AUCKLAND, NZ – The sun is still shining (well, today at least) down here in the Shaky Isles. Which means I may get to watch another game in a t-shirt and shorts at Eden Park tomorrow night. Before that, I have to give you a few…
Plans were unveiled this week for the expansion of Super Rugby in the coming seasons. As was expected, the comp will increase to 18 teams which means the return of the one-hit-wonder Southern Kings from South Africa and a couple of mystery sides, one of which will probably be from Argentina. Which leaves the door wide open as to where the other will be from. Asia? North America? Another Australian team? One thing is for sure, it won’t be from the Pacific Islands, which is a real shame.
The Hurricanes recent run of form can probably be put down to the amount of All Blacks in the side that have to play their way back into the jersey. Players like Beauden Barrett, Victor Vito, Dane Coles, Jeff To’omaga-Allen and Jeremy Thrush are no certainties to prolong their international careers, so are making the most of every opportunity to get back in black in June. Certainly in Barrett’s case it’s paid off handsomely and the team is benefitting.
So, into round 12 and a whole set of matches that have pretty serious ramifications riding on them. On Friday night we’re in Auckland where the Blues take on the Reds. #BLUvRED
The annual battle of the two most unoriginally named teams in the competition/world is probably the Reds last chance to make something happen this season. They’ve been given a boost with an injury to Blues flanker Luke Braid ruling him out, he’s easily been their most consistent player this season. The Reds own outstanding flanker Liam Gill has been rushed back from injury for this one, hopefully it’s not too early, while winger Rod Davies comes back in. The biggest footnote to this game is that it’s the 100th Super Rugby match for the man NZ loves to hate, Quade Cooper. I’m sure he would probably want to be playing it somewhere other than the park where he suffered a serious injury and will no doubt be getting booed any time he touches the ball, but that’s life.
Prediction: Both these teams reek of desperation more than a middle-aged man in a convertible, so hopefully that translates into a high-scoring affair. Blues by 10.
Man to Watch: Quade Cooper could go either way in this match, either shining brightly or going down in a ball of flames.
Later on in Melbourne the Rebels host the Sharks. #REBvSHA
Well, we finally get to see if the Sharks are the real deal. Their first match away from South Africa appears to be a cushy one, but they got a real wakeup call last week when the Highlanders pantsed them in Durban. They’ve made a key change at first five with Frans Steyn moving in to steer the ship and will be relying on their big forward pack to hang on to the ball for as long as possible. The Rebels do have a sniff in this one, their record at home isn’t terrible and they have a habit of performing when everyone least expects them to. Luke Burgess comes in at halfback while prop Cruze Ah-Nau makes his debut for the Rebels. The Sharks will do a lot worse than have a look at the Force’s loss to the Rebels a couple of weeks back, they don’t want to get caught in a Melbourne ambush that might derail their entire overseas tour before it even begins.
Prediction: Every round needs an upset and I reckon this will be it. The Sharks got so blown away last week I don’t think they are in the right headspace for this one. Rebels by 6.
Man to Watch: Rebels flanker Scott Fuglistaller will have to get through a power of work to combat the big Sharks forwards.
Saturday night in Christchurch is a cracker with the Crusaders facing the Brumbies. #CRUvBRU
Ladies and gentlemen, he’s back. Richie McCaw returns to the Crusaders for the first time since breaking his thumb and enduring a barrage of foolhardy criticism that he should retire back in round two. He probably couldn’t have picked a tougher game to go back into, the Brumbies are on a hot streak after smacking the Chiefs last week. The interesting selection of Christian Leliiafano paid off and he retains his spot ahead of Pat McCabe. The Crusaders bring back Kieron Fonotia from injury to play outside captain Ryan Crotty in the centres, while King Richie doesn’t even get his number 7 jersey back, packing down on the blindside.
Prediction: If there’s one team that can stop the Brumbies right now it’s the Crusaders at home, but only just. Crusaders by 3.
Man to watch: Everyone in NZ will be watching to see how the amazing Richie McCaw goes, hopefully we’ll all have our thumbs up at full-time.
The action gets even hotter in Sydney when the Waratahs host the Hurricanes. #WARvHUR
Just like the Sharks, this game will tell us if the Hurricanes are the real deal in 2014. The anticipation around this one has been massive in the capital, which is a welcome change to the general apathetic attitude towards sports teams there lately. However, no changes have been made to the team from last week, which must make coach Mark Hammett a happy man. His counterpart Michael Cheika, on the other hand, has just been investigated for being an angry jerk again and received a six month suspended sentence from the judiciary. So, again, not really a punishment at all from the toothless wimps at SANZAR. On the field there are match-ups all over the place, the Canes currently have the most tries overall in the comp while the Tahs have the highest individual try-scorer. No prizes for guessing who that is.
Prediction: WATCH THIS GAME. It should be the match of the round, both teams are capable of playing some amazing footy. I think the Canes are riding too hot to ignore in this one. Hurricanes by 7.
Man to watch: Hurricanes winger Julian Savea. Cory Jane got a hattrick last week, so it’ll be Jules’s turn on Saturday night. He’ll look to emulate Hurricanes legend Christian Cullen, who scored possibly the greatest Super Rugby try ever way back in 1996:
The South African leg of this weekend starts in Cape Town, where he Stormers meet the Highlanders. #STOvHIG
One team on the up, one very much on the down is the story of this match. For the Highlanders a win here could throw them up into real playoff contention, the name Malakai Fekitoa can’t get mentioned without the words ‘future All Black’ in the same sentence and their once shaky set-piece keeps going from strength to strength. Meanwhile, the bright spot for the Stormers is that their own legendary flanker Schalk Burger comes back in and they’ve also brought in first five Kurt Coleman. It’s selections like that that say that they’re probably rolling the dice now there really is nothing to lose this season, however they have on the odd occasion shown that they can play with a bit of heart when they want to.
Prediction: The Highlanders, in South Africa, overwhelming favourites? Believe it. Highlanders by 17.
Man to watch: Regular fullback or first five Trent Renata gets a start on the wing for the Highlanders, he will benefit from a strong showing by his insides.
Last game of this big round is in Pretoria, where the Bulls host the Cheetahs. #BULvCHE
If the Bulls have any life in them left after their depressing tour to Australasia, they better start showing it now. They take on a Cheetahs team coming off a big win last week and welcoming back first five Johan Goosen, albeit on the bench. The Bulls have made a first five change with Handre Pollard getting the nod there and will be very happy to be back at home. They need a bonus point win so hopefully will throw it round a bit. The Cheetahs have had all their success this year doing just that, so this has all the makings of an entertaining match.
Prediction: This one will be high-scoring and the Bulls will get a red-rag waved in front of them from the Cheetahs open game-plan. This will anger them to a win by 8.
Man to watch: Bulls flanker Jono Ross was a standout on their fruitless tour, look for some hard tackling and running from him.
The high-flying Force get another bye this week, so they can watch this round with more than a bit of interest, especially the games on Saturday night. The ramifications of this round will go far I think, a couple of these games could be seen as precursors to the playoffs.
One final thought: If you are from outside of NZ, who is your country’s Richie McCaw?
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.