GAME OF THE WEEK
CHIEFS v WARATAHS
When: Saturday March 31, 7.35pm
Where: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 16, Waratahs 10, Chiefs 6
In Hamilton: Played 7, Chiefs 4, Waratahs 3
Last match: Round 7, April 1, 2011: Waratahs beat Chiefs 23-16 at SFS, Sydney
THE CHIEFS should be well rested as they seek to redress the win-loss ledger against their Australian foes.
The Waratahs should be happier after they hauled themselves up off the canvas to beat the Sharks, showing a week is a long time in rugby after they were booed by their fans following the loss to the Western Force.
They know they will have to meet the energy and commitment of the Chiefs’ forward pack, where men such as Mahonri Schwalger, Sona Taumalolo and Brodie Retallick will not take a backward step.
Coach Dave Rennie knows the commitment will be there, but he was not happy with various aspects of the 29-22 win over the Brumbies in Tauranga, so there has been plenty of introspection in the Chiefs camp over the last few days.
Some of his walking wounded are also nearing returns, so the cards are falling nicely for Rennie.
Waratahs halfback Brendan McKibbin was man of the match against the Sharks and should get the nod to look after the explosive young Tawera Kerr-Barlow. But coach Michael
Foley would love to see his hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau throw the ball into the lineout as well as he throws himself around the field. It might be presumptuous, given the night conditions, to hope for as much ball movement as there was in Sydney last weekend. But both sides, with beefy packs, are equipped to feed their backs decent front-foot ball.
The Chiefs will be heavy favourites, but they know if they drop their guard, as they did in round one on this ground to the Highlanders, they will pay dearly. Craig Clarke is now ensconced as captain, the co-captaincy experiment with Liam Messam shelved after the opening loss.
Our prediction: Chiefs 1-12
HIGHLANDERS v REBELS
When: Friday March 30, 7.35pm
Where: Rugby Park Stadium, Invercargill
Referee: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 1, Highlanders 1, Rebels 0
In Invercargill: N/A
Last match: Round 9, April 15, 2011: Highlanders beat Rebels 40-18 at AAMI Park, Melbourne
HIGHLANDERS SKIPPER Jamie Mackintosh was hoping for some wet, cold Invercargill weather to greet the Melbourne Rebels for the first time in the deep south.
But he might like to first do a head count of his troops after two more bad injuries out of the 26-33 loss to the Brumbies.
We know Chris Noakes will be at No 10 because Colin Slade and Lima Sopoaga are gone for the season.
Adam Thomson’s return cannot come soon enough, but at least No 12 Shaun Treeby made a tryscoring comeback last weekend.
The Rebels should be confident after winning their first match in 12 outings and having the 10-week suspension of lock Adam Byrnes overturned. But they are without Danny Cipriani with a hamstring strain
Our prediction: Highlanders 1-12
HURRICANES v CHEETAHS
When: Saturday March 31, 5.30pm
Where: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Referee: Ian Smith (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 7, Hurricanes 5, Cheetahs 2
In Wellington: Played 2, Hurricanes 2, Cheetahs 0
Last match: Round 9, April 16, 2011: Hurricanes beat Cheetahs 50-47 at Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein
THE HURRICANES have won back respect.
Now they must win back the hearts of their home fans, who saw them lose 19-17 to the Highlanders in their only match at HQ.
They stole the points just before fulltime from the Blues last Friday, but though buoyed, there will be no complacency after watching the tenacious Cheetahs push the Crusaders to the limit.
Jack Lam was impressive at the breakdown but he will know that Heinrich Brüssow lies in wait, not to mention the bullocking three-test Bok loosie Ashley Johnson off the bench.
The Cheetahs will fancy their scrum after it was dominated by the Crusaders. They will feel the Hurricanes are an easier proposition here after they were punished by the Blues at this set-piece.
Our prediction: Hurricanes 1-12
BRUMBIES v SHARKS
When: Saturday March 31, 7.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: Canberra Stadium, Canberra
Referee: Keith Brown (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 17, Brumbies 9, Sharks 8
In Canberra: Played 9, Brumbies 8, Sharks 1
Last match: Round 12, May 7, 2011: Sharks beat Brumbies 34-16 at Kings Park, Durban
HISTORICALLY THE Brumbies have dominated the Sharks in the Australian capital.
Coach Jake White will have designs on his surprise package side going 9-1 on this ground, especially after a committed 33-26 victory over the hitherto undefeated Highlanders here last Saturday.
Some will be shocked that the relative no-names are topping the Australian Conference, but that would underestimate the coaching ability of the 2007 RWC winner.
The vaunted Sharks pack will need to up the ante after the 34-30 loss to the Waratahs. Bismarck du Plessis will have his hands full with Stephen Moore in a clash of two world-class hookers, while Pat McCabe will be charged with shutting down the tricky Meyer Bosman, who can be a canny playmaker.
Our prediction: Brumbies 1-12
FORCE v REDS
When: Saturday March 31, 6.40pm (11.40pm NZT)
Where: nib Stadium, Perth
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 8, Reds 6, Force 2
In Perth: Played 3, Force 2, Reds 1
Last match: Round 2, March 3, 2012: Reds beat Force 35-20 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
REFEREE BRYCE Lawrence will be bitterly disappointed he has been dropped from the IRB elite panel.
Hopefully this match is not the casualty of his pique. But the Reds will not be worried about who the ref is.
They will have done some serious soul-searching after an embarrassing 61-8 shellacking by the Bulls in Pretoria.
They will also be counting the walking wounded as they contemplate the rising Western Force, whom they beat 35-20 four weeks ago in Brisbane. That was about the last quality display from the Reds and their massive fan base must now be increasingly anxious about their prospects.
The Force have a winning record in Perth against the Reds, and Nathan Sharpe will not be short on motivation as he faces up to his first rugby state for the last time.
Our prediction: Force 1-12
LIONS v CRUSADERS
When: Saturday March 31, 5.05pm (3.05am NZT, April 1)
Where: Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 15, Crusaders 11, Lions 4
In Johannesburg: Played 6, Lions 3, Crusaders 3
Last match: Round 6, May 20, 2010: Crusaders beat Lions 46-19 at AMI Stadium, Christchurch
DAN CARTER will get to shake hands with his first All Blacks coach after the game, but he will need to be amped and lift his work-rate to ensure the Lions are declawed.
This follows a stilted yet winning display by the Crusaders over the Cheetahs last round in which the backline failed to click except on the odd occasion when Robbie Fruean got up a head of steam.
It was probably a draining, emotional week for the Crusaders coming back home after nearly two years, but this week it is the travel that will drain them.
They will fall back on a solid scrum that was all over the Cheetahs and the boot of Carter, should he start.
You can guarantee that the Lions, like they did with the Stormers, will aim to take on the visitors physically.
Our prediction: Crusaders 1-12
STORMERS v BULLS
When: Saturday March 31, 7.10pm (5.10am NZT, April 1)
Where: Newlands, Cape Town
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 17, Stormers 8, Bulls 8, Drawn 1
In Cape Town: Played 9, Stormers 4, Bulls 4, Drawn 1
Last match: Round 17, June 11, 2011: Bulls beat Stormers 19-16 at Newlands, Cape Town
THIS COULD easily have been the game of the week, the only unbeaten side against a side that is coming off a 60-point thrashing of the defending champs.
It is worth hauling yourself out of bed early this Sunday.
There is no love lost between these franchises, especially as men like Bryan Habana (now with 50 Super Rugby tries) and Gerhard van den Heever have flown the Loftus coop and joined the Cape team.
The Bulls have won two big blowouts but lost to the Blues at home, so it is hard to get a good gauge of where they are at, but they will get little change out of the strong defensive unit of the Stormers.
Nothing separates these teams since the Western Province-Northern Transvaal days in 1996.
Very little is likely to separate them again this weekend.
Our prediction: Stormers 1-12
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.