2015 is the year of the sheep according to the Chinese zodiac, so it seems quite fitting that the formidable Kiwi contingent is starting to pull away from the pack as we head for the halfway mark of the scheduled season. Four New Zealand sides feature in the coveted top six, with the hurtling Hurricanes setting a blistering pace up front with an impressive 31 points from their seven outings so far. The blundering Blues have done their best to ensure their country is just as strongly represented at the other end of the log, sheepishly securing their seventh straight loss of the season in Round 8. Things have managed to get even more congested amongst the meandering mid-table residents, with a mere five points now separating eight of the top eleven sides, so we won’t have to worry about a drop in intensity over the coming rounds.
Blues vs Brumbies | Friday 10 April | Eden Park | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Blues (+2.5) 9/10
Brumbies (-2.5) 9/10
The Brumbies currently command a comfortable lead in the Aussie conference, but with the Waratahs having come away with a healthy 28-13 victory when the two clashed back in Round 6 it would seem as though the Brumbies will not go unchallenged at the top for very much longer. They looked a far more competitive side against the Cheetahs last week, coming in fresh off a bye in Round 7 to breeze past the tourists to a 20-3 home win, impressing in every facet of the game especially in the set pieces and defence. There is no real need for me to go into the dismal form that the Blues are experiencing at the moment, but there could be a small chance they will use this weekend, which brings with it their first outing at Eden Park for the year, to pull off that maiden win that has eluded them so far. They make four changes to the side that suffered yet another narrow defeat last weekend, that time to the Chiefs. Three of those changes take place up front with James Parsons, Patrick Tuipulotu and Luke Braid coming into the run on side while in the backs Melani Nanai takes over from Tevita Li on the wing.
VERDICT: Brumbies (-2.5) 9/10
This one almost picks itself with the Blues scrounging around the bottom of the consolidated table while the Brumbies lead the Aussie conference; this is going to be a tough match for the Blues to swing things around.
Crusaders vs Highlanders | Saturday 11 April | AMI Stadium | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Crusaders (-8.5) 9/10
Highlanders (+8.5) 9/10
The Crusaders redefined the meaning of bouncing back last week, where they followed up their dreadful 31-19 loss to the Bulls in their tour-opening clash in Pretoria with a phenomenal 52-10 thumping of a misbehaved Sharks outfit in Durban. They are slowly clawing their way up the consolidated table after a characteristically rocky start to the season, but will face a fired up Highlanders side that has delivered some inspiring performances this season and come into this clash well rested after a bye in Round 7. Coach Jamie Joseph has decided to leave his side that took down the Stormers 39-21 two weeks back unchanged for this weekend’s brutal derby.
VERDICT: Highlanders (+8.5) 9/10
The Crusaders have been hit or miss the entire season, while the Highlanders have been consistently competitive throughout. Even if this turns out to be a match that the Crusaders manage one of their better performances, I think the Highlanders will be able to keep things within the handicap.
Waratahs vs Stormers | Saturday 11 April | Allianz Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Waratahs (-8.5) 9/10
Stormers (+8.5) 9/10
The Waratahs have built up a fair bit of momentum with two wins on the trot against the Brumbies and Blues, but having sat out of the action last week it is difficult to call whether that break will be beneficial or detrimental to the defending champions. Michael Cheika has named an unchanged side to the one that bludgeoned the Blues two weeks ago, but Adam Ashley-Cooper will get a run off the bench having finally recovered from the knee injury that has kept him watching from the stands since the second round. The Stormers have been unable to build on their solid start to the season, having last experienced the joys of winning all the way back in Round 4 when they sliced up the Sharks in Cape Town. They continue with their troubled tour this week, having already suffered back-to-back defeats in New Zealand, but will be hoping Australia turns out to be a more hospitable host. Juan de Jongh returns this week to lead the side, while Nizaam Carr joins up with veteran Schalk Burger and Michael Rhodes in a new look loose trio.
VERDICT: Waratahs (-8.5) 9/10
The Stormers have had a tough time on the road this season and coming up against the reigning champions at this point of the competition was never going to be easy. The Waratahs will want to narrow the gap between themselves and the Brumbies so I suspect they will hit the ground running this week.
Force vs Cheetahs | Saturday 11 April | nib Stadium | 13:45
To Win (80mins)
Force (-4.5) 9/10
Cheetahs (+4.5) 9/10
The Force get back into the mix after their bye last week, hopefully having taken the break to tweak a few things in the areas that have let them down in the dying minutes over the past few rounds. They have only managed a single victory so far this season, all the way back in the first round when they caught the Waratahs napping, but despite all the subsequent defeats the Force have hardly been a pushover this season and have managed to pick up valuable bonus points by coming within seven points of victory in their last three outings. They welcome back a bit of class this week with Dane Haylett-Petty taking over at fullback in his first start in almost two months and Chris Alcock is set to make his return from the bench. The Cheetahs are another South African side suffering abroad at the moment with three consecutive losses so far. They will welcome this week’s clash with a more malleable opponent for the final outing before returning back to Bloemfontein to face the Reds in Round 10. Just two changes to the Cheetahs side that went down to the Brumbies last week, with Sarel Pretorius returning at scrumhalf and BG Uys taking over upfront from Danie Mienie.
VERDICT: Force (-4.5) 9/10
The Force know they are better than their win record for the season, so they’ll be looking to take advantage of a travel softened Cheetahs side.
Lions vs Sharks | Saturday 11 April | Emirates Airlines Park | 17:05
To Win (80mins)
Lions (-1.5) 9/10
Sharks (+1.5) 9/10
The Lions brought their strong form on tour back home with them to deliver a passionate performance in front of a fired-up Ellis Park to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat in the dying minutes against a steadfast Bulls side, their third consecutive win this season. They make four changes to their side this week, with Jaco Kriel and Julian Redelinghuys coming into the forwards and Faf de Klerk and Mark Richards starting in the backline. The Sharks are quickly developing a bad reputation with Jean Deysel adding himself to the naughty corner to join fellow red-card-recipients Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn, all now out of contention for the next few rounds. Sweeping changes to the side that caught a sounder from the Crusaders last week, Fred Zeilinga starts at ten in the injured Lambie’s absence, Marco Wentzel takes over the captaincy, Odwa Ndungane starts at the back and Renaldo Bothma replaces Jean Deysel to name just a few of the changes.
VERDICT: Lions (-1.5) 9/10
It would be unwise to bet against the Lions having witnessed just how unstoppable they are when they get fired up. The Sharks have been disappointing throughout the season; I can’t see them being any better having lost several of their big guns through suspension and rest.
Bulls vs Reds | Saturday 11 April | Loftus Versfeld | 19:10
To Win (80mins)
Bulls (-16.5) 9/10
Reds (+16.5) 9/10
The Bulls seemed to be building some decent momentum, even managing to get the better of the Crusaders at Loftus just as they seemed to be hitting third gear. But they were not prepared for the ferocious form of the ever-improving Lions side last week, ultimately going down 22-18 in the brutal Highveld encounter. They have made just two changes for the Reds game this week, with fit-again flank Arno Botha coming into the run on side and Callie Visagie taking over the number two jersey from the rested Adriaan Strauss. The Reds continued with their woeful ways last week, going down 15-23 to the Rebels in what was their sixth defeat of the season so far. They make six changes to their side this week, with a few big names now out of the mix leaving little hope of salvaging this disaster of a season. Big man Rob Simmons makes his first appearance for the season replacing the suspended James Horwill, Quade Cooper is ruled out with injury and is replaced at pivot by Nick Frisby and James O’Connor is out with a calf strain so Lachie Turner picks up a start on the wing.
VERDICT: Reds (+16.5) 9/10
The Reds are going to have a tough afternoon in the capital this week as the Bulls look to bounce back from their devastating loss to Highveld rivals the Lions, but the Reds are still a better side than their record shows so I’m going to back them to give the Bulls a bit of a hard time and keep it within the generous handicap.