A stuttering start by several sides has left the consolidated table in a bit of disarray, and had I not witnessed the horrors of the past few weeks I’d more than likely think it was on its head. It would certainly explain how the bottom three sides boast a whopping eleven titles between them, while pole position is currently occupied by a side that is yet to see its name etched onto the silverware.
Hurricanes vs Blues | Friday 13 March | FMG Stadium | 08:35 The undefeated Hurricanes host a blundering Blues side in the opening dance of the weekend.
To Win (80mins)
Hurricanes (-10.5) 9/10
Blues (+10.5) 9/10
The Hurricanes miraculously avoided defeat on their nightmarish three week overseas stint, picking up solid wins against the Lions, Bulls and Force before returning to Wellington for a well deserved bye in Round 4. Coach Chris Boyd makes a few tweaks to the side that picked up a bonus-point victory in Perth two weeks back, alternating the mandated standby All Blacks with Cory Jane given a rest this week as skipper Conrad Smith storms back into the midfield for Friday’s battle with the Blues. Auckland coach Sir John Kirwan has managed to lose everything except for the honorary prefix attached to his name this season. The Blues will be desperate to avoid collecting their seventh consecutive Super Rugby loss this weekend, having last tasted victory way back in June last year, but with the loss of skipper Jerome Kaino following a concussion during last week’s shock home defeat to the Lions that is going to be a difficult task to accomplish.
VERDICT: Hurricanes (-10.5) 9/10
The Blues were just as poor last season, and they suffered a 19-point battering when they visited Wellington back then, so I’m not holding much hope for the visitors this time around.
Force vs Rebels | Friday 13 March | nib Stadium | 13:00
Both sides threatened great things with surprising shakedowns of top teams in the opening round, but seemingly had second thoughts on staging a real attack on the status quo and decided to subsequently regress back to their mediocre ways instead.
To Win (80mins)
Force (-2.5) 9/10
Rebels (+2.5) 9/10
No team news from either camp was readily available as I begrudgingly wrote this particular fixture preview, but whether that was because none had been released or the more likely scenario that such information was of such low interest that is was in no way publishable, is not clear.
VERDICT: Rebels 13/10
The Rebels will be fresher coming off a bye in Round 4 and kept things relatively tidy against the Waratahs (losing 28-38) and Brumbies (losing 15-20), while the Force have been thumped by the Reds, Hurricanes and Brumbies over the past three rounds. Might be close, but don’t read that as exciting.
Crusaders vs Lions | Saturday 14 March | AMI Stadium | 05:30
The Crusaders desperately need to make their fashionably late entrance into the competition this weekend when they host a confident Lions outfit, or they might just find that they’ve missed the last train through to the knockouts.
To Win (80mins)
Crusaders (-15.5) 9/10
Lions (+15.5) 9/10
The Chinese year of the Sheep has been surprisingly unkind to this powerhouse Kiwi side, but we know better than to write them off no matter how dreadful their start to the season may be. They are likely to name an All Black-laden side for Saturday’s salsa session with their South African guests as Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and pious pivot Dan Carter are all expected to start. The Lions will confidently mosey into Christchurch after having roared past the beleaguered Blues in their opening clash of their Kiwi tour last week. Coach Johan Ackermann has named an unchanged run on side, but if he is wise he’ll unleash the returning Marnitz Boshoff from the sidelines sooner rather than later.
VERDICT: Crusaders (-14.5) 9/10
It is normally around this stage of the competition that the Crusaders decide to steamroll their way through everyone to make up for their trademark tardiness.
Highlanders vs Waratahs | Saturday 14 March | Forsyth Barr Stadium | 08:35
Jamie Joseph’s clan looks to move into the top six with a home win over the reigning champs.
To Win (80mins)
Highlanders (+3.5) 9/10
Waratahs (-3.5) 9/10
The Highlanders bounced back from their opening round defeat to the Crusaders with victories over the Reds and Chiefs, but they’ll need a win at home this week if they want to convince anyone that they pose a real threat to the title, something they haven’t really done in over a decade. They have made several changes to their pack this week, even going as far as to award Shane Christie his Super Rugby debut when he starts at seven. The Waratahs dusted themselves off following their first round flop against the Force, following up with somewhat convincing wins against the Rebels and Reds, but if truth be told this is probably their toughest clash of the season to date, which isn’t all that reassuring really.
VERDICT: Highlanders 15/10
With this season having been about as predictable as Shia LaBeouf’s off-screen antics it only makes sense to back the home side on the generous 15/10 outright win.
Reds vs Brumbies | Saturday 14 March | Suncorp Stadium | 10:40
A dismal start to the season paired with a dreadful home record against their fellow countrymen means the Reds won’t be looking forward to a visit from the Brumbies this week.
To Win (80mins)
Reds (+8.5) 9/10
Brumbies (-8.5) 9/10
The Reds have managed to score at an average of less than ten points a game this season, which is appalling of course, but amazing nonetheless. An equally troublesome statistic is that of their goal kicking, where they have collected a mere fifty percent of the potential points this season. Sure, they have been without first-rate playmaker Quade Cooper, but with the Wallaby troublemaker only expected back in action in Round 8, coach Richard Graham is going to have to find a quick fix if they intend on sticking it out past the regular season. The Brumbies have made a sterling start to the season with just the narrow 19-17 away loss to the Chiefs counting against them. They boast the greatest points difference in the competition so far and have scored a thundering thirteen tries in their four outings.
VERDICT: Brumbies (-8.5) 9/10
The Brumbies bulldozed past for six tries when the two met back in Round 1 and with the Reds having lost five of their last six home derbies there isn’t much hope of success for them this Saturday.
Stormers vs Chiefs | Saturday 14 March | Newlands | 15:00
The Chiefs head for Cape Town this week to take on the table-topping Stormers.
To Win (80mins)
Stormers (-1.5) 9/10
Chiefs (+1.5) 9/10
The Stormers have got off to a formidable start this year and a win this week will give them enough of a buffer for when they embark on their taxing trip to Australasia in Round 7. A win will also see them equalling their phenomenal 2012 start that had them six from six, setting them up for a top spot finish for the regular season and a coveted home semi-final. But the Chiefs are a tough side to beat on any field on any day and they will be smarting from their first loss of the season, made worse by the fact that it was at home against the mediocre Highlanders. They don’t have the greatest of records in South Africa, but they have beaten the Stormers at Newlands before, albeit many moons ago.
VERDICT: Stormers (-1.5) 9/10
This match will provide plenty of fireworks and even if you have no interest in the outcome the colossal midfield clash between Damian de Allende and Sonny Bill Williams is definitely worth the ticket price. The Stormers should have built up enough momentum to see them past this jetlagged Chiefs side, but it is going to be a tight one.
Cheetahs vs Sharks | Saturday 14 March | Free State Stadium | 17:05
The Cheetahs look to bounce back from last week’s loss when they clash with the struggling Sharks for the second time this season. The Capetonians battled to get things rolling against the Sharks last week and while they ultimately wrapped up the coastal clash with a comfortable 29-13 victory, the match was probably closer than the final scoreline suggests.
To Win (80mins)
Cheetahs (+2.5) 9/10
Sharks (-2.5) 9/10
The Sharks have been unfortunate over the past few weeks with some harsh refereeing, but to do well in this competition you have to make your own luck. They boast one of the strongest sides in the competition and it is surely just a matter of time before things start going their way, but with them currently in tenth it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Their defence has certainly been their biggest downfall so far, having conceded a horrifying 119 points in their four outings this year, more than any other side. The Cheetahs picked up two fortunate wins in the opening rounds but failed to carry any of that momentum through to the Bulls game following a week off from the action in Round 3. They will fancy their chances of a home win this week having already picked up a win over the Sharks down in Durban a few weeks back, but their performance last week indicates a far less favourable outcome is on the cards. An injury to Tienie Burger means the Bloem based side has had to rush back Springbok Oupa Mahoje, but other than that the team announced on Tuesday remains the same.
VERDICT: Sharks (-2.5) 9/10
I think the Sharks are going to play a far more aggressive game this week to eliminate the risk posed by erroneous referring and they should pick up a bonus-point victory.