AUCKLAND, NZ: It’s a big week for rugby down here in New Zealand. Most club competitions get under way this weekend so for most of us it finally feels like the season has started properly. Up and down the country clubrooms will be full of supporters having a beer, a laugh, a grumble or a celebration. That’s how Saturday afternoons are around here for the rest of the winter, but Saturday nights will be the same as we watch the big boys slog it out on TV.
- This last week has seen Blues coach Sir John Kirwan faced with a massive selection dilemma. Not only has he got a problem at first five, namely the fact that his best performer is a kid from the development squad, he also has to now fit Ma’a Nonu and Jerome Kaino back into the team. Nonu slots back into 12 daily, but will he drop Steven Luatua for Kaino? Also it’s looking like he’s really painted himself into a corner with Benji Marshall, who played well last week but really can’t justify being in the team ahead of Charles Piutau.
- Obviously responding my Idiot of the Week award, SANZAR referees boss Lyndon Bray has come out and admitted the refs got it wrong regarding the contentious try to the Lions last week. His official explanation: ‘Lions #13 is carrying the ball and about to attempt to score a try. Blues #11 effects a tackle and Lions #13 loses possession as a result. While the Blues player does jolt the ball out of his possession, he is not trying to deliberately ‘rip the ball’ out of the player’s possession. The onus is on the ball carrier to maintain possession while being tackled. Therefore, this should have been ruled as a knock on and subsequently, no try.‘ Nice to see some accountability by Lyndon here.
- I want to give a massive shout out and good luck to my old club in Wellington, Poneke FC who are in Sydney this weekend playing against Northern Suburbs for the Seti Tafua Shield. Seti was a former Poneke player trying to make it in the Australian club scene for Norths when he tragically broke his neck, an injury that left him paralyzed. Since then he’s made astounding progress and can stand up by himself, which is an inspirational feat from a truly dedicated guy who refuses to let his injury get him down. Big ups to Poneke premier manager Evan Belford for making it happen, him and a few of the other boys made it to Allianz Stadium where they met superstar Israel Folau. Whatever the result this weekend, the real winner is the spirit of comradeship that exists in our great sport.
So we head into another round, which starts off with a cracker as the Highlanders welcome the revitalized Hurricanes. #HIGvHUR
This is the prime time game for us here in NZ and they couldn’t have picked a better one. These two sides have a history of great matches going all the way back to the start of Super Rugby and I can’t see this one being any different. The Highlanders have been playing an open brand of footy so far this season and the Hurricanes finally figured out last week that’s what they are best at too. Ardie Savea comes in at openside for the Canes while the oldest man in the comp Brad Thorn jumps back in at lock for the Highlanders. It’ll be played under the roof in Dunedin, so both teams have no excuse not to attack.
Prediction: I think the Canes showed enough last week to get over in this one, albeit if they run it from everywhere. Hurricanes by 3 in a try-fest.
Man to watch: Hurricanes and All Black hooker Dane Coles has a few pretenders breathing down his neck for that black jersey, including Liam Coltman, who he’s marking on Friday night. He’ll have a big game to show the selectors he’s the man.
Next up we have another match that could break right open when the Waratahs meet the Rebels. #WARvREB
Both of these teams are coming off disappointing losses last week. The Waratahs disappointment comes from squandering a great start and dropping a game to their biggest rivals in the comp. The Rebels disappointment comes from the fact that they played in one of the worst games of Super Rugby ever. Giant Waratahs Number 8 Will Skelton comes into the side to replace Wycliff Palu, while the Rebels lose fullback Jason Woodward to injury and replace him with Angus Roberts. A nice little subplot to this one sees Waratah Kurtley Beale play against the team that dumped him last season for being a drunken, unreliable team-mate punching jerk-off. Let’s see if they want to remind him of that.
Prediction: The Sydneysiders should have too much firepower for their southern rivals in this one. Waratahs by 20.
Man to watch: Will Skelton is a dead set monster at 6’8 and 135 kgs. If the Tahs can give him the ball and a bit of room to move, there could be some very sore Rebels by full time.
Saturday evening in Auckland sees the Blues return home to face the Cheetahs. #BLUvCHE
Well, this really is a match-up of two teams that need to get their acts together fast if they are to get anywhere near the expectations heaped on them at the start of the season. As noted above, the Blues welcome back some familiar faces (even if they are on the bench), while the Cheetahs must be running out of players because they’ve sent another two home this week because of injury. Looking out my window I’m predicting good conditions for this one, so there’s no reason why this couldn’t be another high-scoring affair. Especially considering the Cheetahs have conceded almost 100 points in their last two games.
Prediction: The Blues are under an immense amount of pressure to get it right here, so look for the experience of their returning All Blacks to guide them through to a big win. Blues by 25.
Man to watch: Jerome Kaino has been busy bullying the Japanese club comp for the last couple of years, so hopefully he’s got himself back into the right shape to deal with the rigours of Super Rugby.
Later on Saturday night we head over to Canberra where the Brumbies host the Stormers. #BRUvSTO
The Stormers have been desperately unlucky on their trip abroad and hopefully haven’t had the morale sucked out of them by their two losses so far. They’ll have an uphill battle against the conference-topping Brumbies who pipped the Waratahs last time out. However the Brumbies haven’t had all their own way, their injury toll is reaching crisis point and coach Stephen Larkham doesn’t exactly have a wealth of talent to choose from outside of his existing squad. The Stormers have dropped flaky first five Demetri Catrikalis for the experienced Peter Grant and will just be hoping for a game where they don’t get ripped off by a forward pass or knock-on try.
Prediction: The Brumbies have proven over the years that Canberra Stadium is a real fortress and will knock out the hapless Stormers. Brumbies by 15.
Man to watch: While Nic White has been in sparkling form at halfback for the Brumbies, hopefully some of it can rub off on his first five partner Matt Toomua.
The third Saturday night game is all the way over in Perth, where the Force take on the Chiefs. #FORvCHI
On paper this should be a walkover for the defending champs, however no game of rugby is ever played on paper. The Chiefs are yet another team racked by injuries, the list of players not making the touring side almost as big as the one actually going. They’ll meet a Force side buoyed by their upset win over the Highlanders last week and a gradual acceptance by the rest of the comp that they are not just an easy win. The Force will enjoy being at home in front of their fans and will be hoping the Chiefs are more worried about the South African leg of their tour so they can spring another ambush.
Prediction: As banged-up as they are, the Chiefs have such a winning mentality it doesn’t really matter who comes into their squad. Chiefs by 12.
Man to watch: Chiefs main man Liam Messam has been quietly going about his business this year in a quest to get the All Black number 6 jersey. Look for him to lead from the front.
On Sunday morning the action is in South Africa where the Lions square off against the Reds.
Well this is a tough one, the Lions surprised everyone with a high-scoring win over the Blues last week (even though most of those points came from Das Boot), while the Reds slumped to a disappointing loss to the Sharks. The Reds season isn’t in flat-line mode just yet, but they’ll be looking at this game as one to give their season the jolt it needs. The Lions will stick to doing what they do best, although as seen above, they can’t rely on any dodgy knock-on tries this week. The Reds will be fretting over losing one of their better performers this season, Chris Feauai-Sautia, to injury. The Lions have unsurprisingly named a mostly unchanged lineup.
Prediction: After getting slogged around Kings Park last week, the Reds face another gut buster here at the altitude of Johannesburg. The Lions will make use of their home ground advantage and take it by 6 (mostly penalty goals).
Man to watch: Reds halfback Will Genia needs a few more big games to shake off the challenge of Nic White for his Wallaby jersey. He should probably start here.
We end the round in Pretoria, where the Bulls come off a bye to face the the table-topping Sharks.
The Great White Sharks look to bite a chunk of beef off their high-veldt rivals this weekend and they’ll most likely do it through their impressive loose forward trio. The Bulls will be relying on the goal kicking abilities of Jacques-Louis Potgeiter to keep them in touch with Pat Lambie and the very real threat of Frans Steyn knocking over a droppie from his own side of halfway. Something tells me the one will be dominated by the boot, but don’t be surprised to see the odd breakout as the game wears on and the defensives get tired.
Prediction: The Sharks are too hot at the moment, as long as they are in South Africa they will win their games. Sharks by 12.
Man to watch: While the Highlanders have brought back a classic vintage Brad Thorn, the Bulls have countered by naming Victor Matfield, another man so old his baby pictures are stone carvings rather than photographs. Let’s see what these two can do this weekend at a combined age of 300.
So there’s another bunch of picks down, I’d just like to say I was on fire last week. Out of my men to watch Tanerau Latimer, Conrad Smith, Ben Funnell and Benji Marshall all scored tries. Will it continue this week? Let me know what you think and if I need to start putting cheerleader pics in the previews as well…
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