AUCKLAND, NZ – Just two games this weekend in Super Rugby, but they’re the most important of all so far in 2015. Well, for the Highlanders, Chiefs, Stormers and Brumbies anyway. The winners face the daunting prospect of either a trip to Wellington to face the Hurricanes or Sydney to play the Waratahs, not exactly a reward in anyone’s books. Both games tonight are pretty tough to call, but before we analyze them let’s have a look at what’s been going on off the field this week.
The biggest story broke yesterday, when the Blues called a press conference that should’ve really taken place a few months ago. Sir John Kirwan put on a brave face as he fronted the media and announced that, after three seasons of horrible results, he was stepping down as head coach. It came as a little bit of a surprise as it was presumed that this matter was going to be dealt with in the off-season, so credit to Kirwan for getting it done now and letting the Blues have more time to plan for the future. Rumours are now rife as to who is going to take over, with former All Black captain Tana Umaga the main candidate. There are other options for the Blues, but if Umaga doesn’t sign on it’ll be a real surprise.
Rugby’s current infatuation with the rolling maul has extended to the World U-20’s tournament, well, with coaches of inferior teams anyway. So far the NZ ‘Baby Blacks’ have conceded four tries, all off the afore-mentioned bore-fest that substitutes skill for the ability to essentially turn the game into an extreme slow-motion version of an American Football fullback carry. As well as this, the team with the ball is generally going to get the rub of the green with the ref, which means that most failed attempts resulting in another penalty, another lineout and another drive. We’ve already seen more than enough of these in Super Rugby, if this is what the Rugby World Cup is going to be like then you’ll forgive me for not setting my alarm to watch too many games involving non-tier 1 nations.
The Wallabies have announced the test venues for next year’s tour by England. Instead of the 80,000 capacity ANZ Stadium, the two teams will play at Allianz Stadium across town, a venue half the size. Down in Melbourne they be playing at Rebels’ home of Allianz Park instead of the 55,000 seat Etihad Stadium as well. In the words of Spinal Tap’s manager Ian Faith, it seems the old country’s appeal is becoming ‘more selective’.
Super Rugby Playoff Fixtures:
At Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin: Highlanders vs. Chiefs #HIGvCHI Prediction: Highlanders by 1
Highlanders: Ben Smith (co-captain), Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Richard Buckman, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (co-captain), Dan Pryor, Elliot Dixon, Mark Reddish, Alex Ainley, Josh Hohneck, Liam Coltman, Brendon Edmonds. Bench: Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Ross Geldenhuys, Joe Latta, Gareth Evans, Fumiaki Tanaka, Marty Banks, Shaun Treeby.
Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Bryce Heem, Tim Nanai-Williams, Sonny Bill Williams, James Lowe, Andrew Horrell, Brad Weber, Liam Messam (captain), Sam Cane, Michael Fitzgerald, Brodie Retallick, Matt Symons, Ben Tameifuna, Hika Elliot, Pauliasi Manu. Bench: Quentin MacDonald, Siate Tokolahi, Jamie Mackintosh, Mitchell Crosswell, Michael Leitch, Kayne Hammington, Marty McKenzie, Seta Tamanivalu.
Season results so far: Highlanders 20-Chiefs 17, Round 4/Highlanders 36-Chiefs 9 Round 16
Another shift at first five for the Chiefs sees Andrew Horrell get another crack in the 10 jersey, with Marty McKenzie riding the pine after a couple of indifferent performances over the last couple of weeks. It’s been a real problem area for them ever since Aaron Cruden’s injury, with the most viable option, Damian McKenzie, having to play fullback.
Nasi Manu and Malakai Fekitoa return for the Highlanders, the former determined not to make this his last game in Super Rugby before he heads offshore next season. Fekitoa will be a certainty for the All Blacks this year, but would be keen for a good showing before the international season begins.
This is the first home playoff for the Highlanders in 16 years. The last time was when they hosted the 1999 final, which they lost to the Crusaders at the old Carisbrook ground. Current assistant coach Tony Brown was the starting first five for the Highlanders that day, he’ll be hoping for a better outcome than the 24-19 result they suffered all those years ago.
At Newlands Stadium, Cape Town: Stormers vs. Brumbies #STOvBRU Prediction: Brumbies by 2
Stormers: Cheslin Kolbe, Dillyn Leyds, Juan de Jongh (c), Damian de Allende, Seabelo Senatla, Demetri Catrakilis, Nic Groom, Nizaam Carr, Siya Kolisi, Schalk Burger, Manuel Carizza, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff. Bench: Scarra Ntubeni, Ali Vermaak, Vincent Koch, Jean Kleyn, Michael Rhodes, Louis Schreuder, Kurt Coleman, Jaco Taute.
Brumbies: Jesse Mogg, Henry Speight, Tevita Kuridrani, Robbie Coleman, Joe Tomane, Christian Leali’ifano, Nic White, Ita Vaea, David Pocock, Scott Fardy, Blake Enever, Rory Arnold, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore (c), Scott Sio. Bench: Josh Mann-Rea, Allan Alaalatoa, Ruan Smith, Jordan Smiler, Jarrad Butler, Michael Dowsett, Matt Toomua, James Dargaville
Season results so far: Stormers 25-Brumbies 24, Round 13
If that comment in the observations about rolling mauls got you fired up because you love everything about them, chances are you’ll be in a better mood after you watch this game. The Brumbies are quickly becoming the masters of the dark art, with David Pocock benefitting to the tune of seven tries this season off the back of the maul. The Stormers are hardly known for being a particularly creative side themselves, so if any tries get scored in this one it’ll be someone flopping over after a lineout drive.
The Stormers will be without Duane Vermuelen, which is a huge blow and could potentially swing the game in favor of the visitors. While Nizaam Carr is a fine player, they’ll miss Vermuelen’s presence in the middle of the field and on defense.
Brumbies first five Christian Leali’ifano will play his 100th Super Rugby game when he runs out on to Newlands, but most Brumbies fans will be more interested in how his boot fares. Kicking will be crucial and he’s up against Demetri Catrakilis, who is the competition’s most accurate sharpshooter.
There you go, two games that are pretty tough to call and could go either way, but will most probably play out in wildly different fashion. Whoever wins will go into next weekend’s semis as serious underdogs, so here’s hoping for no serious injuries.
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