After last weekend’s disappointing results things aren’t looking as rosy as they were for the South African franchises, particularly the Lions, who may need a minor miracle to see themselves through to the playoffs. There are a lot of teams scrapping for those aforementioned playoff places and any slip-up now could prove costly to those in positions four to ten. The round will kick off with the Chiefs hosting the Bulls in Rotorua on Friday and will conclude with the Stormers taking on the Rebels at Newlands on Saturday evening. The previous round was fraught with poor refereeing decisions; let’s hope the officiating standards improve this weekend. With the round robin phase fast approaching its close and so much on the line it would be disappointing to see a refereeing decision ruin someone’s chances of making the playoffs.
Chiefs vs Bulls | Friday 22 May | Rotorua International Stadium | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Chiefs (-5.5) 9/10
Bulls (+5.5) 9/10
The Chiefs will rightly have felt hard done by after a shocker of a TMO decision cost them a vital win over the Hurricanes in Wellington last weekend. The result leaves them twelve points adrift of the table-topping ‘Canes on both the combined and overall logs. With that being said it looks like the Chiefs are going to have to go through the playoffs in order to make one of the semi-finals. The Bulls, on the other hand, are top of the pops in the SA conference despite their loss to the Blues last weekend; they will be looking to put the pressure on the Stormers who come up against the Melbourne Rebels the following day. In terms of team news, Chiefs lock Michael Allardyce has been ruled out for the rest of the tournament while Sonny Bill Williams is yet recover from a back injury. The Bulls will hand hooker Callie Visagie his first appearance of the season. He comes in for Adriaan Strauss who has started every match this season. The Springbok hooker will miss this one due to the rest agreement between SARU and the provincial unions. Frans Ludeke has once again decided to shuffle his loose trio with Jacques du Plessis and Deon Stegmann returning to the starting line-up.
VERDICT: Chiefs (-5.5) 9/10
Despite losing Sonny Bill Williams the Chiefs still have enough firepower in their backline to run the Bulls ragged.
Reds vs Sharks | Friday 22 May | Suncorp Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Reds (-1.5) 1/1
Sharks (+1.5) 15/20
The Reds routed the Rebels last time out and it goes to show what wonders starting a natural flyhalf in the number ten berth can actually do. Their opposition for this weekend’s encounter have seemingly found a new referee to take over Steve Walsh’s position of enemy number one after Rohan Hoffman blew the men from the East Coast off the field last time out. Marco Wetzel’s men put on a decent showing against the ‘Tahs despite being handicapped by the ref. The Sharks have made only a single change to their starting fifteen with Tendai Mtawarira returning to complete an all-Springbok front row. The Reds have also opted to make just a single change with Chris Kuridrani coming in for Lachie Turner.
VERDICT: Reds (-1.5) 1/1
This one’s going to be tight but after last weekend’s results I think the Reds will go into this one with a much more positive frame of mind than their opponents; I can see a couple of Sharks disciplinary issues costing them the points.
Blues vs Hurricanes | Saturday 23 May | Eden Park | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Blues (+7.5) 9/10
Hurricanes (-7.5) 9/10
The Blues managed to add another win with victory over the South African conference leaders last weekend. The win came at a cost though with both Steven Luatua and Patrick Tuipulotu picking up injuries that have ruled them out for the rest of the campaign. The Aucklanders will also have to make do with a Tony Woodcock-less front row as a shoulder injury will see the veteran campaigner sit this one out. Onto the Hurricanes and despite riding their luck against the Chiefs last weekend they managed to scrape a win over their provincial rivals. The Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith combination will be broken this weekend as Smith is being rested due to national commitments. Rey Lee-Lo will come in to partner Ma’a Nonu. In other team news, prop Reggie Goodes will miss this week’s game due to the ban he received for his no-armed entry into a ruck last weekend. The ban is only for one week though so he will return to the squad after this clash is over.
VERDICT: Hurricanes (-7.5) 9/10
Despite the Blues picking up a few victories in recent weeks I feel the ‘Canes will have too much attacking verve for the Auckland franchise to contain. The Wellington outfit should surpass the handicap.
Waratahs vs Crusaders | Saturday 23 May | ANZ Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Waratahs (-2.5) 9/10
Crusaders (+2.5) 9/10
The ‘Tahs will have a new favourite official after Rohan Hoffman played the role of sixteenth man for the New South Wales franchise last weekend. Their opponents are coming off a bye and should be full of vim and vigour going into this one. Both teams are playing every game like it’s a cup final in order to make the playoff places so this one should be a great spectacle to watch. The team news coming out of the ‘Saders camp is that Israel Dagg will return to the squad after sitting out the previous six weeks with a calf injury. Todd Blackadder has also made a few tweaks to his starting line-up with Richie McCaw returning to the flank and scrumhalf Andy Ellis dropping to the bench to make room for youngster Mitchell Drummond. Prop Owen Franks returns to anchor the scrum. The ‘Tahs are yet to announce their side but I don’t suspect we'll see too many changes from the one that took on the Sharks last weekend.
VERDICT: Crusaders 13/10
I’m backing the Crusaders to upset the apple cart and go on to win this one despite being the underdog. Odds of 13/10 offers great value.
Force vs Highlanders | Saturday 23 May | NIB Stadium | 13:40
To Win (80mins)
Force (+4.5) 9/10
Highlanders (-4.5) 9/10
The Western Force were one of the three teams that enjoyed a bye last weekend so they should be fresh for this encounter. The Highlanders, on the other hand, are coming off a testing tour of South Africa. They managed to end their tour on a high by pulling off a seven-try romp over the Cheetahs last weekend in Bloemfontein. The Otago outfit will be looking for a full points haul from this encounter in order to strengthen their challenge for a playoff place. The Force will have both Dane Haylett-Petty and skipper Sam Wykes back in the squad, with Haylett-Petty returning to the starting fifteen while Wykes will be eased in from the bench. The Highlanders are yet to name their squad at the time of writing although fullback Ben Smith will almost certainly earn his 100th cap for the Otago based franchise.
VERDICT: Highlanders 5/10
The men from Otago put on a running rugby clinic last time out against the Cheetahs and I think they may have something similar in store for the Western Force.
Cheetahs vs Lions | Saturday 23 May | Free State Stadium | 17:05
To Win (80mins)
Cheetahs (+2.5) 9/10
Lions (-2.5) 9/10
The Cheetahs are coming off the back of a heavy loss to Highlanders but will be buoyed by the performance they put in during the last twenty minutes of that encounter. Similarly, the Lions also managed to up the ante in the last twenty minutes against the Brumbies. This is the second encounter between the two sides; the first matchup saw the Lions edge it at home. The Cheetahs have Springbok Cornel Hendricks back in the side on the right wing while the exciting Raymond Rhule returns on the opposite touchline. The Lions have made a few changes to their starting fifteen particularly in the forward pack where Jacques Van Rooyen and Ruan Dreyer come into the front row and Andreis Ferrera comes into the second row. In the backline, Howard Mnisi comes in to partner Lionel Mapoe .
VERDICT: Lions (-2.5) 9/10
Despite going down to the Brumbies last week the Lions will have taken some positives from the encounter, especially the high intensity running game they managed to display in the last twenty minutes. With this in mind I fancy them to emerge the victor when all’s said and done on Saturday.
Stormers vs Rebels | Saturday 23 May | DHL Newlands | 17:05
To Win (80mins)
Stormers (-10.5) 9/10
Rebels (+10.5) 9/10
Last week’s bye came at exactly the right time for the Western Cape based franchise. The week off has allowed Duane Vermeulen to recover from a lame shoulder he picked up against the Brumbies. The Stormers will also have Springbok Jaco Taute back in the squad for the first time this season. Their opponents for the weekend were caught unaware by a resurgent Reds team last time out and suffered a heavy loss which has left their playoff hopes hanging by a thread. The Rebels have made some adjustments to their side with Cam Crawford and Tom English both coming in on the wings while loosehead prop Cruze Ah-Nau gets his first start of the season.
VERDICT: Rebels (+10.5) 9/10
There’s not much between these sides in terms of quality and I think home ground advantage may be the deciding factor. The Stormers should take the spoils in this one but the Melbourne outfit have enough quality to keep it within the handicap margin.