A few remarkable results in Round 7 have caused a bit of a traffic jam in the middle of the table as just four points separate seven of the top nine sides as we head into the Easter weekend’s entertainment. The log-leading Hurricanes continued on their path of destruction with a convincing home win over the Rebels to record their sixth straight success of the season, while the antithetical form of fellow countrymen the Blues held just as true when the hapless Aucklanders succumbed to the Waratahs in Sydney to further cement their spot at the bottom of the standings. The Brumbies remain at the top of the Aussie conference despite sitting out on the action last week, while the Sharks currently command an insignificant lead on the South African log with a rejuvenated Bulls side quickly closing in following their thundering 31-19 win over the Crusaders in Pretoria last Saturday.
Hurricanes vs Stormers | Friday 03 March |Westpac Stadium | 08:35
To Win (80mins)
Hurricanes (-8.5) 9/10
Stormers (+8.5) 9/10
The Hurricanes recorded a hearty 36-12 bonus-point victory over the Rebels in Wellington last Friday to pull a little further away from their competitors on the consolidated table. They’ve certainly been one of the more balanced units this season, delivering equally rousing displays on attack and defence, securing a phenomenal +85 points difference after just six showings this season. They are expected to bring back a few of their rested All Blacks for this week’s clash, but they will be without Dane Coles for at least a few more weeks. The Stormers got off to a cracking start this season with four consecutive wins in South Africa, but quickly came unstuck after their voyage across the Indian Ocean, having suffered consecutive losses to the Chiefs and Highlanders over the past two weeks. They will be noticeably more meddlesome around the breakdowns this week as skipper Duane Vermeulen returns to the loose trio, but they’ll have to show strong improvements in every facet of their game to get their campaign back on track this Friday.
VERDICT: Stormers (+8.5) 9/10
The Hurricanes can’t win for ever, but they won’t be going down at home to a dishevelled Stormers side this weekend either. But I’m expecting a stronger showing from the tourists this time around, so I think this one will be within seven points.
Rebels vs Reds | Friday 03 March | AAMI Park | 10:40
To Win (80mins)
Rebels (-2.5) 9/10
Reds (+2.5) 9/10
The Rebels have managed just two wins this season, but things could have been looking a far sight brighter if they hadn’t dropped down a gear in the final forty of their last two outings against the Lions and Hurricanes, both of which they were leading at the interval. The Rebels suffered a huge injury blow with the loss of bulldozing prop Laurie Weeks so their chances of collecting their first home win of the season this Friday just got slimmer. The Reds have been a bit of a car crash this year, with last week’s 17-18 loss to the Lions being their fifth of the season. But they should start improving round by round now, with several big names having returned to action last week and Liam Gill and Karmichael Hunt available this week. They won’t get a much better shot than a clash against the Rebels to turn things around.
VERDICT: Reds 27/20
If the Reds don’t pull off a win in this clash they may as well apply for early retirement this season to save themselves the hassle of rocking up every week.
Chiefs vs Blues | Saturday 04 March | Waikato Stadium | 08:35
To Win (80mins)
Chiefs (-10.5) 9/10
Blues (+10.5) 9/10
The Chiefs bounced back from that inexplicable loss against a 13-man Sharks side in Durban two weeks back with a high scoring victory over the Cheetahs in Hamilton. The availability of Brodie Retallick and Tim Nanai-Williams is yet to be confirmed, but Hika Elliot is eligible again having served his suspension. The Blues have little hope of salvaging this disastrous campaign after last week’s defeat to the Waratahs has left them on just four points, a third of the way through the season. I’m sure they’ll be eager to put an end to this devastating run of defeats nonetheless. But if history is anything to go on they’ll probably have to wait a bit longer to do so, as the beleaguered Blues have come up considerably short in their last eight clashes with the Chiefs.
VERDICT: Chiefs (-10.5) 9/10
The Blues are too far gone to care and the Chiefs will be looking for maximum points to keep the howling Hurricanes from blowing too far ahead of the pack. The locals should clear the handicap nicely.
Brumbies vs Cheetahs | Saturday 04 March | GIO Stadium | 10:40
To Win (80mins)
Brumbies (-14.5) 9/10
Cheetahs (+14.5) 9/10
The Brumbies have been the pick of the Aussies this season and come in fresh this week from a bye in Round 6. They are awaiting news on the fitness of Nick Phipps and second rower Rory Amold after the two were taken out of action against the Waratahs two weeks back. They will, however, definitely be without bruising centre Tevita Kuridrani for most of the season. The Cheetahs started off well with a couple of wins off the bat this season, but they’ve hit a serious slump since and have now lost four on the trot. With three clashes left on their overseas stint things are going to get worse before they get better. They’ve made sweeping changes to their side this week, but the most important of those is the return of sensational Springbok Willie le Roux at the back and hard-hitting front row forward Coenie Oosthuizen up front. It will be hard for them to not be far more competitive this week with all their returning stars, but the Brumbies are not a side to be shown up at home.
VERDICT: Cheetahs (+14.5) 9/10
The Brumbies have never suffered a defeat to the Cheetahs in Canberra, there is no reason for them to start now. But with all the added power in the run on side this week I think the Cheetahs will have enough to finish inside the handicap.
Sharks vs Crusaders | Saturday 04 March | Kings Park | 15:00
To Win (80mins)
Sharks (-1.5) 9/10
Crusaders (+1.5) 9/10
The Sharks lead a mediocre South African contingent but their lack of discipline in recent times could see that position usurped in the coming days. They will be without two of their big names in Bismarck du Plessis and Francois Steyn for the next month, both of them having picked up lengthy suspensions after earning red cards against the Chiefs two weeks back. They are on a three-match winning streak but they have hardly been rousing victories. The Crusaders got their South African tour off to a dismal start with a crash and burn 19-31 loss to the Bulls in Pretoria. They have only pulled off three victories so far this season, but two of those were absolutely brutal, the 34-6 win over the Lions and the 57-14 battering of the Cheetahs. They will be without the injury-prone Dan Carter this week as the All Black pivot awaits the arrival of his new child, but the more than capable Colin Slade will slot in smoothly.
VERDICT: Sharks (-1.5) 9/10
It is always hard to bet against the Crusaders, especially when they’ve shown glimmers of their old destructive selves just a few weeks back, but their loss up in the Highveld last week will be a tough one to bounce back from. The Sharks desperately need to convince both themselves and their fans that they have what it takes to claim a top six spot this year.
Lions vs Bulls | Saturday 04 March | Emirates Airlines Park | 17:05
To Win (80mins)
Lions (+2.5) 9/10
Bulls (-2.5) 9/10
The Lions return home from their phenomenal overseas tour that netted three victories from their four fixtures. Despite their heroic performances over the past few round they find themselves rolling around in tenth on the consolidated table thanks to their ridiculously rusty start to the season that had them waiting until the fourth round before they managed to claim a win. The Lions have made three changes for their welcome home clash. Anthony Volmink starts on the wing and Jacques van Rooyen and Andries Ferreira come into the tight five. The Bulls were another South African side that battled to get out of the starting blocks this season, kicking off their campaign with back-to-back home defeats, but they’ve managed to stage a tremendous turnaround, winning everything they’ve come into contact with since including a resounding victory over the formidable Crusaders last week. The Bulls will be without aging Springbok Victor Matfield and sidestepping centre Jan Serfontein, both taking a mandatory week off as required by SARU.
VERDICT: Lions 27/20
This will be one of the tightest tussles of the weekend, but I’m going to back the tenacious Lions to pull off a crucial win at home against their Highveld rivals.