The consolidated table is starting to take shape as we head into the fourth round of action, and a particularly resilient faction (made up of the Hurricanes, Chiefs, Stormers and Cheetahs) is beginning to break away from the masses following flawless starts to the season from its members. Consistency of a far less auspicious nature keeps the lustreless Lions and blundering Blues bolted to the bottom of the table, but with the two set to tango in Albany this Saturday it is going to get lonelier down there for one of them.
Chiefs vs Highlanders | Friday 6 March | Waikato Stadium | 08:35
The stand-out side of the season thus far hosts the half-pie Highlanders in the opening clash of the weekend.
To Win (80mins)
Chiefs (-10.5) 9/10
Highlanders (+10.5) 9/10
Narrow victories over the Blues and Brumbies in the first two rounds had me erroneously expecting last week’s clash between the Chiefs and the Crusaders to go down to a photo finish. But instead the Chiefs delivered a particularly powerful performance, brutally battering their way past a poor ‘Saders defence to clinch a resounding 40-16 victory. The battle cost them the world-class Brodie Retallick, who will be out for at least a month, with Michael Fitzgerald taking over from the World Player of the Year in the second row. They may also be without All Black Liam Messam if he fails to be cleared following a concussion last week, but the more than capable Maama Vaipulu is on standby. The Highlanders bounced back from their shaky start against the Crusaders with a convincing win against the Reds, but with six changes to their side this week I can’t see them carrying much momentum through into Round 4.
VERDICT: Chiefs (-10.5) 9/10
I can’t see the clan coming within 15 points of the Chiefs this week so bet liberally on this one.
Brumbies vs Force | Friday 6 March | GIO Stadium | 10:40
With the table-topping Hurricanes sitting this round out, the Brumbies look to Force their way into pole by claiming a solid win in Canberra.
To Win (80mins)
Brumbies (-13.5) 9/10
Force (+13.5) 9/10
The Brumbies rightfully lead the Australian conference with their only loss from their three passionate performances so far coming through a match-thieving Aaron Cruden penalty in the final minutes against the Chiefs in New Plymouth. They outscored the Rebels two tries to none in Melbourne last week, but poor discipline allowed their opponents an undeserved bonus point. Larkham and Co. will need to ensure the Brumbies display greater composure from here on in if they want to have a real go at the title. The Force haven’t had much luck since their opening round shock win over the Waratahs, and were literally blown away by the Hurricanes last week. They’ve managed to best the Brumbies in Canberra twice before, but with a lack of depth to ease their growing injury woes I think they could be in for a hiding.
VERDICT: Brumbies (-13.5) 9/10
The Brumbies have one of the most exciting attacks on display at the moment and have already crashed over the whitewash nine times this season. It is a big handicap to clear but they will be aiming for the bonus point victory and I can’t see the Force in their current state being able to do much to stop them.
Blues vs Lions | Saturday 7 March | QBE Stadium | 08:35
Only a draw in North Shore City this Saturday can prevent one of these sides from claiming their first taste of champagne for the season.
To Win (80mins)
Blues (-12.5) 9/10
Lions (+12.5) 9/10
The Blues return home this week following a disappointing two week tour of South Africa that resulted in losses against the Cheetahs and Stormers. They proved a far tougher opponent on home soil last season, taking down the likes of the Waratahs, Crusaders and Hurricanes despite a poor showing in the competition overall. They receive a boost upfront with All Black hooker Keven Mealamu making his first start for the season in his record-breaking 163rd Super Rugby appearance. The Lions looked certain to collect their first win of the season during their home clash against the Stormers last week, having controlled the lead for some 76 minutes before a last-gasp Siya Kolisi try denied the Lions the glory. They have not been strong travellers in the past, and haven’t tasted victory in New Zealand since taking down the Highlanders in 2011.
VERDICT: Lions (+12.5) 9/10
Anything is possible in this competition, especially against the Blues, but I think a win in New Zealand is just a bit beyond what the Lions are capable of in their current form. They proved they can go toe-to-toe with the best in the competition last week, so they are more than capable of staying inside the generous handicap.
Reds vs Waratahs | Saturday 7 March | Suncorp Stadium |10:40
The defending champions return from their bye in round three desperate to climb up from an unfamiliar tenth place.
To Win (80mins)
Reds (+5.5) 9/10
Waratahs (-5.5) 9/10
The Reds have managed just a single mediocre victory from their three outings this season and they are probably still a bit dizzy from that 47-3 roundhouse kick to the face they collected from the Brumbies in the opening weekend. Things seem to have improved slightly with James O’Connor at flyhalf, but who knows what nonsense he is going to get up to when he runs into his old friend Kurtley Beale. The Waratahs kicked off their title defence with a humiliating home loss to the Force but bounced back with a solid win over the Rebels in Melbourne. They will be a bit fresher, and probably a better prepared side than in their last outing, but they have a lot to do over the next few weeks if they intend on hanging on to the trophy.
VERDICT: Waratahs (-5.5) 9/10
Before the start of this season the Waratahs had gone over two years without conceding more than three tries in a game, but they’ve unceremoniously let four blokes over in both of their outings this season. They won’t be happy with how things have gone so far and one area we’re certain to see a marked improvement is their defence. They will be out for the bonus point and so they should manage to put at least ten points past the ridiculous Reds.
Cheetahs vs Bulls | Saturday 7 March | Free State Stadium | 17:05
A good old Highveld bash kicks off the afternoon’s action.
To Win (80mins)
The Bulls finally shook that losing feeling last week, albeit with a helping hand from Loftus local Jaco van Heerden. They take to the road for the first time this season hoping to build on last week’s win. The Cheetahs head into this clash with two impressive wins under their belt, having defeated the Sharks in Durban in their first clash of the season and then returning fresh from a week off to help ruin the Blues' South African safari. They will be eager to see how their pack holds up against several of their players pinched by the Bulls, and they make just two changes to the side with Boom Prinsloo coming in for the injured Willie Britz on the flank and Jean Cook moving to number eight.
VERDICT: Cheetahs 1/1
The Bulls were lucky to come away with the win last week and will find things even tougher on the road against this Cheetahs side building some good momentum.
Stormers vs Sharks | Saturday 7 March | DHL Newlands| 19:10
A clash of the coastal titans takes place in Cape Town this week with the hospitable Stormers looking to go top of the log.
To Win (80mins)
Stormers (-3.5) 9/10
Sharks (+3.5) 9/10
The Stormers have come a long way from the one dimensional defensive play that served them well for so many seasons, and they are playing some exciting attacking rugby at the moment which could help them push past the final hurdle to pick up the silverware for first time. They will welcome the news that locks Eben Etzebeth and Jean Kleyn have both been cleared to play this weekend and could name Schalk Burger in the run on side for the first time this season. The Sharks have been horribly inconsistent so far, with their only victory being over the Lions in monsoon conditions in Durban a couple weeks back. They welcome back some of their Japanese exports, with JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn in the mix, and fellow Springbok Willem Alberts also cleared for action. We should see the Sharks producing a little more oomph than we've seen so far.
VERDICT: Sharks 15/10
The Stormers are going through their annual injury concerns and the Sharks are bringing a lot of talent with them this week. It is tough to win in Cape Town, but this is as good a time as any to pull it off.