This will be the last time we see all three of the conferences participating in the same round until the final week of round robin clashes in week twenty. Next weekend, we’ll have no option but to sit through potentially mundane Aussie derbies as the South African and New Zealand sides get a weekend off. Then, the Australian teams go missing for two weeks during the British and Irish Lions tour. No change to the top three from last week as the Chiefs, Bulls and Brumbies all won their respective clashes, but in the wildcard spots we see the Cheetahs moving all the way up to fourth thanks to the Crusaders and Reds both failing to come away with the points in Round 15.
Crusaders vs Waratahs | Friday 31 May | AMI Stadium | 09:35
Both sides are coming off derby losses last weekend and only three points separate these sides on the overall standings, so a Waratahs victory in Canterbury this weekend could potentially see the ‘Tahs sneaking into the top six. But only if the Blues lose to the Highlanders, so not a likely scenario at all then really.
To Win (80mins)
Crusaders (-11.5) 9/10
Waratahs (+11.5) 9/10
The Crusaders couldn’t contain the expansive style of the Chiefs last week, ultimately going down to the reigning champs 28-19 in Hamilton. But with the playoffs looming, the Crusaders will be only too aware that a loss at home against the touring New South Wales side is not an option if they want to remain in contention for the title. Game-changer Dan Carter was uncharacteristically unobtrusive against the Chiefs, but being the calibre of player he is you can expect him to do a lot more than just show up this week. I suspect he is going to keep the Waratahs very busy this Friday.
With loose forward Wycliff Palu ruled out with a knee injury, the Waratahs have had to reshuffle the back three of the pack for Friday’s game. Captain Dave Denny will start at number eight and Pat McCutcheon comes in at blindside flank. We also see the return of Brendon McKibbin and Rob Horne to the starting line-up after spending last weekend on the bench. They switch places with Mat Lucas and Berrick Barnes, both of whom will warm the bench this week.
VERDICT: Waratahs (+11.5) 9/10
If the Crusaders fail to collect the points at home this weekend they will find themselves in the uneasy position of not only having to win all of their remaining three games, but also needing the outcomes of other matches to go in their favour. They’ll be looking to avoid that situation at all costs. But with the unmemorable season they have had so far I am in no way convinced they will manage the handicap, so the Waratahs on the +11.5 gets my vote. Crusaders by 8.
Brumbies vs Hurricanes| Friday 31 May | Canberra Stadium | 11:40
After some disappointingly mediocre showings in the second half of the season, the Brumbies seemed to have finally returned to the form that had them leading the competition from the very first week, when they upstaged the Blues in Auckland. They face more Kiwi opposition this weekend as the ‘Canes travel to take on the Aussie conference leaders in Canberra. Can Jake White’s men build some consistency in their performances from here on in?
Brumbies (-7.5) 9/10
Hurricanes (+7.5) 9/10
The Brumbies managed to secure their first win in five years at Eden Park last weekend when they took down the unsuspecting Blues, mainly due to an incredible performance by fly-half Matt Toomua, who led an effective Brumbies attack remarkably well in the wet conditions last Saturday. Between Toomua and the just as lethal fullback, Jesse Mogg, the ‘Canes are going to have their work cut out for them.
The Hurricanes were fortunate enough to put their feet up in Round 15, but they will need to be back at full pace come Friday. There are only four points between them and the Crusaders, who occupy the sixth and final playoff spot on the log, meaning only a victory will do here for the touring Kiwi franchise. Captain Conrad Smith makes his return this week for the Hurricanes, as does Dane Coles. Other changes to the side that lost to the Chiefs two weeks back include the return of lock James Broadhurst and flanker Brad Shields.
VERDICT: Brumbies (-7.5) 9/10
Sure, the Brumbies have lost their way a bit over the last month or so, but looking at last week’s performance against the Blues, it would seem the Brumbies are back to their exasperating, yet admirable best, and had definitely not peaked too soon in the competition as many thought. The Brumbies by 12.
Highlanders vs Blues | Saturday 1 June | Forsyth Barr Stadium | 09:35
Following their loss to the Force last weekend, the Highlanders look set to claim this year’s wooden spoon, unless they pull off the upset of the season (which is quite a title considering the calibre of upsets we have seen so far) and take down the Blues in Otago.
To Win (80mins)
Highlanders (+3.5) 9/10
Blues (-3.5) 9/10
The Highlanders looked decent enough on defence last weekend, but you cannot win a Super Rugby game with brilliant defence alone. They never looked threatening with the ball in hand at any point, which is not to take anything away from the valiant efforts of fullback Ben Smith. But the man was never going to be able to get too far without any support, or should I say effective support, from the rest of the Highlander’s backline.
The Blues had a shocker against the Brumbies last week and quite frankly deserved to lose. They have little option now but to win every game from here on in, and they are not going to do that unless they improve dramatically on last week’s performance. George Moala has been dropped for not attending practice, but besides that there have been no announcements regarding final team selection.
VERDICT: Blues (-3.5) 9/10
Definitely the value bet of the weekend. I personally don’t see any real danger of the Blues losing to Clan, regardless of how shocking the Auckland based side’s performances have been over the last two weeks. And with a measly -3.5 handicap paying a decent 9/10, you’d be silly not to chuck something on it. The Blues by 7.
Reds vs Rebels | Saturday 1 June | Suncorp Stadium | 11:40
The Reds return home after their unsuccessful South African leg of the competition that resulted in losses against the Cheetahs and, inexplicably, the Stormers over the last couple of weeks. They remain second in the Australian conference but need to start picking up bonus points along with victories from here on in if they want to narrow the gap between themselves and the conference leading Brumbies. The Rebels, on the other hand, have won their last two games and are looking to make it three on the trot, so the Reds would be wise to refrain from underestimating their fellow countrymen.
To Win (80mins)
Reds (-7.5) 9/10
Rebels (+7.5) 9/10
No news of final team selections for either side but we see a great flyhalf duel coming our way with in-favour Wallaby playmaker James O’Connor going up against discarded Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper. Oddly enough, O’Connor is not even the Rebels’ first-choice number ten, yet he managed to pip both Cooper and Brumbies backline general Matt Toomua. This matchup also sees Rebels captain Scott Higginbotham enter his previous home ground as a visitor for the first time.
VERDICT: Reds (-7.5) 9/10
Ewen McKenzie’s charges will be looking to forget about their horrific South African stint and will instead focus their efforts at guaranteeing their presence in the playoffs. And what better way to do that than by dishing out an old fashioned beat-down on an over-performing unit such as the Rebels. Quade Cooper has had two sombre appearances for the Queenslanders now, I don’t expect a third. The Reds by 10.
Stormers vs Kings | Saturday 1 June | Newlands Stadium | 17:05
The must-win games that invariably arise at this time of the competition, when time starts running out for teams still on the fringe of the top six, more often than not provide viewers with electrifying rugby to look forward to over the weekend. Unfortunately, this stage of the tournament also provides us with match-ups between sides that no longer have a hope in hell of progressing past the primary stage, such as this one, ultimately resulting in excruciatingly bland rugby.
To Win (80mins)
Stormers (-17.5) 9/10
Kings (+17.5) 9/10
This is probably the least number of changes to a Stormers side this season. Deon Fourie returns to action for the eleventh-placed side, at the expense of Don Armand. The only other change for the Stormers sees Dekock Steenkamp making his way back into the run on side, with Gerbrand Grobler dropping down to the bench.
The Kings have lost the services of two players to injury for this weekend’s derby. Lock Steven Sykes has been ruled out with a shoulder injury, while winger Siyande Grey has picked up a hamstring problem.
VERDICT: Kings (+17.5) 9/10
The Cheetahs only managed a 12-point victory over the Kings in Round 15, so I am not convinced the Stormers have what it takes to secure an 18-point victory this week. The Stormers managed to avoid losing anymore players to injury last week during their surprise victory over the Reds and have regained the services of two experienced players from injury for this week’s game, so I don’t doubt that a Stormers victory is imminent. I just predict a smaller margin. Stormers by 10.
Cheetahs vs Bulls | Saturday 1 June | Free State Stadium | 19:10
By far the toughest game of the weekend to call. The Bulls are five points clear of the Cheetahs on the log, so perhaps a win is not as crucial for them as it could be. But I suppose when you get down to the last handful of games in the Super XV every game is a must-win, and with these two sides pretty evenly matched, Bloemfontein had better be ready for a brutal encounter on Saturday night.
To Win (80mins)
Cheetahs (+1.5) 9/10
Bulls (-1.5) 9/10
Four changes to the Bulls for Saturday’s clash of the South African rugby titans. Arno Botha takes over from Dewald Potgieter, Jan Serfontein displaces Wynand Olivier, Werner Kruger comes in at the expense of Frik Kirsten and Lionel Mapoe cracks the nod ahead of Akona Ndungane.
Only one change to Naka Drotske’s run on side this week, with speedster Raymond Rhule returning to the starting line-up after proving his ability on defence has improved remarkably over the last few weeks. He takes over from Rayno Benjamin on the wing.
VERDICT: Cheetahs 11/10
The Bulls won the first clash between these two sides when they met in Pretoria in Round 9, but only just. Things could turn out very differently for the South African conference leaders when they run out in Free State as one of the only obstructions left in the way of the Cheetahs making Super Rugby history by making the playoffs for the very first time. The Cheetahs have worked far too hard this season to get to where they are to throw it all away now. And with an outright win for the home side paying a tidy 11/10, there is really no need to go anywhere near the handicap. Cheetahs by 5.
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