GAME OF THE WEEK
CRUSADERS v REDS
When: Sunday May 6, 4.00pm
Where: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 18, Crusaders 12, Reds 6
In Christchurch: Played 6, Crusaders 5, Reds 1
Last match: Final, July 9, 2011: Reds beat Crusaders 18-13 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
WE HAVE a replay of the 2011 Super Rugby final, and it throws up all sorts of possibilities and prospects.
A Crusaders unit that is starting to hum – with consecutive impressive victories over the Stormers, Hurricanes and Waratahs to work off – up against the defending champs, who have been mediocre for much of the year, but scored an important, if ugly, 23-11 win in Auckland.
Halfback Will Genia and No 8 Scott Higginbotham took charge in the crucial area that links the backs and the forwards. The result was a clear implementation of the game plan.
They will again need to step forward if the Reds are to be a chance against the home-town boys. The Genia-Andy Ellis battle is sure to be intense.
Afternoon rugby agrees with both teams, and the Crusaders relished playing under the sun in a 37-33 win over the Waratahs in Sydney. Some of the defence was less than watertight, but give the ball to Robbie Fruean and he has game, as a colleague pointed out during his two-try demolition of the ’Tahs.
Digby Ioane will love the challenge of taking Fruean on with the ball, but will have to steel himself without it if they clash head-on.
And while Dan Carter feels his way back into top gear, Richie McCaw has made his long-awaited return. It was a solid return too, and opens the door for him to start this weekend to combat the Liam Gill-Beau Robinson fetching duo that has been so effective for the Reds of late.
This is still a must-win affair for both sides, the Crusaders anxious not to lose ground to the Chiefs and Highlanders, who keep winning, while the Reds know they are just six adrift of the Brumbies in the weak Australian Conference.
Our prediction: Crusaders 13+
HURRICANES v BLUES
When: Friday May 4, 7.35pm
Where: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 18, Blues 11, Hurricanes 6, Drawn 1
In Wellington: Played 7, Blues 4, Hurricanes 2, Drawn 1
Last match: Round 5, March 23, 2012: Hurricanes beat Blues 26-25 at Eden Park, Auckland
PIRI WEEPU will love the fact he is going home for the weekend, but will the Blues enjoy hitting the capital after one of their most ignominious displays of a woeful 2012?
They have the wood on the Hurricanes historically and in Wellington, but we all know what happened just six weeks ago when skipper Conrad Smith broke Blues hearts in Auckland.
Keven Mealamu may be back for this, and they need him, badly, after the lineout completely disintegrated in the 11-23 defeat to the Reds in round 10.
A crash course in the basics for every squad member would not go amiss.
The Hurricanes have dropped two on the trot and Smith admitted they were a side with a few weaknesses.
The Blues may not, however, be good enough to exploit those chinks.
Our prediction: Hurricanes 1-12
REBELS v BULLS
When: Friday May 4, 7.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 1, Bulls 1, Rebels 0
In Melbourne: N/A
Last match: Round 13, May 14, 2011: Bulls beat Rebels 47-10 at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
THE REBELS know they are up against it without their star back James O’Connor, but it just means they will have to make sure they have the detail in their game plan sorted against a side that does the basics better than most teams.
The Bulls are fresh off the bye and would love nothing more than putting on a similar score to the one they hit the Rebels with in their 2011 encounter. The chances of that are high, for the Bulls have played some attractive rugby of late.
If they get into trouble, they can always fall back on their Morné Steyn insurance policy, as they did in the 36-34 narrow squeak over the Brumbies.
The Rebels wing Mark Gerrard wins his 100th Super Rugby cap, but knows he will have his work cut out shutting down Akona Ndungane.
The key will be how much ball Gerrard actually sees.
Our prediction: Bulls 1-12
CHIEFS v LIONS
When: Saturday May 5, 7.35pm
Where: ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe
Referee: Ian Smith (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 16, Chiefs 11, Lions 5
In Pukekohe: Played 1, Chiefs 1, Lions 0
Last match: Round 10, April 23, 2011: Chiefs beat Lions 34-30 at Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
THE CHIEFS and the Lions get it on in Counties Manukau territory for the first time in 13 years and you just know the crowd will get in behind the high-flying Chiefs, especially with a couple of Steelers boys in the ranks.
The smoke signals out of the Chiefs’ camp early in the week suggested they may rotate some players. Liam Messam was in severe doubt anyway, possibly bringing to an end a long run of consecutive matches for the franchise.
The harsh reality is that the Chiefs pack will overwhelm the Lions if they bring anything like the intensity they showed in the 33-14 win over the Hurricanes.
The Lions limp into town and have lost Butch James to another suspension. John Mitchell will need to have something very special up his sleeve against his old franchise team.
Our prediction: Chiefs 13+
BRUMBIES v WARATAHS
When: Saturday May 5, 7.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: Canberra Stadium, Canberra
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 18, Waratahs 11, Brumbies 7
In Canberra: Played 8, Brumbies 6, Waratahs 2
Last match: Round 18, June 18, 2011: Waratahs beat Brumbies 41-7 at SFS, Sydney
THE WARATAHS have had the wood on the Brumbies since 1996, but not in the Australian capital, where the Brumbies hold a 6-2 advantage.
All sorts of positive talk was emanating from the Waratahs camp last week about how the 33-37 defeat to the Crusaders was their best display of 2012. Imagine what they will say if they beat the Australian Conference leaders?
The Brumbies are hot to trot, and Jake White will ensure they are prepared mentally and physically for the expected Waratahs’ onslaught.
They scored some lovely tries in the 34-20 victory over the Lions, with Pat McCabe again outstanding and Michael Hooper all over the breakdown.
Prop Sekope Kepu is in doubt for the Waratahs with a leg injury, but happily Rocky Elsom is back on active duty.
Our prediction: Brumbies 1-12
SHARKS v HIGHLANDERS
When: Saturday May 5, 5.05pm (3.05am NZT, May 6)
Where: Kings Park, Durban
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 15, Sharks 9, Highlanders 6
In Durban: Played 7, Sharks 5, Highlanders 2
Last match: Round 6, March 20, 2010: Sharks beat Highlanders 30-16 at Carisbrook, Dunedin
SOME OF the Sharks were in Boks mode for the bye week, but they will need to be clear about what has to be done to deny this gritty Highlanders side.
Do not kick to Ben Smith might be the first plan imparted by coach John Plumtree.
His side has been strangely mediocre for much of the year, but there is enough quality in the forward pack for them to rise up the table as they face a favourable draw. Plumtree will target the breakdown with his surfeit of top loosies.
Jamie Joseph knows discipline, which was not evident for much of the 36-33 win over the Cheetahs, will be paramount. Being reduced to 13 against the Sharks will be a recipe for disaster. A stern front-row challenge awaits too.
Expect plenty of big hits and physically-sapping tight exchanges.
Our prediction: Highlanders 1-12
CHEETAHS v FORCE
When: Saturday May 5, 7.10pm (5.10am NZT, May 6)
Where: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 5, Force 4, Cheetahs 1
In Bloemfontein: Played 2, Cheetahs 1, Force 1
Last match: Round 13, May 8, 2010: Cheetahs beat Force 29-14 at Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein
WE HAVE to wonder how the headspace is for the Cheetahs after dropping a match they had no right to lose in the astonishing 36-33 reverse to the Highlanders in round 10.
That and the fact they have now lost their prized No 10 Johan Goosen, who faces surgery after stuffing his shoulder in scoring a solo try last weekend.
But coach Naka Drotske will be telling his troops if they can replicate for the full 80 what they showed in the first 50 then they will be too hot for the Western Force, a side with no coach and uncertainty over who is coming and going next year. The Force tackle tenaciously but lack class and finishing power.
The Cheetahs, conversely, love throwing caution to the wind and will be desperate for their second victory over the Force.
Our prediction: Cheetahs 13+
With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.