GAME OF THE WEEK
CRUSADERS v HIGHLANDERS
When: Friday June 1, 7.35pm
Where: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 21, Crusaders 13, Highlanders 8
In Christchurch: Played 10, Crusaders 8, Highlanders 2
Last match: Round 2, March 3, 2012: Highlanders beat Crusaders 27-24 at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
THE CRUSADERS come off the bye and they will be unconcerned that they can deal the Highlanders a harsh blow as the visitors seek to return to the Super Rugby playoffs.
But we will get an accurate gauge of what sort of effort potential All Blacks will be putting in. Will they be saving themselves for the rigours of Ireland or will they be leaving nothing out on their home turf? As the squad will not be named until Sunday, they had better be aiming for the latter option, as they might find themselves out on their ear otherwise.
The Crusaders might just have some extra motivation after dropping the first clash of 2012, a 24-27 reverse in Dunedin in the infamous ‘timekeeping match’, in which the stadium clock did not match the official clock.
The Highlanders hoed into that contest with their customary vigour, and will welcome back James Haskell from a month-long suspension, and with no fresh injury concerns out of their 27-20 victory over the Blues at Eden Park.
No less than four of their backs are in the All Blacks training squad, so Dan Carter will not want to be kicking possession down the throat of Ben Smith, Hosea Gear et al as the Blues did far too often.
The Highlanders mixed and matched their side in Auckland, but they will want to present a full-strength, united front as they attempt to claim just their third victory in Christchurch.
Whether that means Mike Delany or Chris Noakes will be chosen to face off with Carter remains to be seen.
Coach Jamie Joseph won’t need to remind his charges that if they win they will leap over the Crusaders into second position in the New Zealand conference.
Our prediction: Crusaders 1-12
REBELS v BRUMBIES
When: Friday June 1, 7.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Referee: Keith Brown (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 3, Brumbies 2, Rebels 1
In Melbourne: Played 1, Rebels 1, Brumbies 0
Last match: Round 8, April 14, 2012: Brumbies beat Rebels 37-6 at Canberra Stadium, Canberra
THE BRUMBIES will be hoping they don’t live to regret their one-point loss to the Reds in a May 26 arm-wrestle in Canberra.
They still have the lead in the Australian conference, but they could have sewn up first place if they had repelled the Queenslanders in an ugly 80 minutes.
Jake White will be impressing on his young side that they will need more intensity and accuracy to lower the Rebels on their home turf, where they present a far tougher proposition than away from home, as exemplified when they were pummelled 66-24 by the Hurricanes in Wellington.
This result halted the Rebels’ resurgence calls which had been gaining traction.
Several players from both sides will be looking to impress Wallabies coach Robbie Deans after winning call-ups to the national training squad.
Our prediction: Brumbies 13+
BLUES v CHIEFS
When: Saturday June 2, 7.35pm
Where: North Harbour Stadium, Albany
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 18, Blues 10, Chiefs 8
In Albany: Played 2, Blues 1, Chiefs 1
Last match: Round 2, March 2, 2012: Chiefs beat Blues 29-14 at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
IT IS almost impossible to believe that the Blues have any chance of winning this local derby against their neighbours down State Highway 1.
For one, the Auckland-based side’s injury list continues to grow, if that is possible.
Frist five Gareth Anscombe is the latest casualty with a high ankle sprain after the 27-20 defeat to the Highlanders.
Secondly, they are just not playing anywhere near well enough, under-resourced as they are, to trouble the competition leaders.
The XV that last took the field represented quite probably the weakest team fielded in the 17-year history of the franchise.
There were, of course, 201 test caps on the bench, and one would think Pat Lam will start with Ma’a Nonu, at least, to try and combat Sonny Bill Williams and keep Aaron Cruden in check.
Our prediction: Chiefs 13+
WARATAHS v HURRICANES
When: Saturday June 2, 7.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 19, Brumbies 16, Reds 3
In Sydney: Played 8, Waratahs 6, Hurricanes 2
Last match: Round 14, May 14, 2010: Waratahs beat Hurricanes 32-16 at SFS, Sydney
THE WARATAHS are tired and out of the competition after another loss in South Africa.
The Hurricanes ran the Rebels ragged in Wellington, have several players in top form, and yet history suggests they always find it tough to win in Sydney.
But win they must if they harbour thoughts of cracking the top six. And they will need to against a side with no less than 11 in the Wallabies’ training squad.
You would have to think, too, that the Waratahs will give the Hurricanes nothing like the space the hapless Rebels gave them. Julian Savea v Tom Kingston looms as a spicy match-up on the wings.
What effect will the incessant whistle of Bryce Lawrence have on the scrums, where the Waratahs should, in theory, have an edge?
Our prediction: Hurricanes 1-12
LIONS v SHARKS
When: Saturday June 2, 5.05pm (3.05am NZT, June 3)
Where: Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 19, Sharks 14, Lions 3, Drawn 2
In Johannesburg: Played 9, Sharks 6, Lions 2, Drawn 1
Last match: Round 3, March 10, 2012: Sharks beat Lions 32-20 at Kings Park, Durban
THE END is nigh for the Johannesburg franchise, literally as well as figuratively.
The Lions are home again after a long and fruitless 0-4 tour of Australasia, where coach John Mitchell’s revealed his Jekyll and Hyde character with some more bizarre press conferences, and he is now on the front foot over the pending demise of his team.
They went down 11-17 to the Western Force in Perth and now have to scrape themselves off the floor to lower the in-form Sharks, who have won their last four and are showing every sign of coming home with a wet sail.
Loose forwards Keegan Daniel and Willem Alberts are in no mood to muck around, while the decision to operate Freddie Michalak at 10 and Pat Lambie at fullback seems to be working well.
Our prediction: Sharks 13+
BULLS v STORMERS
When: Saturday June 2, 7.10pm (5.10am NZT, June 3)
Where: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 18, Stormers 9, Bulls 8, Drawn 1
In Pretoria: Played 7, Stormers 4, Bulls 3
Last match: Round 6, March 31, 2012: Stormers beat Bulls 20-17 at Newlands, Cape Town
AS CLOSE observers of this competition know only too well, these two teams do not like each other.
The close head-to-head record is reflective of some often bitter clashes, and the Stormers will be stung after dropping just their second match of 2012 against the Sharks.
The Bulls will be even more chastened after a 2-2 road trip, but of more import is that they have not won convincingly since April 14. A loss here would just about hand the South African conference title on a platter to the Capetonians.
The Bulls’ defensive lineout was strong against the Chiefs, but once more the lack of breadth to their game was exposed. If Morné Steyn (pictured) does not have his radar working, then they are in dire straits.
But they are back at Loftus, and it is inconceivable that they will not front physically there.
Our prediction: Bulls 1-12
This weekend throws up another set of games which could go either way.
Which player was unlucky not to make the Wallabies’ preliminary squad for the British and Irish Lions series?