GAME OF THE WEEK
HIGHLANDERS v HURRICANES
When: Saturday May 12, 7.35pm
Where: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 18, Hurricanes 8, Highlanders 10
In Dunedin: Played 8, Highlanders 4, Hurricanes 4
Last match: Round 4, March 17, 2012: Highlanders beat Hurricanes 19-17 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
HOW IMPORTANT will this clash be in the final wash-up?
Put simply, both teams need to win this tantalising encounter to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Placed sixth and eighth on the log respectively, these teams are only separated by four competition points – despite the fact the Highlanders have won two more games this season.
The Hurricanes have remained in touch with the leading bunch on account of the fact they have posted six bonus points.
The ’Landers have already got one over their northern rivals this season, having won a thriller 19-17 at the Cake Tin back in March, but they arrived back in Dunedin earlier this week with yet another shocking injury list, after Shaun Treeby (cheek), Doug Tietjens (knee) and Elliott Dixon (shoulder) all suffered serious, season-ending injuries in the 16-28 loss to the Sharks.
The ’Canes will be battered and bruised from some roughhouse treatment dished out to them by the Blues (a game they won 35-19), but it was nothing compared to what the southerners went through in the Republic.
Another loose forward replacement will be needed in Dunedin, while Phil Burleigh is likely to slot straight back into the midfield mix in place of Treeby.
Both of these sides will look to move the ball at any given opportunity, but look for the locals to try and grind out a victory through their tough pack.
The ’Landers will be looking for big improvements on the handling and discipline fronts, too. The seven penalty goals Pat Lambie slotted for the Sharks last week ultimately proved the difference between the sides.
Our prediction: Highlanders 1-12
BLUES v LIONS
When: Friday May 11, 7.35pm
Where: Eden Park, Auckland
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 16, Blues 12, Lions 4
In Auckland: Played 5, Blues 5, Lions 0
Last match: Round 3, March 4, 2011: Blues beat Lions 41-32 at Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
YOU’D BE running for the hills if you were a Blues’ bean-counter in the build-up to this battle between the 15th and 14th placed sides.
If only a touch over 12,000 people turned up at Eden Park to watch the Blues play the Reds a fortnight ago, it’s scary to think how few might be there this week.
If current form is anything to go by, the Lions will win this encounter, despite their woeful record in Auckland.
They were competitive for much of their loss to the table-topping Chiefs, scoring three tries and showing more composure and heart than they have in recent weeks.
The Blues, on the other hand, have all but forgotten how to score tries.
At least we know that Luke Braid will continue to give his all. As for Ma’a Nonu, Piri Weepu and Ali Williams, well, the nicest thing to say is that they look like pale imitations of their former selves.
Our prediction: Blues 1-12
WARATAHS v BULLS
When: Friday May 11, 7.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 17, Bulls 9, Waratahs 8
In Sydney: Played 8, Waratahs 6, Bulls 2
Last match: Round 16, June 3, 2011: Bulls beat Waratahs 23-17 at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
THE BULLS don’t win much in Sydney, having only triumphed twice in eight visits since 1997.
But something tells us they will back up their 2009 success with another victory this week.
Although they had to work harder than expected to get maximum points against the Rebels – not to mention leaking five tries – the Bulls would have always had one eye on this fixture.
They wouldn’t have been overly worried by what the ’Tahs had to offer in their 6-23 loss to the Brumbies, with the only points NSW could accumulate coming in the form of two penalties.
Suffice to say the Bulls’ loose forwards and back three would have been heartened by the amount of loose passes and defensive lapses that were apparent.
The ’Tahs will be expected to lose, but they also run the risk of being booed off the field by their own supporters again if they fail to turn up for this one.
Our prediction: Bulls 1-12
REBELS v CRUSADERS
When: Saturday May 12, 7.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
In Melbourne: N/A
Last match: N/A
THIS GAME suddenly takes on a new dimension after the home side’s pluckier-than-expected effort against the Bulls last weekend.
Indeed, while the Crusaders made fairly hard work of beating an injury-ravaged Reds side in round 11, the Rebels offered five good reasons (each worth five points) why they can’t be underestimated at home in their narrow loss to the men from Pretoria.
The Crusaders should, in theory, be too strong, but they will need to be on their toes defensively with the likes of Kurtley Beale and Cooper Vuna cutting merry capers.
However, the Rebels will be without influential lock/No 6 Luke Jones after his two-week ban. His clash with George Whitelock would have been robust, to say the least.
With Beale playing with a lot more freedom in the No 10 jersey, Tom Taylor and Dan Carter will be busy this week.
Our prediction: Crusaders 13+
SHARKS v FORCE
When: Saturday May 12, 5.05pm (3.05am NZT, May 13)
Where: Kings Park, Durban
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 6, Sharks 5, Force 1
In Durban: Played 3, Sharks 3, Force 0
Last match: Round 3, March 5, 2011: Sharks beat Force 39-12 at nib Stadium, Perth
HAVING LOST narrowly to the table-topping Chiefs and beaten the Highlanders in their two most recent games, the Sharks have re-emerged as a team to watch.
The Durbanites showed commitment and patches of class in their 28-16 victory over the ’Landers, especially No 10 Pat Lambie, who accounted for all of the home side’s points.
They have never lost to the Force at home, and it is unlikely that trend will end this weekend.
The Force have probably surprised a few people with some of their recent performances, but their two-win, eight- loss record is an accurate reflection of a team that continues to live within its means.
They did, however, come away with a bonus point from their closer-than-expected loss to the Cheetahs last week. That will give the currently coach-less side some confidence, but it is unlikely to be enough.
Our prediction: Sharks 13+
STORMERS v CHEETAHS
When: Saturday May 12, 7.10pm (5.10am NZT, May 13)
Where: Newlands, Cape Town
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 7, Stormers 5, Cheetahs 2
In Cape Town: Played 4, Stormers 3, Cheetahs 1
Last match: Round 18, June 18, 2011: Stormers beat Cheetahs 44-34 at Free Stade Stadium, Bloemfontein
IT WOULD be an understatement of epic proportions to say the Cheetahs are a different side without injured first five Johan Goosen pulling the strings in the No 10 jersey.
That point is likely to be rammed home this week when the men from Bloemfontein venture southwest to Cape Town to take on the fourth-placed Stormers.
The Cheetahs did enough to beat the Force at home in round 11, but defeating the Stormers at Newlands is a completely different kettle of fish. Still, the Naka Drotske-coached side is in reasonable shape, all things considered, sitting 10th on the log with four wins and six losses.
However, the clinical Stormers have only lost once this year – to the Crusaders in Christchurch – and they will be looking to hit the ground running after enjoying their second bye of the season last week.
Our prediction: Stormers 13+
REDS v CHIEFS
When: Sunday May 13, 4.10pm (6.10pm NZT)
Where: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Referee: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 16, Reds 8, Chiefs 8
In Brisbane: Played 7, Reds 4, Chiefs 3
Last match: Round 18, June 18, 2011: Reds beat Chiefs 18-11 at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
COULD THERE be a better way to finish your weekend than by sitting down and soaking up this intriguing round 12 fixture?
The Chiefs continue to win, making it nine on the trot with a fairly unconvincing 34-21 victory over the Lions last week.
The Reds, meanwhile, continued their topsy-turvy, injury-ravaged campaign with a narrow 11-15 loss to the Crusaders, in a replay of last year’s final.
The Queenslanders had good reason to feel a tad perturbed by some of the refereeing decisions in that match, especially the 17-7 penalty count in the Crusaders’ favour. They will see a lot of Aaron Cruden placing the ball on the tee if Marius Jonker follows suit this week.
The Chiefs’ wingers will need to be on the lookout for crafty cross-field kicks from the likes of Mike Harris and Ben Lucas.
Our prediction: Chiefs 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.