds #BRUvRED
Australian Rugby hasn’t had a lot to cheer about lately, but a good showing fro these two teams could raise a few spirits. The key match-up is in the halves, where Wallaby incumbents Will Genia and Quade Cooper face their understudies Nic White and Matt Toomua. This virtual trial will add to a decent fight up front and an assurance from Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham that there won’t be much kicking from them. Do we believe him? Time will tell.
Prediction: This will be a close one; I’m picking the home side to sneak in. Brumbies by 3.
Who to watch: Big Brumbies centre Tevita Kuridani could wreak havoc in the middle of the park if he gets some quality ball.
The only inter-conference match of the weekend is the Sharks up against the Hurricanes #SHAvHUR
The Hurricanes have a horrible draw this year, starting out in Africa against a Sharks side with a win under their belt already. Coach Mark Hammett has gone for a solid looking outfit that have hopefully been working on their fitness in the off-season. That’s because it’s hot in Durban right now and the Sharks will look to run them off the park. Expect a big battle between the two baby-faced first fives, Beauden Barrett and Pat Lambie.
Prediction: It pains me to say this as a Canes fan but it’ll be close for a while before the Sharks take this one out running away. Sharks by 12.
Who to watch: New Hurricanes fullback Marty Banks. This guy broke a few scoring records for Tasman in our domestic comp last season.
Still in Africa where the Lions play host to the Stormers #LIOvSTO
Well, if you’d asked me a week ago what the result of this game would’ve been, it would’ve been easy. Actually it’s still easy, I just know now it’ll be closer. The Stormers (the most boring team in the comp) will kick the ball as much as they can to the Lions (also boring but only because it’s effective and they are plucky underdogs so we’ll let them off blah blah blah) who will kick it straight back. There’s only two players of importance in this game, the first fives Marnitz Boshoff and Demetri Catrakilis.
Prediction: Whatever the score, it’ll be in multiples of three. Stormers by 9 and the crowd to be asleep by full time.
Who to watch: The ball boys and whoever brings out the kicking tee. They’re in for a big day.
Last stop is in Sydney for the Waratahs and the Force #WARvFOR
There is one 6’5”, 104 kg reason to watch this game and he’ll be wearing a sky-blue jersey and 15 on his back. Yes, Israel Folau could possibly be the best League convert of all time, so let’s hope the Tahs give him enough ball to showcase his freakish abilities. This will be an uphill battle for the Force, who seem to be an answer for whenever someone in New Zealand wonders where that guy who used to play for their team went (Alby Mathewson, Jayden Hayward).
Prediction: If the Tahs can break the shackles and finally become the team that they’ve promised to be for their whole existence, then this could be worth a watch. If not, then it’ll resemble the previous match-up. I’m an optimist so I’m saying Waratahs by 20.
Who to watch: Other than the afore-mentioned Izzy Folau, Tahs first five Bernard Foley will have set himself some lofty goals this year, so watch for a big game from him.
Down in Melbourne the Rebels have the week off, so they’ll either be hitting the tackle bags or hitting the town. Danny Cipriani isn’t around anymore to cause any unwanted headlines for them, so if they do go out hopefully they behave themselves.
So there’s Round Two of Super Rugby cocked, locked and ready to rock. Agree with my picks? If not, let me know about it. If so, give Vegas a call…
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From The Vault: Sir John Kirwan before he was hired for The Blues discussed the then England coaching vacancy: