GAME OF THE WEEK
CHIEFS v CRUSADERS
When: Friday July 6, 7.35pm
Where: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 18, Crusaders 13, Chiefs 5
In Hamilton: Played 7, Crusaders 5, Chiefs 2
Last match: Round 3, March 9, 2012: Chiefs beat Crusaders 24-19 at McLean Park, Napier
WE’VE SAID it once and we’ll say it again for the sake of repetition: batten down the hatches, because this is likely to be Super Rugby warfare at its most brutal extreme.
The Crusaders’ dressing room wouldn’t have been the place to be for women and children after the boys in red and black conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against the Hurricanes last week.
Indeed, you’d go a long way to find a better example of a team with such an overwhelming set-piece superiority ultimately losing a match.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, weren’t entirely convincing in their hard-fought win against the Highlanders, though they did get the job done. Aaron Cruden still looked a little banged up from the Achilles problem he suffered in the Hamilton test, while Sonny Bill Williams was perhaps guilty of being too easily goaded by a couple of bruisers from the ’Landers pack.
The Crusaders have welcomed back Dan Carter, Israel Dagg and Kieran Read from the casualty ward.
The visitors certainly won’t have everything their own way in the set-pieces this time round.
In fact, the Chiefs taught them a lesson in power-scrummaging when the sides met earlier this season at McLean Park.
That was a ‘home’ game for the Crusaders, because the new AMI Stadium wasn’t yet ready, but the result ended up going the way of the ‘away’ team, which featured several members of the local Hawke’s Bay ITM Cup side.
Our prediction: Crusaders 1-12
REDS v HIGHLANDERS
When: Friday July 6, 7.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 15, Highlanders 9, Reds 6
In Brisbane: Played 7, Reds 5, Highlanders 2
Last match: Round 14, May 15, 2010: Reds beat Highlanders 38-36 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
THIS COULD go one of two ways for the Highlanders.
Either they will finish with a flourish (with the bye next week), adding more respectability to an already-respectable campaign, or they will fail to turn up. They haven’t really done the latter this season (save one occasion against the Crusaders), so expect them to run out onto Suncorp with the intention of at least ruining the defending champions’ title ambitions.
The ’Landers were competitive, as always, against the Chiefs last week, losing 21-27, but it was ultimately another case of ‘what if’ for Jamie Joseph’s side.
The Queenslanders are certainly capable of winning this match in front of their Red Army, and they did well to get a bonus point in Melbourne last week, but it’s hard to see them retaining the title on the strength of their current form.
Our prediction: Reds 1-12
BLUES v FORCE
When: Saturday July 7, 7.35pm
Where: Eden Park, Auckland
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 6, Blues 4, Force 1, Drawn 1
In Auckland: Played 1, Blues 1, Force 0
Last match: Round 4, March 12, 2011: Blues drew 22-22 with Force at nib Stadium, Perth
WITH ONLY five wins recorded between these teams all season, this isn’t going to break any Eden Park attendance records – unless they’re of the less memorable variety.
The Blues have skipper Keven Mealamu back from a lingering calf strain, everywhere man Orene Ai’i is back after several seasons abroad, and Rene Ranger will be looking to continue his good recent form, but there isn’t much else to say from a Blues’ perspective, except that Tom McCartney will probably get a chance to show that he’s a better lineout thrower than Dane Coles.
The visitors have also had a shocking season, axing their coach mid-campaign and mixing stirring wins with embarrassing losses. Winston Stanley will get to play on his old stomping ground as a visiting player for the first time, while Nathan Sharpe will undoubtedly continue to go out gracefully.
However, the loss of skipper David Pocock for the last two games cannot be measured.
Our prediction: Blues 13+
WARATAHS v BRUMBIES
When: Saturday July 7, 7.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Referee: Keith Brown (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 19, Waratahs 11, Brumbies 8
In Sydney: Played 10, Waratahs 9, Brumbies 1
Last match: Round 11, May 5, 2012: Brumbies beat Waratahs 23-6 at Canberra Stadium, Canberra
THE BRUMBIES are poised to make a return to the Super Rugby finals for the first time since 2004, but the season can’t end quickly enough for the hugely disappointing Waratahs.
However, the New South Welshmen have an astonishingly good record against the two-time champs in Sydney, having only lost one of the 10 previous fixtures played between the sides here.
Still, there is daylight separating the first- and third-placed sides in the Australian conference, with the Jake White-coached Brumbies ahead of the’ Tahs by a whopping 20 league points.
The Sydneysiders have at least had plenty of time to see the error of their ways, with last week’s bye being tacked on to the end of the month-long June break, but they simply don’t have the artillery to come up with any remedies for their worst season in five years.
Our prediction: Brumbies 1-12
CHEETAHS v STORMERS
When: Saturday July 7, 3.00pm (1.00am NZT, July 8)
Where: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 8, Stormers 6, Cheetahs 2
In Bloemfontein: Played 3, Stormers 2, Cheetahs 1
Last match: Round 12, May 12, 2012: Stormers beat Cheetahs 16-14 at Newlands, Cape Town
THE CHEETAHS are gone in terms of the playoff race, but Stormers coach Allister Coetzee will be expecting to get everything including the kitchen sink thrown at his charges.
The SA conference-topping Stormers had to work hard to win 27-17 against the woeful Lions last week, while the Cheetahs were left to rue a forgettable first half effort against the Bulls, losing 40-24 after trailing 26-0 at halftime and 40-0 midway through the second half.
The home side tends to play better at its home ground, too, so this could be a classic battle.
It seems a bit unfair to criticise a team that is second overall on the Super Rugby log, but the Stormers continue to win without ever really looking like potential champions.
They do, however, have the most accurate goalkicker in the competition in first five Peter Grant.
Our prediction: Stormers 1-12
LIONS v REBELS
When: Saturday July 7, 5.05pm (3.05am NZT, July 8)
Where: Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Referee: Francisco Pastrana (Argentina)
In Johannesburg: N/A
Last match: N/A
IT SAYS a lot about a game when the biggest talking point is the appointment of a ‘foreign’ referee – Argentina’s Francisco Pastrana – but neither of these sides has much to play for.
Having suspended Kiwi coach John Mitchell during the June break, the Lions put up a better fight than most had expected in their 17-27 loss to the Stormers in Cape Town last week. Perhaps not having Mitchell around is a good thing after all...
The Rebels, meanwhile, were competitive for large chunks of their match against the Reds in Melbourne, but they – like the Lions – ultimately came away empty-handed. They also lost James O’Connor to injury in his first game back from a liver injury which had kept him sidelined for a month and Kurtley Beale.
Our prediction: Lions 1-12
SHARKS v BULLS
When: Saturday July 7, 7.10pm (5.10am NZT, July 8)
Where: Kings Park, Durban
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 19, Sharks 10, Bulls 7, Drawn 2
In Durban: Played 9, Sharks 5, Bulls 3, Drawn 1
Last match: Round 1, February 24, 2012: Bulls beat Sharks 18-13 at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
WHAT A way to finish off a round of Super Rugby.
Having come out of the last round looking a little worse for wear, despite not taking the field, the eighth-placed Sharks are in serious danger of missing out on the playoffs after the Hurricanes upset the Crusaders last week.
The ’Canes (sixth) will get a guaranteed four points with the bye this week, while the Reds (seventh) will be favoured to come of their clash with the Highlanders in Brisbane with at least four competition points.
The Bulls showed glimpses of ominous form last weekend, leading the Cheetahs 40-0 midway through the second half, before taking their foot off the accelerator.
However, they’re unlikely to receive the same breaks from the Sharks, who have a slight edge over their historic (and often bitter) rivals in games between the two sides in Durban.
Our prediction: Sharks 1-12
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