Chiefs vs Hurrricanes | Friday 28 June | Waikato Stadium | 09:35
The Kiwi derbies have been great for providing justification for sitting at a pub at half nine on a Friday morning, so make sure you don’t waste the next three by doing something silly, like going to work.
To Win (80mins)
Chiefs (-7.5) 9/10
Hurricanes (+7.5) 9/10
The Chiefs have set themselves up quite nicely for the last three rounds of regular clashes in this year’s Super XV, currently sitting comfortably on top of the New Zealand conference with a valuable ten point buffer between them and the Crusaders. With their three remaining matches being against sides they have already beaten once this season, they will have to do a lot wrong to miss the playoffs. Flyhalf Aaron Cruden will be well rested and eager to replicate his performance of two weeks ago that played a massive part in the series clinching victory for the All Blacks over France in Christchurch. If he manages to carry that form through to the end of the competition, I have no doubt in my mind that the Chiefs will successfully defend their Super Rugby title. All Black Sam Cane has been named on the bench for the reigning champs this week, allowing him a breather after having started all three tests against France, giving Tanerau Latimer a start at flank. Ben Afeaki takes over at tighthead prop from Ben Tameifuna, who drops down to the bench. Centre Tim Nanai-Williams and wing Lelia Masaga return to the starting lineup for the Chiefs in their last home game of the regular season.
The Hurricanes started off the season relatively well, managing to secure a respectable five victories from their first eight games, putting them in strong position at the halfway mark of the competition. And then, well...they threw it all away. Their following five games before the break resulted in only one victory for the Wellington based side, leaving them now with a statistically possible, yet unrealistic chance of reaching the top six over the next three weeks. Their victory over the Crusaders in last week’s friendly could be an indication that they have addressed many of the problems that were so evident in their game plan before the break, but with both sides weakened by the absence of their All Blacks, and neither side really going full throttle for fear of suffering injuries at this vital stage of the competition, I wouldn’t attach much significance to that outcome. Two uncapped players , Matt Proctor and James Marshall, join wing Julian Savea in the back three this week, while Karl Lowe starts at 7 in the only changes to the run on side that faced the Brumbies back in Round 16.
VERDICT: Chiefs (-7.5) 9/10
I think the Chiefs will prove much too strong for Mark Hammett’s side this Friday. The Chiefs by 12.
Highlanders vs Crusaders | Saturday 29 June | Forsyth Barr Stadium | 09:35
The Highlanders seem to have made themselves more than comfortable at the bottom of the table this season, and I’m sure the Crusaders won’t mind keeping them there.
To Win (80mins)
Highlanders (+6.5) 9/10
Crusaders (-6.5) 9/10
With Richie McCaw confirming his intentions of returning for the playoffs next month, it really would be the ultimate kick in the teeth if his side failed to make them, especially since they currently hold the last wildcard spot. The Crusaders need to secure maximum points against the unpredictable Highlanders this week to help take the pressure off of their last two matches, where they meet the Chiefs and the Hurricanes, both sides having already beaten the Crusaders earlier in the competition. Dan Carter made his return from injury last week when he ran out for the All Blacks in the final test in the series against France, but he battled to control the game in the way we’ve become so accustomed to him doing over his 95 test match career. The Crusaders could really benefit from an in-form Carter for their remaining three games, but whether or not the golden boy of All Black rugby can deliver, we will have to wait and see.
The Highlanders, after an embarrassingly poor showing throughout the competition, managed to finally figure out what this ‘rugby’ business was all about in Round 16. They obliterated an unsuspecting Blues team that had shown up just to collect the points, as every other side had done this season against the Highlanders, but were caught with their pants around their ankles. Going 29-0 up in the first 30 minutes allowed the Highlanders enough of a head start to fend off the resilient second half resurgence by the Blues, seeing the game wrapped up 38-28. Whether the Highlanders can reconstruct the same intensity and passion out on the field this week is anyone’s guess, but for the first time this season I could understand why they started out this year’s competition as one of the favourites to take the title. All it took was for the likes of Ben Smith, Colin Slade and Hosea Gear to finally fire on all cylinders for the Highlanders to finally look like the formidable presence they were predicted to be.
VERDICT: Crusaders (-6.5) 9/10
Although normally a sucker for the underdogs, I just really don’t feel the Highlanders will manage to pull off anything remotely close to the performance they did against the Blues in week 16. The Crusaders by 10.
Sharks vs Blues | Saturday 29 June | Kings Park | 14:50
The Sharks take on the Blues at Kings Park this Saturday in a match between two sides that have really gone against the grain this year, by being the only sides incapable of beating the Highlanders.
To Win (80mins)
Sharks (-6.5) 9/10
Blues (+6.5) 9/10
With the untimely exit of John Plumtree after a respectable ten years in charge of the Sharks, the Durban based side has no option but to finish the competition with Plumtree’s former assistants in charge. The unsettling drama going on behind the scenes at the costal franchise could really not have come at a worse time; the Sharks have to win their remaining three encounters to have even the slightest chance of making the playoffs. They will be bolstered by the return of Springbok Bismarck du Plessis, who has been sidelined all season with injury but made an impressive contribution off the bench for the Springboks against Scotland and Samoa over the past two weeks. Still nursing a long injury list, the Sharks will be unable to field the likes of Frans Steyn, Meyer Bosman, Juandre Marais and JP Pietersen this weekend, but there is some good news as Cobus Reinach, Jacques Botes and Ryan Kankowski will all be eligible for selection.
The Blues made things much more difficult for themselves by allowing the Highlanders to have their way with them back in week 16. Still, they have a fairly decent chance at making the playoffs this year if they can get things right from here on in. Currently only three points behind the Cheetahs (5th place) and the Crusaders (6th), they have two matches to get through in South Africa before returning to take on the Chiefs at Eden Park. Being packed full of All Blacks such as Rene Ranger, Charles Piutau, Francis Saili, Steven Luatua, Keven Mealamu and Piri Weepu will definitely help ease the nerves of the ten players named in the squad that have never travelled to South Africa before, but having just finished an intense three match test series against France, coach Sir John Kirwan will have to manage his players well to avoid them burning out before the playoffs even begin.
VERDICT: Sharks (-6.5) 9/10
Coachless, but not hopeless, the Sharks have to redeem themselves in front of their die-hard fans this week. They have the talent, and they have plenty of experience in fighting their way out of compromising positions such as the one they currently find themselves in. I think they can clear the handicap comfortably. The Sharks by 10.
Bulls vs Kings | Saturday 29 June | Loftus Versfeld | 17:05
All the Kings’ horses and all the Kings’ men, won’t be able to do much against the Bulls this weekend.
To Win (80mins)
Bulls (-19.5) 9/10
Kings (+19.5) 9/10
The Bulls are sitting pretty at the top of the South African conference, eight points clear of the Cheetahs and sixteen points clear of both the Sharks and Stormers, leaving them little to worry about as they head into the last three rounds of the competition. They will be without captain Pierre Spies for the remainder of the tournament due to a bicep injury that will keep him out of action for the rest of the year. Dewald Potgieter will take over the captaincy role from this weekend. Jacques Potgieter will come in at blindside flank for the injured Arno Botho, while Grant Hattingh takes over in the engine room from Juandre Kruger, who falls to the bench. Zane Kirchner returns from injury to start at fullback, and Akona Ndungane, Wynand Olivier and Louis Fouche have all been named in the run on side. Springboks Morne Steyn and JJ Engelbrecht will play off the bench.
The Kings will also go into this game having just lost their regular captain as Luke Watson has been ruled out with an ankle injury that will see him missing the rest of the Super Rugby season, as well as their vital promotion/relegation matches against the Lions. Centre Andries Strauss is expected to take over at skipper. Watson’s absence won’t be felt all that much in the loose forwards as he had battled most of the season with injuries. Cornell du Preez, Jacques Engelbrecht and Wimpie van der Walt will continue as the loose trio, as they have most of the season. The Kings will probably be focusing more on the upcoming games against the Lions, so I don’t expect a big fight from them in Pretoria this weekend as they will surely be cautious against losing any more key players to injury.
VERDICT: Bulls (-19.5) 9/10
The Southern Kings won’t be able to offer much resistance against the Springbok dominated South African conference leaders. The Bulls took the competition newcomers for 34 points down in the Eastern Cape; I don’t see why they won’t manage the same at home. The Bulls by 30.
Stormers vs Cheetahs | Saturday 29 June | Newlands Stadium | 19:15
The Cheetahs have had an amazing season this year, it would be a tragedy to throw it all away in their last two clashes of their greatest Super Rugby showing ever.
To Win (80mins)
Stormers (-3.5) 9/10
Cheetahs (+3.5) 9/10
The Cheetahs have the benefit of being the only side with a bye left at this late stage of the competition, so with a guaranteed four points coming their way and only two matches left to battle through they look set to experience the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time. But their narrow 25-30 loss to the Bulls in their last game means they need to secure the victory at Newlands as well as a win over the Blues in Bloemfontein next weekend to remove luck from the equation. Springboks Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuizen and Willie le Roux are all in the starting lineup for this weekend’s derby.
The 11th placed Stormers will be looking to at least keep their impressive home record intact that has seen them lose only one game at Newlands this season, and considering how poor their 2013 has been, that is quite a feat. The third South African side to lose their skipper for Round 18, Deon Fourie will take over the captaincy from the injured Jean de Villiers. Juan de Jongh will take over from de Villiers at centre in the only change to the side that took down the Kings a few weeks back.
VERDICT: Cheetahs 31/20
Not sure why the Stormers are favourites, home ground advantage won’t be enough to save them against this Free State side set on making their first ever appearance in the competition playoffs. Handicaps are not worth a look, the Cheetahs by 7.
Think we've got it wrong? Well leave your comments below and tell us how you think this is going to play out.