AUCKLAND, NZ: Three weeks in and the competition is already starting to show signs of a breakup. No, not going through each other’s phones and auditing texts, signs like being higher on the table and having far more tries than one another. It’s a long, long season but we’re already starting to see who’s going to still be playing when the play-offs roll around.
- As mentioned by RWU a couple of weeks back, the powers-that-be will be looking to increase the number of Super Rugby teams to 17 in the near future, with a sixth South African team and new Argentine team to be added. While we welcome any sort of expansion, it seems like this is another knee-jerk reaction to South Africa’s tired old calls to move their teams to the Heineken Cup. Let’s face it, if it was a viable option for them THEY WOULD HAVE DONE IT BY NOW, expansion team or not. The main gripe with all this is that again no consideration at all has been made to include a Pacific Island team. Such a team could be based out of Auckland and provide a unique alternative to the current landscape, not to mention much-needed funds for the Pacific Island national unions.
- On the topic of expansion teams, there are grave doubts over the quality of an Argentine team.
Given their union’s belated embrace of professionalism all of their top players ply their trade offshore and it would take a pretty monumental ground shift to see them all coming back to take part in what would be a very torrid first few seasons in the competition. So who is going to play for them? Second-tier locals and a handful of cast-offs from other teams? Add in a travel schedule that’ll see them going halfway around the world for every away game and its tough to see this idea having much merit.
- As noted in my last column, Israel Folau has five tries for the season. He is currently three ahead of the entire Hurricanes team.
- Though advised by a Ben Tameifuna fan on Twitter to watch the entire Chiefs/Highlanders game again because she was sure he’d hit more than two rucks, as claimed by Sky Sport NZ. We must confess, I couldn’t really be bothered.
So, we head into another exciting weekend on Friday night when my Hurricanes get their first home game when they welcome the Brumbies.
Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett hardly endeared to the local fans when he took the job and ousted Ma’a Nonu from the team as quickly as he could. He’s gone some way to restoring faith among them but is quickly eroding any support by his bizarre non-selection of Ardie Savea. He’ll again watch from the stands as noted Idiot Of The Week Adam Hill gets the open side flanker spot. The Brumbies will come into this game full of confidence after their demolition of the Force last week, so watch for a fast start from them. If they can get out of the blocks early it’ll be an uphill battle for the home team.
Prediction: Despite the loss last week, the Canes showed enough good things to give this hopeless fan enough hope that home field advantage will turn their results around. Canes by 3.
Player to watch: I would say Ardie Savea, but he isn’t playing. So enjoy what he would’ve done if he was.
The late Friday night game (for us in NZ anyway) sees the Reds meet the touring Cheetahs.
Two teams with big expectations on them at the start of the season clash having got nowhere near the start either of them would’ve liked at the magnificent Suncorp Stadium. The Reds will have plenty to prove in front of their home fans, especially their pack, which was sassed by the Waratahs last week. The Cheetahs have suffered a couple of injuries, with prop Connie Oosthuizen and winger Raymond Rhule both returning home. The Suncorp field always seems like it’s bigger on TV and teams like to run on it, so we’re picking this to be the highest scoring game of the round.
Prediction: It’ll be high scoring, but it’ll be the Reds that end up with most of those points. Reds by 20.
Player to watch: Second five Mike Harris returns to the Reds after a long injury lay-off, can the turncoat Kiwi regain the form that once saw him gain a Wallaby jersey?
On Saturday evening the under-fire Crusaders take on the Stormers in Christchurch.
The Stormers were welcomed to NZ this week with a cold snap of weather that saw their training run reduced to 20 minutes before they huddled inside the changing room to keep warm. Not a great start. The Crusaders have had a pretty frosty blast themselves from the media this week, with some
serious questions being asked of coach Todd Blackadder and the form of some senior players. This one will be played with an extremely conservative approach from both sides, neither of whom are noted for their flashiness anyway.
Prediction: If the Stormers can’t even hack an outdoor training session then no point in holding out much hope for them when the game actually starts. Crusaders by 12, but it’ll be a boring game.
Player to watch: With Richie getting the thumbs down on his injury, Matt Todd gets a chance to show off without having to sit on the bench behind the greatest All Black of all time. Yeah, I said it.
Straight after that one we cruise over to Perth, where the Rebels have rolled into town to take on the Force.
The upstart Rebels couldn’t have wished for a better start to their 2014 campaign with a pasting of the Cheetahs at home last week. Not only that, but done in fine style with some wonderful tries and some standout performances. Now they face the Force, a team that they have the best record against in their short history. The Force will be motivated by skipper Matt Hodgson turning out for his 100th Super Rugby cap and the fact that they can’t possibly be any worse then they were last week against the Brumbies.
Prediction: Whether the Rebels can go from being a feel-good expansion team story to genuine contenders remains to be seen, but they’ll have too much firepower for the already hapless-looking Force. Rebels by 18.
Player to watch: Rebels first five Bryce Hegarty had a monster game last week, if he gets more great front foot ball from his pack then he could carve up again.
The next morning in South Africa the Bulls will be looking to get their season back on track against the Blues.
These two similarly named sides are in similar positions in their existence. Both have storied histories of championships but now field young teams full of potential. They both go into this week
after morale-boosting wins, so this will be a fascinating encounter. Not sure what the Bulls have done to offend the weather gods because all their games have been played in awful conditions, so here’s hoping the rain stays away and we see both teams give the ball some air.
Prediction: This is the hardest one for me this weekend, one has to think the Blues will have their tails up a little higher due to their impressive comeback last week against the Crusaders. Blues by 10.
Player to watch: The Blues wingers lit it up last week, but look for fullback Charles Piutau to have breakout game here.
The last game of the round sees a battle of the Sharks and Lions in Durban.
That’s an interesting thought, who would win in a battle between a real shark and lion? Guess would depend on who got home field advantage. The Lions bring in Elton Jantjes in to first five in a surprise move that sees Marnitz ‘Das Boot’ Boshoff go back to fullback, while the Sharks have
the luxury of naming an unchanged lineup for the third week in a row. Fair enough I guess, they have won all their games. This one has the potential to turn into a kicking dirge-fest, so listen out for the sound of many remotes worldwide changing the channel at halftime.
Prediction: Although the Lions got off to a fast start, they’ll be in for a another down-to-earthing this week. Sharks by 9.
Player to watch: Promising lock Pieter-Steph du Toit has been in fine form for the Sharks. Given that there’ll be plenty of set-piece play in this game, he’ll have an excellent platform to show off his credentials.
If it seems like a slightly shorter preview than normal it’s because the Chiefs, Highlanders and Waratahs have the week off. Since it’s still summer down here they’ve probably all gone to the beach, which is what I’m about to do as well. Tough gig, this one.
Please take the picks with a tablespoon of salt, especially considering the rotten form last week. But let me know what you think of them and the column anyway. Someone should hide the remote from me when I watch the Hurricanes tonight, it’s liable to go flying in the direction of the TV at some stage…
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