GAME OF THE WEEK
HIGHLANDERS v CHIEFS
When: Friday June 29, 7.35pm
Where: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 18, Chiefs 11, Highlanders 7
In Dunedin: Played 4, Highlanders 3, Chiefs 1
Last match: Round 1, February 25, 2012: Highlanders beat Chiefs 23-19 at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
THIS SHAPES as a mouth-watering clash to kick off the second segment of Super Rugby.
The competition leaders head to Dunedin for just the fifth time in 17 seasons with the express aim of consolidating their lead and thus knocking the gallant Highlanders out of playoffs contention.
But the Chiefs may not have the services of first five Aaron Cruden, who tweaked his Achilles in the All Blacks’ demolition of Ireland in Hamilton. With question marks over Robbie Robinson, this may necessitate Andrew Horrell entering the mix to start at pivot.
In the pack, Liam Messam will be hot to trot after a starring role for the All Blacks, while Brodie Retallick will be anxious to put his new test experience to immediate use down a level. Ben Tameifuna should be jumping out of his skin to have a crack at Jamie Mackintosh after holding hit shields for three weeks.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie should not need to remind his troops what happened on opening weekend when they were blown away at the breakdown by the intensity of the Highlanders.
They tightened that up and since then it has mostly been beer and skittles for the Chiefs, though in their last outing, against the Blues, they were pushed to 41-34 in a roaringly good encounter.
For the Highlanders, Adam Thomson’s nose should be on the mend, while others such as Jason Rutledge have combined South Island play with some club footy.
This is the penultimate game for Jamie Joseph’s side, and the southerners will not want the season to fizzle out as it did in the latter stages of 2011.
Our prediction: Chiefs 1-12
REBELS v REDS
When: Friday June 29, 7.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Referee: Keith Brown (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 3, Reds 3, Rebels 0
In Melbourne: Played 1, Reds 1, Rebels 0
Last match: Round 3, March 10, 2012: Reds beat Rebels 11-6 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
THE GOOD news for the Melbourne Rebels is they are playing at home and captain Gareth Delve has re-signed for next season.
The bad news is that Kurtley Beale took a knock to the ribs in his comeback match against Wales.
Happily James O’Connor is back in the harness and should front at No 10.
The Reds are a different team from the unit that struggled early in the season, and indeed struggled to put away the Rebels at Suncorp.
But with men like Will Genia now humming and Quade Cooper back in the mix, the Reds will be pumped to launch an assault on the playoffs.
That much we can glean from a bizarre QRU press release returning fire at the results of a Courier-Mail poll which suggested they would struggle to reach the post-season.
Our predictions: Reds 1-12
CRUSADERS v HURRICANES
When: Saturday June 30, 7.35pm
Where: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 21, Crusaders 15, Hurricanes 4, Drawn 2
In Christchurch: Played 11, Crusaders 8, Hurricanes 2, Drawn 1
Last match: Round 9, April 21, 2012: Crusaders beat Hurricanes 42-14 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
WE KNOW Dan Carter and Kieran Read will probably be out for this clash between two sides that have faced each other more than most in Super Rugby.
That pair were key contributors to the 42-14 thumping the Crusaders dished out to the Hurricanes back in April.
Step forward Tom Taylor, again, and Luke Whitelock. Both looked in good nick in Canterbury club rugby last weekend.
A Hurricanes win would be gold for coach Mark Hammett, who said during the hiatus that there was still a very good chance his side could crack the playoffs.
The visitors lie sixth at the moment and a victory heading into the bye will set them up for a thrilling final round encounter against the Chiefs.
The Crusaders, meanwhile, would love to go some way to cementing a home playoffs berth.
Our prediction: Crusaders 1-12
FORCE v BRUMBIES
When: Saturday June 30, 5.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: nib Stadium, Perth
Referee: Ian Smith (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 8, Brumbies 4, Force 3, Drawn 1
In Perth: Played 4, Brumbies 2, Force 1, Drawn 1
Last match: Round 1, February 24, 2012: Brumbies beat Force 19-17 at Canberra Stadium, Canberra
A WIN here for the Brumbies would just about seal the Australian conference title.
Standing in their way is a Force team that just does not have the big guns in the backs to trouble them, with apologies to Nick Cummins and Napolioni Nalaga.
But the farewell tour of lock Nathan Sharpe may just provide extra motivation for the westerners. This will be Sharpe’s last home game for the Force so expect a big turnout at nib Stadium.
These two sides opened the Australian conference in round one, and the Brumbies took a dour match in which they stamped their credentials by winning ugly. The Force will be aiming for third in the conference and so should play with nothing to lose.
Don’t expect the Brumbies to depart from their usual tight game plan too much, especially with flyer Joe Tomane out for six weeks.
Our prediction: Brumbies 1-12
STORMERS v LIONS
When: Saturday June 30, 5.05pm (3.05am NZT, July 1)
Where: Newlands, Cape Town
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 17, Stormers 13, Lions 4
In Cape Town: Played 7, Stormers 5, Lions 2
Last match: Round 5, March 24, 2012: Stormers beat Lions 24-19 at Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
THE LIONS will go one of two ways after the suspension of their coach John Mitchell, with the players spitting the dummy at his methods.
They will either respond with claws bared and ensure the Blues stay rooted to the foot of the table, or they will not respond at all to the new coaching duo of Carlos Spencer and Johann Ackermann.
But there is nothing really to lose after such a wretched season, and the irony is that they beat the Sharks 38-28 in their last outing on June 2.
Lock Paul Willemse must remember not to pull a Stormer’s hair after being sent off in the JWC final last weekend.
The Stormers are leading the SA conference but are yet to really convince of their worth.
However, the 19-14 win in Pretoria last time out might just be the tonic they need to up the ante.
Our prediction: Stormers 13+
BULLS v CHEETAHS
When: Saturday June 30, 7.10pm (5.10am NZT, July 1)
Where: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Referee: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 9, Bulls 8, Cheetahs 1
In Pretoria: Played 4, Bulls 3, Cheetahs 1
Last match: Round 2, March 3, 2012: Bulls beat Cheetahs 51-19 at Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
THE TRADITIONAL high veldt grudge match will be instructive.
The Bulls, with several Springboks backing up after their June campaign, will want to put the pesky Cheetahs to the sword to reaffirm their playoffs claims.
They would love to replicate the 51-19 shellacking they gave the Free Staters in March.
Frans Ludeke’s men lie fifth on the log but may have to do without fullback Zane Kirchner, injured for the Boks against England.
The news is worse for the Cheetahs, who have lost loosehead prop Coenie Oosthuizen to a neck injury.
Yet a closer inspection of the Cheetahs’ 2012 record shows they have not been smashed since that Bulls’ match. They won their last game, against the Waratahs, 35-34, but have always pushed their opponents hard, even if conceding 30+ points.
Our prediction: Bulls 13+
There are plenty of mouth-watering clashes on offer this weekend.
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Gordon Tietjens’ success in sevens is unrivalled and should place him in the same coaching league as Sir Alex Ferguson.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen named a 38-man training squad and there are a couple of oversights worth highlighting