We will be a third of the way through the regular season after this weekend’s action, but fluctuating form across the field (bar the contrasting consistency of the Hurricanes and Blues) means no one side is completely out of the running for a playoff spot just yet. A mere seven points currently separates the beleaguered Blues in fifteenth and the stuttering Sharks in sixth, so expect to see a great deal of reshuffling of the consolidated table over the next few rounds. Well, maybe not all that much restructuring higher up the log, unless the runaway top-four (Hurricanes, Brumbies, Stormers and Chiefs) are besieged by their blundering brethren soon.
Highlanders vs Hurricanes | Friday 20 March | Forsyth Barr Stadium | 08:35
The Hurricanes blow into Dunedin this week looking to collect their fifth consecutive win of the season.
To Win (80mins)
Highlanders (-1.5) 11/10
Hurricanes (+1.5) 7/10
A brutal battle kicks off the weekend’s action with both sides playing phenomenal rugby at the moment. The Hurricanes are the only unbeaten side left in the competition, but the Highlanders have been equally impressive over the past few rounds collecting consecutive victories over the Reds, Chiefs and Waratahs. Three changes to the Highlanders side this week as Dan Pryor is named to start in place of the injured Shane Christie, with Gareth Evans and Daniel Lienert-Brown making the bench for Friday’s clash. The Hurricanes bring back All Black Cory Jane after a mandated week’s rest for the winger, while Jeremy Thrush and Blade Thomson form a fresh relationship in the second row.
VERDICT: Highlanders (-1.5) 11/10
This one is bound to go down to the wire, but the Highlanders have already overcome several substantial sides this season, while the Hurricanes have merely capitalised on the medley of mediocrity (Lions, Bulls, Force and Blues) they’ve encountered thus far. The Highlanders by a nose.
Rebels vs Lions | Friday 20 March | AAMI Park | 10:40
Still licking their wounds from the 34-6 thumping they endured in Christchurch last week, the Lions limp into Melbourne this Friday hoping for a victory to preserve their unblemished record against the Rebels.
To Win (80mins)
Rebels (-7.5) 9/10
Lions (+7.5) 9/10
The Rebels will need to overcome their shoddy record in Melbourne, which has left them without a reason to celebrate in their last six home outings, if they are to take full advantage of their guests’ feeble form when they clash on Friday. They have already shown some promise this season with victories over the Crusaders and Force and fiercely contested losses to the Waratahs and Brumbies, but failing to collect points in the easier fixtures such as this will destroy any chances they may have of an extended run in the competition this year. The Lions will be hoping to get their tour back on track after the Crusaders stole the thunder created by their round four victory over the Blues in Auckland, but with Johan Ackermann having made sweeping changes to his side, including a new-look front row and halfback pairing, and the ridiculous inclusion of Elton Jantjies at inside centre, I can’t see them shaking their tour troubles just yet.
VERDICT: Rebels (-7.5) 9/10
The Rebels are a far more focused side this season and have a real opportunity to start clawing their way up into one of the top six spots over the next few rounds. They’ll be out for the bonus point and I think they’ll deliver against a Lions side still vibrating from last week’s pummelling.
Crusaders vs Cheetahs | Saturday 21 March | AMI Stadium | 08:35
The Cheetahs crawl cautiously into Christchurch, bracing themselves for a run in with a radically rejuvenated Crusaders outfit.
To Win (80mins)
Crusaders (-17.5) 9/10
Cheetahs (+17.5) 9/10
The Crusaders finally joined the party last week, and as is their nature, they did it with a bang. With the calibre of talent in their ranks it was only a matter of time before they found the accelerator, but the trick now will be to build enough momentum to help them navigate their way through their upcoming trip to Africa. The Cheetahs find themselves in the opposite position with a solid start to the season which secured victories over the Sharks and Blues being undone by two consecutive home defeats right before they were to set sail for a taxing trip abroad. Naka Drotske has made four changes to his run on side this week, with Heinrich Brussow, Tian Meyer, Joe Pietersen and Clayton Blommetjies all claiming starts in Christchurch.
VERDICT: Crusaders (-17.5) 9/10
The Crusaders have got the taste of the South African game now and will be on the hunt for a similar result to the 28-point victory they bagged last week. And looking at their lineup it is hard to see them falling short.
Bulls vs Force | Saturday 21 March | Loftus Versfeld | 17:05
The fumbling Force kick off their South African safari with a daunting dose of the Bulls at Loftus.
To Win (80mins)
Bulls (-14.5) 9/10
Force (+14.5) 9/10
The Bulls have not been quite as impressive in the capital as previous seasons, having suffered losses to the Stormers and Hurricanes and only just managing to beat the Sharks, albeit with a bit of help from a local referee. They return from a bye in Round 5 so will be the fresher side for this high altitude tussle, but will be without their fleet footed winger Akona Ndungane and front row bruiser Callie Visagie. The Force have seemingly gone out of their way to prove to us that their opening round victory over the Waratahs was nothing more than a fluke, having lost by twelve points or more in every clash since except for last week’s home rumble against the Rebels where they went down 17-21. They welcome the return of Angus Cottrell, Dane Haylett-Petty and Luke Morahan from injury with the three coming into their 23-man touring squad.
VERDICT: Bulls (-14.5) 9/10
The Bulls still have a long way to go before they reach the heights of previous years, but even in their current form they won’t battle against this lacklustre Force side.
Sharks vs Chiefs | Saturday 21 March | Growthpoint Kings Park | 19:10
The Sharks return to Durban this week needing to overcome a confident Chiefs side on Saturday to salvage their 2015 campaign.
To Win (80mins)
Sharks (+1.5) 8/10
Chiefs (-1.5) 9/10
The Sharks picked up just their second win of the season by taking down the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last week, but they’ll know they are playing a better game than their place on the table implies. Their victory in the Free State last week came at a hefty price, with sensational second-rower Pieter-Steph du Toit ruled out for at least the remainder of the season after suffering an ACL injury. The Chiefs also head into this clash fresh from an away win, having issued the Stormers their first defeat of the season by pulling off a commendable 19-28 Newlands victory last Saturday. Their Round 5 victory proved just as costly as the Sharks’ with Tim Nanai-Williams and possibly Sonny Bill Williams out of contention for the Durban dash.
VERDICT: Sharks 9/10
The Sharks cannot afford another home defeat at this stage of the competition so they’ll be throwing everything they’ve got at the touring Chiefs side.
Waratahs vs Brumbies | Sunday 22 March | Allianz Stadium | 07:05
A colossal clash wraps up the weekend’s action as the defending champions host their table-topping neighbours in Sydney.
To Win (80mins)
Waratahs (-1.5) 9/10
Brumbies (+1.5) 9/10
The Waratahs have been unable to recreate the magic of last season this time around and it’ll take some doing to bring this impressive Brumbies side down in their current form. But the ‘Tahs will be eager to make up for their disastrous display in their only home appearance so far this season that saw them humbled by the Force in the opening round. They have looked good on attack in their last couple of outings but have let silly mistakes prevent them from finishing off. The Brumbies have been in fine form and name an unchanged run on side to the one that gave the Reds a 29-0 battering. To make things even more daunting for the Waratahs this week is news that bulldozer David Pocock is expected to make a return via the bench.
VERDICT: Brumbies 11/10
It is hard to bet against the Brumbies in their current form, they’ve scored more points, and conceded fewer, than any other side so far this season. It’ll be close, but I just don’t think the Waratahs are quite where they need to be just yet so I’m backing the visitors for a narrow win.