The unpredictable nature of this year’s competition means we head into week 15 with a mere ten points separating recently appointed table-leaders the Chiefs and the ever-improving Waratahs outfit in eighth spot. There are some great match-ups this weekend with the Chiefs and Crusaders going toe-to-toe in Hamilton, the Blues taking on the Brumbies in Auckland and the great South African Sharks - Bulls derby going down in Durban on Saturday. The Hurricanes are the only side sitting out on the action this week, and with the majority of the sides still within reach of the playoffs at this late stage of the competition, expect some high octane rugby action coming your way.
Chiefs vs Crusaders | Friday 24 May | Waikato Stadium | 09:35
Quite a banger of derby to kick off the weekend, both sides having won their respective derbies last week. The Chiefs took down the Hurricanes by five and the Crusaders claimed retribution for their opening game humiliation, taking down the Blues by a convincing twenty points in Christchurch.
To Win (80mins)
Chiefs (+1.5) 9/10
Crusaders (-1.5) 9/10
The Chiefs have named only two changes to their starting XV that took down the Hurricanes last week. A calf injury ruled out Ben Afeaki, opening up a spot for Ben Tameifuna to come into the front row. Patrick Osborne starts on the wing in the only other change to the run on side.
Crusaders head coach Todd Blackadder has named Israel Dagg at fullback for Friday’s must win game. Dagg’s inclusion necessitated a reshuffle of the backline, with Tom Taylor moving to inside centre, Ryan Crotty to outside centre and Robbie Fruean demoted to the bench.
VERDICT: Crusaders (-1.5) 9/10
The Chiefs top the New Zealand conference, have home ground advantage and have been
the most consistent Kiwi franchise in the competition this year. You would think that would be enough to see them being named favourites for Friday’s clash, but as we have come to know with derbies in the Super XV, results leading up to them count very little. Instead it seems the natural hierarchy within that country prevails more often than not, and with the Crusaders widely considered as New Zealand’s rugby powerhouse, I feel obligated to back them with the tiny handicap. The Crusaders by 5.
Rebels vs Waratahs | Friday 24 May | AAMI Park | 11:40
As boring as Aussie derbies have proven to be over the years, the unpredictability of their weaker sides this year has created a reason to sit through them. The Rebels managed to collect the points against a disappointing Stormers side last week, but will have to put in a considerably stronger effort when they come up against the resurgent Waratahs, who are straight off a convincing victory over competition favourites, the Brumbies.
To Win (80mins)
Rebels (+5.5) 9/10
Waratahs (-5.5) 9/10
The Rebels will once again have to do without the golden boot of James O’Connor, although it didn’t seem to hinder them too much during last week’s victory over the Stormers. Scrumhalf Nick
Phipps returns from injury this week, as does lock Luke Jones.
Waratahs coach Michael Cheika has named four changes to his side that took down the Brumbies 28-22 last weekend. Berrick Barnes returns to the midfield with Matt Lucas reclaiming his number nine jersey. John Ulugia comes into the front row to replace the injured Tatafu Polota-Nau, with Sekope Kepu alongside him.
VERDICT: Rebels (+5.5) 9/10
The Rebels have impressed me quite a lot over the last few weeks. They managed to hold their own against the Crusaders (lost by 4), Chiefs (lost by 6) and Blues (lost by 4) in the weeks leading up to their home victory over the Stormers. The Waratahs claimed the win when these two sides met in Round 3, but by only five points, and this time they aren’t at home. I still think the Waratahs will prove too strong for the Rebels, but with the narrow margins the Melbourne side seems prone to losing by, I like the Rebels on the +5.5. It also offers cover if they manage to claim another big union scalp this weekend.
Blues vs Brumbies | Saturday 25 May | Eden Park | 09:35
Both sides took a bit of a beating last week. The Blues return home after experiencing the pain of facing the Crusaders. This Saturday they take on Jake White’s charges who travel to Auckland looking to reclaim their spot at the top of the log, after a surprise away loss to the Waratahs saw them tumble down to third.
To Win (80mins)
Blues (-3.5) 9/10
Brumbies (+3.5) 9/10
No final team list for the Blues as of yet, but if assistant coach Graham Henry’s rants in the media about the loss to the Bulls is anything to go by, then the Blues’ management has not assigned much of the blame to the players. Perhaps we won’t see any unforced changes to last week’s run on side.
The Brumbies, too, are yet to finalise their team for Saturday’s game, but with five players recently
selected for the initial Wallaby training squad in anticipation for the British and Irish Lions tour, including uncapped Christian Lealiifano and Ben Mowen, it would seem Jack White has a strong pool of talent to pick from. Unfortunately, he is without the services of his saviour George Smith and hooker Tatafu Polota, who both picked up injuries in last week’s clash with the Waratahs.
VERDICT: Brumbies (+3.5) 9/10
The Blues have not impressed at home over the last few weeks, managing to sneak past the Stormers by the narrowest of margins in week 12, followed by an unimposing four point win against the Rebels in week 13. The Brumbies haven’t claimed a victory since week 11, so I’m expecting them to come out resolute this Saturday to ensure all their hard work in the first half of the competition is not in vain. The Brumbies by 5.
Force vs Highlanders | Saturday 25 May | NIB Stadium | 11:40
Not only the most boring match-up of the weekend, but probably the least exciting game of the season. The only thing either side will be playing for this weekend is the possibility of avoiding the discomfort that accompanies the wooden spoon.
To Win (80mins)
Force (-4.5) 9/10
Highlanders (+4.5) 9/10
Neither side has released news of their final selections, but we should be seeing more of the Force’s sensational find at centre, the 20-year-old Kyle Godwin, who managed to stand out in a losing side last week against the Sharks. Flanker Chris Alcock also had an impressive game and should get a start this week.
The Highlanders are boosted by the return of All Black Ma’a Nonu, who missed their South African leg of the competition. Prop Bronson Murray and fullback Trent Renata are also available for selection this week.
VERDICT: Force (-4.5) 9/10
The Highlanders have had a regrettable 2013 to say the least, and I can’t see them turning it around at this late stage of the competition with nothing left to play for. The Force have managed a few upsets
along the way, beating the Reds away and holding them to a draw at home in the return leg of the Aussie derbies, as well as managing a win over the Crusaders in week 9. The Force have looked good at home this season and should manage to claim their third victory when they take on the ill-fated clan from Otago. The Force by 7.
Kings vs Cheetahs | Saturday 25 May | Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium | 15:00
The Cheetahs travel down south to take on the Kings this Saturday in hopes that a victory will allow them to sneak their way back into the top six. They managed to tame the wild Queenslanders in Bloemfontein last week so will more than likely fancy their chances, but with the Kings well rested after their bye and looking to build on the form that saw them finish off the Highlanders two weeks ago, the Cheetahs could find it a bit tougher than expected.
To Win (80mins)
Kings (+9.5) 9/10
Cheetahs (-9.5) 9/10
The Kings will welcome the return of vice-captain Andries Strauss as he reclaims his position in the midfield. Jacques Engelbrecht has recovered from his ankle injury and takes up a spot on the bench at the expense of Devin Oosthuizen. George Whitehead drops to the bench to make place for SP Marais, who returns at fullback this week.
As expected, no changes to the forward pack that annihilated the Reds in the scrums last week, with
the only change for the Cheetahs being Willie le Roux taking over on the wing from speedster Raymond
Rhule, who drops to the bench.
VERDICT: Cheetahs (-9.5) 9/10
The Cheetahs secured the win in the first meeting between the two in Bloemfontein by a respectable fourteen points, and the Kings haven’t really given us much reason to think a change in venue is going to yield a different result. The Cheetahs will be looking to pick up a bonus point here so I’m thinking the Cheetahs will take it by at least 15 points.
Stormers vs Reds | Saturday 25 May | Newlands | 17:05
The Stormers continue to haemorrhage players through injury, so facing a Reds side looking to bounce back hard from their unexpected loss to the Cheetahs last week must seem extremely daunting to Allister Coetzee and his men.
To Win (80min)
Stormers (-1.5) 9/10
Reds (+1.5) 9/10
The situation must be becoming almost comical for Allister Coetzee, who has had to add another five names to his injury list this week. Juan de Jongh, Deon Fourie, Andries Bekker, Frans Malherbe and Pat Cilliers have all been ruled out. Damian de Allende will start at inside centre with Captain Jean de Villiers moving to outside. In the forwards Don Armand will start at flank, Gerbrandt Grobler comes in at lock, Brok Harris at prop and Tiaan Liebenberg at hooker.
The Reds are another side yet to make final team announcements for Round 15, but we do know they will be without Digby Ioane, who is out with injury. Watch out for Quade Cooper, who will be looking to prove a point to Wallaby coach Robbie Deans after being left out of the initial Wallaby training squad.
VERDICT: Reds 11/10
For some reason the Stormers are fancied as favourites for their home game this Saturday, but having lost the services of another five players due to injuries picked up against the Rebels I don’t give them much hope. To make matters worse, Quade Cooper has been told he has to impress during this weekend’s game if he has any aspirations of making the Wallabies side for their upcoming Lions tour. The Reds by 7.
Sharks vs Bulls | Saturday 25 May | Kings Park | 19:10
As slim a chance as the Sharks currently have of still making the playoffs this year, a loss here would be a final nail in the coffin for Plumtree’s men. The Bulls lead the South African conference going into this game, and with a six point difference between them and second place Cheetahs, their pole position is in no danger this week. But that’s not to say they won’t be hungry for the win in Durban.
To Win (80mins)
Sharks (-1.5) 1/1
Bulls (+1.5) 17/20
The Sharks have had a tough season, having to deal with a string of injuries to big names. Finally there is some relief for the coastal franchise as Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira is once again ready for action. Bismark du Plessis could also possibly make a return after a lengthy injury.
Wynand Olivier returns for the Bulls this weekend, taking over from Jan Serfontein in the midfield. Lionel Mapoe drops down to the bench to make way for Bjorn Basson, who will make his 50th appearance this Saturday. Jano Vermaak looks set to make a milestone of his own as he will reach 100 Super Rugby caps if he comes on off the bench.
VERDICT: Sharks (-1.5) 1/1
As I said about the Chiefs vs Crusaders game, derbies seem to produce outcomes that are at odds with current team performances. The Sharks hate to disappoint at home, especially against the Bulls. And if
there is one team that knows how to fight their way back in this competition it is the side from Durban. The Sharks by 7.
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