AUCKLAND, NZ – Last week’s sizzling action has certainly made everyone sit up and take notice of what’s happening in Super Rugby this weekend. The Crusaders/Highlanders from Saturday night game has rightfully already been enshrined as a modern classic, a contest so good even the commentators had the performance of their lives. Couple that with the fact that there are only 6 points separating teams second to eighth on the table and all of a sudden we’re looking at the most intriguing end to a Super Rugby season in years. This week sees a round of teams in form playing ones that mostly aren’t, but before we take a look at that, here are some…
The heads of each international union got together over the last week and agreed to disagree on the possibility of a global rugby season. Which is pretty stupid, really. What is turning into an enthralling Super Rugby climax is being broken up so England come get their asses handed to them by the All Blacks in a test series that won’t really benefit anyone other than pubs up and down the country. This problem is rooted in European clubs refusal to budge on the Northern Hemisphere international availability of players, limiting them to coming down here at an inconvenient time and giving the likes of England every excuse in the book to under-perform and generally waste everyone’s time and money. How serious are they taking this tour? They’ve named Danny Cipriani as their first five, so that speaks volumes. If that drunken, dodgy clown is the best they could find to play the world champions, you’ll excuse me for not getting too excited about their chances. Former World Cup winning England coach Sir Clive Woodward thinks exactly the same and he’d know, his international career got off to a disastrous start when he had to bring an under-strength England team down here to get get thrashed back in 1998. Oh wait, then he brought a full strength Lions side here in 2005 and they got thrashed too. So he knows a thing or two about how not to tour NZ.
- Speaking of coaches, Jake White’s success at the Sharks this year should come as no surprise. Many rate White as the best coach in the modern era, despite being hamstrung in his native country by internal politics. Unlike a lot of international coaches, White has had to start again at new teams and rebuild, gaining success quicker and more regularly than anyone else. He is simply the most consistent man for the job and if Steve Hansen got hit by a bus tomorrow, I think the NZRU could do a lot worse than giving White a phone call.
- A lot of people commented that my remarks about the All Blacks not playing against Pacific Island teams didn’t have a place in the debate about the worthiness of the fixture against the US Eagles later in the year. While I agree they are two different arguments, just to show what a big deal it is among NZ rugby fans it is looming as a potential election issue for the government. Pressure is steadily mounting for the NZRU to make some sort of commitment to getting a team up there soon, in all honesty it’s shameful that they continue to sit in the corner with their eyes closed and fingers in their ears over this. But then again, it is the NZRU, a bunch of old-boy networking incompetent fools. I see they’ve just elected a new chairman, surprise surprise he’s an old, rich white guy.
Enough talk, time for action. It starts on Friday night in Christchurch, where the Crusaders meet the Force. #CRUvFOR
At the start of the season this would probably be a ‘probably won’t bother watching that one’ kind of game, but given the Crusaders strong run home and the Force’s incredible season this very much has a lot riding on it. If the Force can knock off the Crusaders they’ll be sitting pretty in the Australian conference and will be right in the mix to finish in the top three. They welcome back Alby Mathewson at halfback, his ability to marshall the forwards and generally be a pain to the opposition will be a big bonus. The Crusaders, meanwhile, welcome back a pretty important important player of their own, Number 8 Kieran Read. He’s gotten over some nasty concussion issues and will provide some leadership for a pack that will be feeling more than a bit beaten up after last weekend’s game. It’ll be another big crowd in Christchurch, their one-eyed fans should give the home team the sort of boost they need in the home stretch.
Prediction: The Force are good, very good in fact, but a win in Christchurch is too much of an ask for the blue-collar battlers. Crusaders by 10.
Man to watch: Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg had a big game last week, his timely run of form will be handy as the All Black back three is probably the most contestable spot in the team.
Friday night continues over in Brisbane, where the Reds will be hoping for a good performance against the Highlanders. #REDvHIG
Queensland is in a bit of a sad state right now, with their legendary State of Origin rugby league team dropping game one to NSW last night. Currently last on the table, the best they can do is act as spoilers for everyone else’s season, so the Highlanders should be treating this one with a fair amount of caution. Despite their loss last week, the southern men are still well in the mix for the playoffs and a bonus point win here might put them in front of the conference depending on other results. Given visiting teams propensity to throw the ball around at Suncorp Stadium, this will be worth a watch as one team with nothing to play for up against one with everything to play for generally produces good footy. The Highlanders should be wary of the Reds willingness to cheat and use violence to reinforce their opinions, however, with skipper James Horwill fined midweek for having a crack at the referees this season.
Prediction: The Highlanders should hold their nerve here and prevail provided they can keep their discipline. Highlanders by 12.
Man to watch: Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa just keeps getting better and better. Will he take the top job next month?
There’s an early start to Saturday’s action in New Plymouth, where the Chiefs host the Waratahs. #CHIvWAR
The question flying around NZ rugby this week is what the hell happened to the Chiefs last weekend against the Hurricanes? It could have been the inhospitable weather, the short turn around from the weekend before or maybe ether were food poisoned. No, can’t be the last one, that only happens in South Africa. Whatever it was, coach Dave Rennie would’ve blasted it out of them at training this week. Unfortunately the Waratahs aren’t the easiest side in the comp to bounce back against, in fact you could count them amongst the hardest. They’re currently the top of the of the Australian conference and desperate to keep it that way, so they’ve kept the same team that whipped the Lions last week. Israel Folau needs one more try to become the Tahs record try scorer in one season, however he’s got a lot of work to do to gun down the overall season record of 15, held by Joe Roff and Rico Gear. Given the Chiefs humiliating hiding by the Hurricanes last weekend, it’ll be interesting to see how many New Plymouth residents show up to watch their new team play.
Prediction: Tough one to call, given both teams potential and conflicting results last week, however the Chiefs had their best performance at this ground the last time they were there. Chiefs by 2.
Man to watch: Waratahs lock Kane Douglas has a point to prove after being left out in the cold by the Wallaby selectors and signing a contract with Leinster.
The next game is right here in Auckland, where the Blues square off against the Hurricanes. #BLUvHUR
Another game of two teams with wildly different results last weekend. The Blues were humbled by the Sharks in a listless performance which more or less summed up their season. Coach John Kirwan was quoted during the week that: ‘the team is heading in the right direction, but is just not getting the wins’. Which is kind of like saying that you’re really close to going out with a girl you like because she’s in all your lectures at college, despite the fact that she never talks to you or even knows who you are. Meanwhile things are going so well for the Hurricanes that they been able to bring in highly promising fullback Matt Proctor into the team for Andre Taylor, who is out with injury; other than that it’s an unchanged team. The weather is predicted to be quite gloomy for this match, however that won’t trouble the Hurricanes who didn’t let it stop them lighting up the Chiefs last week.
Prediction: One team is playing very well, the other very badly. The main difference being that the team playing badly has done so all year. Hurricanes by 20.
Man to watch: Although Andre Taylor has been in great form, Matt Proctor is well worth a watch and should open it up if he gets some clean ball.
The big Saturday round concludes in Canberra, where the Brumbies take on the Rebels. #BRUvREB
Finally, two teams with the same result last week. Unfortunately for the Brumbies and Rebels, both of those were deadset hidings, the Rebels getting slaughtered by the Waratahs and the Brumbies getting run all over by the Bulls. The Rebels welcome back their Japanese internationals Shota Horie and Male Sa’u, who have had a nice little break helping the Brave Blossoms qualify for the 2015 World Cup, so they’ll be on a high. The Brumbies won’t be changing too much, they’ll just want to flush their disastrous South African tour down the toilet and try and get back to the top of the Australian conference. All of a sudden life looks a little bit trickier for the men from the nation’s capital, but they’ve got a decent opponent to set things right against.
Prediction: The Brumbies have only dropped one home game this year and they won’t be adding one to that list this weekend. Brumbies by 20.
Man to watch: Brumbies wing Henry Speight has been in great form this year, despite breaking his jaw and driving himself to hospital to get it fixed.
The South African leg of the round gets underway in Johannesburg, where the Lions meet the Bulls. #LIOvBUL
The team that tamed the Brumbies last week, the Bulls, are in a perfect position to fly under the radar and score a playoff spot. Their last three opponents in the regular season are the Lions, Stormers and Rebels, none of whom are going to send a chill up the spine of the men from Pretoria. They’ll start their quest against a hapless, hopeless and completely underwhelming Lions side that shouldn’t prove to be much of an opponent, even at home. The Bulls have made three changes from last weekend, most notably Jacques Engelbrecht, who moves from the bench to start at number 8, with Grant Hattingh moving to lock in place of Victor Matfield who is rested. There’s also a change on the bench, with Louis Fouche replacing Handre Pollard, who is over here right now captaining the Junior Springboks in the U-20 World Cup.
Prediction: Should be one-way traffic here, but the Bulls do need a bonus point do it could be a bit more interesting than one might think. Bulls by 15.
Man to watch: Bulls winger Bjorn Basson could be in for a fun afternoon if the backs can give him some decent ball.
Last match of the round is in Durban, where the Sharks go into battle against the Stormers. #SHAvSTO
The Sharks aren’t on the top of the comp for nothing and now they’re back home, which makes them even more of a monumental challenge. They will be on a massive high after getting through their Australasian tour with three wins out of four and doing it with a highly original strategy of playing with 14 men for most of it. Don’t expect too many changes to their side for this clash, which will have a very ‘business as usual’ approach all over it. Meanwhile the Stormers look set to lose Schalk Burger to a neck injury suffered in their win over the Cheetahs last week. To be fair to the Stormers, they have shown a real rise in form lately but have got a very hard run home, with another game against the Sharks to come as well as the Bulls. I guess whoever made the draw thought they were going to be a better team this year.
Prediction: A business as usual approach will mean a business as usual result. Sharks by 12.
Man to watch: Sharks prop Janie du Plessis got through a power of work on their tour, now he’ll look to bully anyone coming to mess with them back home.
The Cheetahs get the week off, which will be nice for them because they’ll be counting down the days to the end of another disappointing season. They’re out of the hunt but plenty of teams are still in it, with another big lot of movement possible at the end of this round. Enjoy the footy wherever you are this weekend, I’ll be at Eden Park on Saturday night to watch my Hurricanes take on the Blues. Hopefully I can catch up with a couple of my old club mates in the team and get their thoughts on this very intriguing Super Rugby competition.
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.