After a rather bizarre Round 6 not much has changed on the consolidated table but promising performances from the likes of the Crusaders and Waratahs gives me reason to believe a coup is not all that far off. Poor discipline marred several clashes last week, with a whopping ten yellow and three red cards dished out over the six games, the most disconcerting of those being the four-match ban-bagging red collected by Sharks skipper Bismarck du Plessis for his utterly barbaric behaviour in Durban. But it wasn’t all bad news last weekend, as the Blues managed to get through a round without suffering a defeat for the first time this season. Of course, that has less to do with their form and more to do with the fact that they had a bye. The unstoppable Hurricanes hold pole going into the seventh round of action, with the Brumbies and Stormers setting the pace in their respective conferences, but the season is still young and the wolves below are growing restless, so all that could change over the next few weeks.
Hurricanes vs Rebels | Friday 27 March | Westpac Stadium | 08:35
The unbeaten Hurricanes look to repress a rowdy Rebels side to go six from six in the opening clash of the weekend.
To Win (80mins)
Hurricanes (-13.5) 9/10
Rebels (+13.5) 9/10
The Hurricanes have got off to a cracking start this season, still unbeaten after six rounds and that is with their South African stint already out the way. A bonus point victory at home this week would set them up nicely for their first knock-out stage appearance since 2009. The fact that they opted to rest the likes of Beauden Barrett, Ben Franks and Julian Savea this round gives you an indication of how confident they are going into this clash, but complacency can prove costly in this contest, especially against a Rebels side which has fared far better on the road than at home this season. They will be without Wallaby winger Dom Shipperley for up to six weeks with a hand injury, but they bring plenty of experience with them with skipper Scott Higginbotham making his 100th Super Rugby appearance and centre Mitch Inman claiming his 50th Rebels cap.
VERDICT: Rebels (+13.5) 9/10
The Rebels have only managed to win away from home this season, with the Crusaders being one of their victims, and since the Hurricanes are running out sans several stars this week I can’t help but feel the this one is going to be closer than expected.
Reds vs Lions | Friday 27 March | Suncorp Stadium | 11:00
The risible Reds host a rejuvenated Lions side looking to build momentum after a surprise victory over the Rebels in Melbourne last Friday.
To Win (80mins)
Reds (-6.5) 9/10
Lions (+6.5) 9/10
The Reds have been unable to create anything remotely like the fear-inducing flair that was once a stock-standard trait of their aggressive backline, managing a paltry 39 points from five outings this season. But that could soon change as quarrelsome Quade Cooper is set to start at pivot for the Queenslanders for the first time since May last year. He teams up with old pal Will Genia, recreating the dynamic half-back duo that wreaked havoc on so many occasions over the past few seasons. The Lions bounced back from that traumatic 34-6 thrashing by the Crusaders in Round 5 with a solid win over the Rebels last week to make it two from three so far on their working holiday in the commonwealths. Johan Ackermann has made a few changes to his side this week with Robbie Coetzee claiming the number two jersey, Ross Cronje joining Elton Jantjies in the half-back pairing, Harold Vorster coming in to the midfield, and Andries Coetzee starting at fullback.
VERDICT: Reds (-6.5) 9/10
The Reds will want to get their campaign off the ground with an overwhelming victory at home against this unsettled Lions side, and with Cooper back directing the backline traffic they should pull it off nicely.
Chiefs vs Cheetahs | Saturday 28 March | Waikato Stadium | 05:30
A somewhat chastised Chiefs side will welcome the bonus-point opportunity served up to them this weekend with a home clash against the Cheetahs.
To Win (80mins)
Chiefs (-17.5) 9/10
Cheetahs (+17.5) 9/10
The Chiefs return home from their South African trip that ended on a low with a narrow defeat to the Sharks in a mucky match in Durban. They remain just a few points from pole position despite that loss and will fancy their chances of closing in on the Kiwi-conference leading Hurricanes after this weekend. Sonny Bill Williams, tamer of the White Buffalo, returns to the run on side this week after missing out on the action last round due to a concussion. A few changes to their forward pack sees an all new front row of Pauliasi Manu, Quentin MacDonald and Ben Tameifuna. The Cheetahs will still be a bit wobbly following their 57-14 hammering at the hands of the Crusaders last week and they will be without sidestepping Springbok Willie le Roux and powerhouse Coenie Oosthuizen, both of whom are rested in accordance with their agreement with SARU.
VERDICT: Chiefs (-17.5) 9/10
Without Big Willie on attack and several stars out with injury, the Cheetahs are in for more of the Kiwi hospitality they received last week.
Highlanders vs Stormers | Saturday 28 March | Forsyth Barr Stadium 08:35
A well-rested Stormers side kicks off their terribly taxing tour in Dunedin this Saturday against the hapless Highlanders.
To Win (80mins)
Highlanders (-2.5) 9/10
Stormers (+2.5) 9/10
The Highlanders have been a bit unlucky this season and could quite easily have found themselves topping the table had a few balls bounced differently. They remain in the top six, only just, but they have had a tough set of fixtures to navigate through. Injuries to Shane Christie and John Hardie opens the door for James Lentjes to make his Super Rugby debut for the Highlanders this week, while Ash Dixon replaces Liam Coltman in the front row. The Stormers return from a bye in Round 6 eager to bounce back to winning ways after suffering their first defeat of the season to the Chiefs at Newlands two weeks back. Schalk Burger collects his 100th cap for the franchise as he makes his first start of the season in the back row alongside Siya Kolisi and Nizaam Carr. Nic Groom and Demetri Catrakilis replace Louis Schreuder and Kurt Coleman in the halfback duo and Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth claims a spot on the bench.
VERDICT: Highlanders (-2.5) 9/10
Both sides boast phenomenal defences so I’m not expecting this to be a high scoring encounter. Will go down to the wire but I fancy the Highlanders to collect at home.
Waratahs vs Blues | Saturday 28 March | Allianz Stadium | 10:40
The blundering Blues return from a bye to go toe-to-toe with the reigning champs in Sydney.
To Win (80mins)
Waratahs (-11.5) 9/10
Blues (+11.5) 9/10
The Waratahs finally rocked up to the party last week with a convincing performance against the Brumbies, looking as if they have a desire to defend their crown this year. They outscored the Aussie conference leaders by three tries to one to collect their first home win of the season and they will be looking for more of the same when they run out with an unchanged starting side against notably weaker opposition this Saturday. The Blues had a week off to reflect in Round 6 and they head for Australia this week knowing the make-or-break mark is fast approaching them. They will have a bit firepower in the loose this week as skipper Jerome Kaino returns to the run on side, shifting Steven Luatua to the side of the scrum with Luke Braid dropping to the reserves. In the backline, George Moala is set to start in the midfield with Charles Piutau falling to fullback.
VERDICT: Waratahs (-11.5) 9/10
If the Waratahs are even half as decent as they were against the Brumbies they’ll manage the handicap against the mediocre Blues this week.
Sharks vs Force | Saturday 28 March | Kings Park | 17:05
The Sharks look to cement their spot in the top six by overcoming a fumbling Force side down in Durban.
To Win (80mins)
Sharks (-12.5) 9/10
Force (+12.5) 9/10
The Sharks were lucky to pick up the win against the Chiefs last week after poor conduct cut them down to just thirteen men in the second half, but they’ll take it with open arms following a string of misfortunes with poor refereeing in the previous rounds costing them valuable points. Frans Steyn will start at pivot this week having had his red card from last weekend rescinded, while Kyle Cooper takes over in the front row from suspended skipper Bismarck du Plessis. Jean Deysel returning from injury to captain the side. The Force gave the Bulls a decent run for their money in Pretoria last week, so understandably they name an unchanged starting side this week with the only change taking place on the bench as fullback Dane Haylett-Petty returns from injury.
VERDICT: Sharks (-12.5) 9/10
We are still waiting for the Sharks to hit top gear but with the abundance of talent in their ranks it is only a matter of time. The Force don’t have the firepower to do much more than irritate the bigger sides and the Sharks will want to make a statement this round. I’m thinking a bonus point win for the locals here.
Bulls vs Crusaders | Saturday 28 March | Loftus Versfeld | 19:10
Todd Blackadder’s crew heads for the Highveld this week for a battle against the beleaguered Bulls.
To Win (80mins)
Bulls (+1.5) 9/10
Crusaders (-1.5) 9/10
The Bulls have won their last three games but their performance against the Force last week was far from convincing. They haven’t looked anything like the formidable unit they were a few seasons back for some time now and to make things even worse geriatric Victor Matfield brings his pensioners card with him for Saturday’s game, forcing Grant Hattingh down to the bench. The Crusaders have been electrifying over the past couple of weeks, collecting a whopping twelve tries. They are bolstered by the return of Richie McCaw, replacing Matt Todd at flank, with Dan Carter set to team up with Tom Taylor and Colin Slade providing cover from the bench.
VERDICT: Crusaders 8/10
The Crusaders have finally got the ball rolling and I can’t see anyone slowing it down anytime soon. The Crusaders by at least 5.