Round 13 certainly proved to be unlucky for some, particularly the old guard of Australian rugby as the Waratahs, Reds and Brumbies went down in contrasting yet spectacular fashion. The Reds were run ragged by the Crusaders; the Brumbies contrived to hand the game to the Stormers on a plate. The Waratahs either went on a binge the night before their encounter with the Force or felt a spot of compassion for their Australian brethren, who had only a single win to their name before this victory. Elsewhere, the Rebels and Lions moved into playoff contention with wins against the Blues and Highlanders respectively, and the Sharks finally learnt it’s a better option to keep the ball in hand rather than kicking it down the throat of the opposition back three. They were rewarded with a respectable loss to the Hurricanes.
On to Round 14 and there are some classics in the making here, with both the Lions vs Brumbies and Hurricanes vs Chiefs match-ups sure to produce some attractive running rugby. For those more forward orientated, the pack battle between the Waratahs and Sharks is going to be one for the ages. Round 14 has all the makings to supersede the excitement its predecessor produced, though sadly a Sam Whitelock try from fifty metres out will not occur two weekends in a row as the Crusaders have a bye, as do the Stormers and Force.
Blues vs Bulls | Friday 15 May | Eden Park | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Blues (+1.5) 9/10
Bulls (-1.5) 9/10
The Bulls kick their Australasian tour off this weekend against the Blues in Auckland with the Pretoria based franchise looking to take full advantage of the Stormers’ bye. Any points from this one would see Pierre Spies’ side leap frog their conference rivals into first spot on the South African log, however the Blues have often proved a tough nut to crack at Eden Park. The home side may be coming off the back of a loss to the Rebels but the 42-22 score line was a bit flattering towards the men from Melbourne. Blues coach John Kirwan has made four changes to his side for this weekend’s encounter with James Parsons and Charlie Faumuina coming into the front row whilst Jamison Gibson-Parks comes in for Jimmy Cowan and Ben Lahm starts at fifteen. The Bulls will have Rudy Paige and skipper Pierre Spies back in the starting fifteen. Spies’ inclusion means a shuffle to the loose trio which sees Arno Botha move to the flank.
VERDICT: Bulls 8/10
Although the Blues are at home the exclusion of Jimmy Cowan and Keven Mealamu from the starting fifteen means it’s a very young side that will take to the field on Friday. I can see the Bulls taking full advantage of their opposition’s lack of experience.
Reds vs Rebels | Friday 15 May | Suncorp Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Reds (+2.5) 9/10
Rebels (-2.5) 9/10
After the Reds’ performance last weekend a new phrase has emerged in Queensland. “It takes a brave man to tackle Sam Whitelock, it takes a braver one to face the ridicule they’ll undoubtedly receive for being part of a team that let Sam run in unabated from the halfway line.” The Rebels are coming off a completely contrasting result and will be looking to make it back-to-back five point hauls and strengthen their challenge for a playoff place. On to the team news and the Reds have made the bold decision to play an actual fly-half at ten, with rookie Jake McIntyre making his Super Rugby debut. Karmichael Hunt features for the first time in the centre this season and is part of a backline shuffle which also sees James O’Connor moving to fifteen, Samu Kerevi moving to inside centre and Lachie Turner moving onto the wing. The Rebels have an almost full strength squad to pick from with only John Placid unavailable for selection due to Australian U20 commitments.
VERDICT: Rebels 9/10 (-2.5)
I have a sneaky suspicion that Australian U20 Jake McIntyre will have an absolute blinder, although I don’t think it will be enough to stop the in-form Rebels.
Hurricanes vs Chiefs | Saturday 16 May | Westpac Stadium | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Hurricanes (-2.5) 9/10
Chiefs (+2.5) 9/10
Forget match of the weekend; this clash is probably the game of the tournament so far. There’s a lot on the line as first and second on the New Zealand conference go head-to-head. The Chiefs would have been watching the Hurricanes’ game against the Sharks from the comfort of their couches with a lot of interest. The ‘Canes were facing a shortage of fit fly-halves with James Marshall injuring his knee in the 32-24 win, however he is fit to start and will have TJ Perenara back to provide him service from the base whilst Julian Savea returns on the wing. The Chiefs will give lock Michael Allardice his first start of the season and bring Hosea Gear on to the right wing.
VERDICT: Hurricanes 7/10
Fittingly it’s Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith’s fiftieth game as a centre pairing and I think these two will lead the Hurricanes to a narrow victory.
Waratahs vs Sharks | Saturday 16 May | Allianz Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Waratahs (-7.5) 9/10
Sharks (+7.5) 9/10
The ‘Tahs have produced some fluctuating form in recent weeks. They’ve gone from an away win over the Brumbies a fortnight ago to a loss against the Force last weekend. Their opponents for this weekend, the Sharks, have produced little in terms of consistency this season although last weekend’s display against the Hurricanes would have given the Natalians a little boost. The team news coming out of the Sharks camp is that the side will remain unchanged whilst the Waratahs are sweating over the availability of turnover king and skipper Michael Hooper, who is a doubt with a knee injury.
VERDICT: Sharks 28/10
The Sharks will be looking to end their campaign with a few more wins to their name and with Frans Steyn more secure in the middle of the park, I think they may put one over their Australian rivals.
Lions vs Brumbies | Saturday 9 May | Ellis Park | 17:05
To Win (80mins)
Lions (+1.5) 9/10
Brumbies (-1.5) 9/10
A fantastic second-half display from the Lions saw them come from behind to beat the Highlanders 28-23. I’m not sure what Johan Ackerman infused those half time oranges with but the World Anti-Doping Agency may want to do some testing. The Brumbies would have been auditioning new place-kickers after Christian Lealiifano missed a late conversion which would have seen them to victory over the Stormers last weekend. On to the team news and the Brumbies have brought in Allan Alaalatoa to sure up the scrum whilst Matt Toomua comes into the centre pairing. The Lions are once again leaving their team announcement late but I’m pretty sure Elton Jantjies will return to the starting fifteen after his second-half performance against the Highlanders.
VERDICT: Lions 11/10
If Elton Jantjies can get that backline going like he did in the second half of last week’s game, the Lions could be in for another win over one of the tournament’s big names.
Cheetahs vs Highlanders | Saturday 16 May | Free State Stadium | 19:10
To Win (80mins)
Cheetahs (+3.5) 9/10
Highlanders (-3.5) 9/10
The Cheetahs should be rejuvenated from their week’s break whilst the Highlanders will be both physically and mentally fatigued after they let a commanding halftime lead slip against the Lions. The Highlanders will be desperate to win this one and remain in playoff contention whilst the Cheetahs could move off the bottom of the South African conference if they win this one and the Waratahs beat the Sharks. The Highlanders are set to hand lock Alex Ainley and wing Ryan Tongia debuts whilst the Cheetahs have made wholesale changes to their side with six of last weekend’s reserves coming into the starting line-up.
VERDICT: Cheetahs 15/10
The Cheetahs have mixed things up for this clash and although they are still without the services of key men Willie Le Roux and Coenie Oosthuizen, I think they will have enough quality to beat the Highlanders.