AUCKLAND, NZ: Welcome back in to the column that’ll give you everything you need to know about this weekend’s Super Rugby action. Last week we saw a hand of upsets dealt out, so more than a few teams will be on their guard a little more this week. Before we crack into the match previews, I have a few…
In a rare mid-season move, the Crusaders have parted ways with former All Black wing Zac Guildford. Zac was always going to go anyway, having signed a deal with Clermont commencing at the end of the Super Rugby season. However, given that he’s barely been seen on the field thanks to the solid form of Johnny McNicholl and powerhouse new signing Nemani Nadolo, it makes sense that he go start his overseas career a little earlier. While he had a good international career including World Cup win, his name will unfortunately be associated with a number of off-the-field incidents involving alcohol. Let’s all remember he is a young man, that’s what young men do, however not all of them have the media following them around waiting for them to make a mistake whenever they have a few too many.
- The officials have been in the gun once again in the fallout of the Reds loss to the Rebels last week, more specifically the Third Match Official. In a rare display of praise for awful referee Steve Walsh, most agreed he had handled the dust-up between Ed O’Donoghue and Scott Higginbotham well by giving a penalty and getting on with the game. However, the intervention of TMO Ed Leszczynski to tell Walsh he needed to dish out a red card has got people talking about who is really in control and how much power they should have. Given that we have a judiciary that can deal with foul play at the end of the game surely such intervention is unnecessary and undermines the validity of the man in the middle, no matter how incompetent they are.
- Following on from last week’s comment on the All Blacks/Eagles game and how I felt the All Blacks should be playing in the Pacific Islands instead, NZ’s main primetime current affairs show Campbell Live has started a petition to get them to do just that. They’ll be at the Blues/Sharks game tonight to kick it all off. Campbell Live has a history of taking up the cause for Pacific Rugby, during the 2011 RWC they raised funds to pay for Samoan winger Alesana Tuilagi’s ridiculous fine he received for wearing a branded mouthguard during a match.
So, on to the game I just mentioned to start this week’s action. It’s in the other home ground of the Blues in Albany, on Auckland’s North Shore and that’s where they’ll meet the Sharks. #BLUvSHA
The Blues are coming off their bye and will be more than worried about the menacing Sharks, who turned in the performance of the season last week to down the Crusaders with only 14 men. Winger Tevita Li comes back into the side after a mysterious absence despite good early season form. Rumors of him being abducted by aliens carry slightly less weight than him being dropped due to coach Sir John Kirwan not being able to make up his mind on selections. The Sharks will of course be without flanker Jean ‘Romper Stomper’ Deysel, who has been suspended. Both teams boast all international front rows, but let’s hope they don’t get to show off their scrummaging prowess too much and both teams look to spread the ball. Unbelievably, the Blues are still in contention for a play-off spot, so they had better get a move on if they want that to happen. However the Sharks are most definitely on a high right now, they’ll be looking to sound out a warning to any team that wants their top spot on the table.
Prediction: The Sharks came to NZ determined to put to rest any fears they weren’t the real deal and did so last weekend in Christchurch. I could make any number of blood-in-the-water, feeding-frenzy etc. references right now, but I’ll just say Sharks by 10.
Man to watch: Blues lock Patrick Tuipolotu has been outstanding on an inconsistent team so far this year and was rewarded with a call-up to the All Black training camp. He’ll look to prove that he deserved it with a big game here.
Friday night continues over in Melbourne, where the Rebels welcome the Waratahs. #REBvWAR
Two teams coming off impressive wins hit each other in this encounter, the Rebels a little bit lucky thanks to the afore-mentioned fight against the Reds and the Tahs nothing but impressive against the Lions. The Rebels have lost form halfback Luke Burgess for the season with a knee injury, he’s replaced by Ben Meehan. The Waratahs have a slight reshuffle with long-haired hippie Jacques Potgieter moving from flanker to lock and man-mountin Will Skelton providing some impact off the bench. One other change sees wing Alofa Alofa regain his spot. This is a rematch of the Rebels first ever Super Rugby game back in 2011, which is one they’d actually rather forget as the Waratahs gave them a pants-down hiding to the tune of 43-0. Things have changed a bit since then, but probably not enough to reverse that result. However, like all Australian derbies, you can expect some fisticuffs at some stage. I guarantee the officials will be taking a good, hard look at any eye-gouging allegations.
Prediction: While it might get a little fiery and the Rebels may put up a decent start, the Tahs will take this one easily in the end. Waratahs by 16.
Man to watch: Tahs first five Bernard Foley has got an international call-up too, he’ll be up against impressive Rebels 10 Bryce Hegarty.
Saturday night starts sees an early kick-off in Christchurch, where the Crusaders look to bounce back against the Highlanders. #CRUvHIG
The visitors come off a shock win over the Hurricanes while the hosts had a shock loss to the Sharks last week, so both are approaching this clash from opposite end of the spectrum. First five Hayden Parker’s heroics last week (he scored all the points including kicking the winning drop goal) have been rewarded with getting dropped to the bench for Lima Sopoaga, who returns from injury. Hooker Liam Coltman has succumbed to injury, he’s replaced by journey-man Ged Robinson. The Crusaders meanwhile have brought back Andy Ellis at halfback and Israel Dagg at fullback to shore up a back line that wasn’t operating as well as it could have last week. They’re in the unusual position of basically hoping Colin Slade has a good game, given that he’s been scoring a massive percentage of their points. Both of these teams are playing for a lot in this game, the Crusaders can still catch the Chiefs for first spot in the NZ conference while the Highlanders are in a real battle to make the wildcard spot. Given the nature of NZ derbies this year (i.e.: they have been close and of high-quality) this could be the match of the round.
Prediction: Very tough game to call, given that Christchurch hasn’t exactly been a fortress for the Crusaders this year and the Highlanders had a gutsy win last week. However, the Crusaders loss last week is more a blip than a disaster and they’ll bounce back. Crusaders by 12.
Man to watch: Crusaders halfback Andy Ellis shows no signs of slowing down despite missing the cut for the All Blacks again. He’s a classy player and should bring back the skills his team needs.
Straight afterwards the action continues in Wellington, the home team Hurricanes meeting the in-form Chiefs. #HURvCHI
Another match-up of teams with differing fortunes in their last games. The Chiefs handed out an ass-whipping to the Blues then went on a bye, the main news for them is that captain and first five Aaron Cruden is back from injury. He’ll come off the bench but he’s not the only one back, centre Charlie Ngatai comes back to face his former team while wing Asaeli Tikoirotuma is back too. This back line reshuffle sees Tim-Nanai Williams go back to fullback. The Canes have good news on the first five front as well with Beauden Barrett cleared to start while fellow All Black Dane Coles returns at hooker too. Rugby players have never really been renowned for their mathematics skills but even the dumbest Hurricanes players will be able to figure out the equation for this one: win or miss the playoffs. The Chiefs are getting back into the form that saw them win the last two titles and have got the arsenal back from injury to do it as well, so that might be a little tougher the Canes might’ve thought a month or two ago.
Prediction: Another very tight NZ derby game that should go the full 80 minutes. This match up has produced some classic games over the years and this one hopefully won’t be any different. Hurricanes by 2.
Man to watch: Second five Alapati Leiua moves back into the side after a baffling stint on the bench last week, he should be good for a try in this game.
Super Saturday concludes in Perth, where the Force aim to get their season back on track against the Lions. #FORvLIO
They couldn’t have picked a better opponent to do so against either, with the Lions in disarray after being thumped last week by the Waratahs and probably looking forward to going home and sleeping in their own beds after an unsuccessful overseas tour. To make matters worse they’ve lost Courtnal Skosan, Lionel Mapoe and Derrick Minnie for this match. The Force, stung by their lapse last weekend against the Stormers will be looking to bounce back and get their playoff charge going. The y are still without halfback Alby Mathewson but other than that will be more or loess at full strength. If the Perth based outfit can make it to the playoff stage it’ll be a huge boost for the game in Western Australia, where the main past times are AFL and keeping your beer cold.
Prediction: It’ll be a warm home-coming for the Force, who’ll take this one easily. Force by 20.
Man to watch: Kiwi-born prop Pek Cowan’s strong form has gained him a Wallaby call-up, he’ll continue that in this game.
Over in South Africa there’s an all-local affair in Cape Town as the resurgent Stormers take on the Cheetahs. #STOvCHE
Two more teams coming off strong performances last week go head to head. The Stormers saw off the Force in an upset and will be feeling pretty good about playing at home and not having to worry about being pelted with garbage by their own fans. They have named a mostly unchanged team and will look to move the ball up the field in the forwards and rely on first five Kurt Coleman’s boot. The Cheetahs play better when the game is a bit more open, their defensive woes from earlier in the season seem to be a fading memory. That’ll most probably continue against the Stormers, who haven’t exactly set the world on fire with their attack in 2014. Neither of these teams have much to play for other than bragging rights so hopefully they throw it around a bit.
Prediction: This could be a boring as hell kick-fest or a 100-point thriller, depending on what each coaches instructions are. The home team has looked strong ever since they got back playing there, so I’ll say Stormers by 13.
Man to watch: Stormers flanker Nazeem Carr has been consistently the Stormers best forward despite being on the losing end of the scoreline more often than not.
The final match in a big weekend is in Pretoria and sees the Bulls square off against the Brumbies. #BULvBRU
Things don’t get any easier for the Brumbies as they travel to the imposing Loftus Versfeld Stadium to take on a Bulls side that is just hanging on to an improbable playoff hope. Improbable because they were completely written off after there team was cleaned out in the off-season and they had to rely on the return of Victor Matfield otherwise the bus driver would’ve had have pulled on his boots. They’re coming off a bye in good form and will have a decent crowd behind them. The Brumbies meanwhile had a shock loss to the Cheetahs last week and have fallen back to within catching distance of the Chiefs for second overall. They’ll need a win here to solidify that spot. Big lock Leon Power gets a start while Scott Fardy moves from 8 to flanker for this match. They’ll need to be on their game to combat a big Bulls forward pack that won’t stop running all day.
Prediction: Another tough one, but I think this overseas tour has been a bridge too far for the Brumbies. Bulls by 5.
Man to watch: Bulls flanker Jono Ross has rep talent written all over him after a strong season.
The Reds have the week off, which they will enjoy because their season has been about as much fun as a trip to the dentist.
So there’s this week’s draw, it’s a big one and will have some serious ramifications when it’s all over. Be sure to read about how it went down when I return with my review on Sunday NZ time.
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