Round 15 uncharacteristically went according to script with the only real surprise being the Sharks’ victory over the Reds. The biggest losers of the round were probably the Bulls whose decision to kick for touch with five minutes remaining cost them a valuable bonus point. Some dangerous tackling went unnoticed by the officials in the Waratahs vs Crusaders game, where Peter Skelton and Co’s best efforts to imitate American football players lead to the ever diplomatic Richie McCaw informing the ref that his team were going to take matters into their own hands if something wasn’t done about it. In the Reds/Sharks game James O’Connor tried to do his bit for Australian/South African relations with his gift of a clearance falling straight into the hands of Stefan Ungerer, who went over for the winning try. Onto this weekend and there are some massive clashes sure to have a huge bearing on the playoffs. There is also the matter of the race to avoid the wooden spoon with the fourteenth-placed Reds taking on the fifteenth-placed Force on Saturday morning. It should be an entertaining and - in some quarters - season-defining weekend.
Crusaders vs Hurricanes | Friday 29 May | Trafalgar Park | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Crusaders (+2.5) 9/10
Hurricanes (-2.5) 9/10
The weekend’s action kicks off at Trafalgar Park with the Crusaders taking on the Hurricanes in the first of two New Zealand derbies. The Crusaders are coming off a loss to the Waratahs which has put them out of the running for a playoff spot. Their opponents for this weekend hammered the Blues 29-5 and can secure top spot on both logs with just two points from this one. The previous encounter between these two saw the ‘Canes win 29-23 in Wellington. In terms of team news the Crusaders have been forced to make seven changes to their starting lineup due to injury; prop Alex Hogman, lock Jimmy Tupou and loosies Matt Todd and Jimmy Tafua all come into the pack. In the backline, Robbie Fruean and David Havili come into the centres with Dan Carter shifting to ten and Tom Taylor starting at fifteen. The Hurricanes are yet to announce their side however Conrad Smith should return to partner Ma’a Nonu in the midfield.
VERDICT: Hurricanes (-2.5) 9/10
Although it’s the final ‘home’ game for the Crusaders this season and they will want to put on a display for their fans I can’t see them beating the all-conquering ‘Canes. 9/10 for a Hurricanes win by three points or more offers great value.
Brumbies vs Bulls | Friday 29 May | GIO Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Brumbies (-7.5) 9/10
Bulls (+7.5) 9/10
The Bulls’ season is starting to fall apart; a poor tour has seen them fall to third spot on the South African conference as well as slip out of the playoff places. Their already mammoth task of sneaking through the back door doesn’t get any easier this weekend as they take on the Aussie conference leaders. The Bulls have also had to contend with injuries to key players with Jan Serfontein being ruled out for the rest of their tour with a Grade 1 medial ligament injury. He will be replaced by Burger Odendaal in the starting fifteen. In the pack, Grant Hattingh returns while there is a re-haul to the front row with Adriaan Strauss returning accompanied by Dean Greyling. The Brumbies are coming off the back of a bye and will play their first game at home since their semi-successful tour culminated. Stephen Larkham has Samoan powerhouse Scott Sio back from injury to stabilise his scrum whilst Robbie Coleman returns in the number twelve role.
VERDICT: Brumbies 7/20
This is make or break time for both teams and with so much on the line we are probably in for a tight game. I think home ground advantage will see the Brumbies edge this one.
Sharks vs Rebels | Friday 29 May | Kings Park | 19:10
To Win (80mins)
Sharks (-8.5) 9/10
Rebels (+8.5) 9/10
Round 15 saw the Sharks end their tour of Australasia on a high note with a victory over the Reds while the Rebels saw their slim chance of making the playoffs disappear at Newlands. The Durban franchise has opted to bring veteran number eight Ryan Kankowski into the starting fifteen with Renaldo Bothma shifting to the flank. The loose trio will be completed by either Willem Alberts or Etienne Oosthuizen. Young springbok flanker Marcell Coetzee finds himself out of the match day squad completely along with Frans Steyn, who is replaced by Andre Esterhuizen. The Rebels have opted to go with the experienced campaigners for this one with Luke Burgess, Toby Smith, Laurie Weeks and Sefa Naivalu coming into the starting fifteen.
VERDICT: Rebels (+8.5) 9/10
I think the Sharks will feel they owe their fan base a win and will put their all into this game, however the Natalians have struggled to score tries this season and I can see the Rebels staying within the 8.5 losing margin.
Highlanders vs Chiefs | Saturday 30 May | Rugby Park Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Highlanders (-1.5) 9/10
Chiefs (+1.5) 9/10
Fourth and fifth go head-to-head in this one with the victors almost assured of a spot in the playoffs. The Highlanders return to Otago after an impressive tour which culminated in a 23-3 win over the Western Force last weekend. The Chiefs also had a good weekend last time out with a 34-20 bonus point win over the Bulls. The last time these two franchises locked horns was in Round 4 where the Highlanders managed to pull off a shock win in Waikato. Both teams have made changes for this one with the Chiefs bringing prop Pauliasi, lock Michael Fitzgerald and number eight Maama Vaipulu into their starting pack while in the backline, brothers Marty and Damian McKenzie come in at ten and fifteen respectively. The Highlanders have brought in flank Gareth Evans, lock Mark Reddish and centre Richard Buckman.
VERDICT: Chiefs 11/10
This promises to be an exciting encounter with both teams committed to playing attacking rugby regardless of the situation. I can see this one ending in a rather high points total with the Chiefs coming out on top.
Force vs Reds | Saturday 30 May | NIB Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Force (-3.5) 9/10
Reds (+3.5) 9/10
The Aussie dungeon dwellers will do battle this weekend in the race to avoid the wooden spoon. The Reds sit two points above the Force who currently occupy the foot of the combined table. Both teams are coming off losses with the Reds going down 21-14 against the Sharks and the Force getting hammered by the Highlanders. Last time they met was in Round 2 where the Reds emerged 18-6 winners. The Reds will have talisman Quade Cooper back for the first time in two months but will be without exciting young centre Chris Kuridrani, who misses out due to a calf strain. The Force coaching staff are yet to name their starting fifteen but you can expect to see a few changes from the side that went down to the Highlanders last weekend.
VERDICT: Force (-3.5) 9/10
The Reds’ away form has been atrocious and I can’t see that changing against the Force this weekend.
Stormers vs Cheetahs | Saturday 30 May | DHL Newlands | 17:05
To Win (80mins)
Stormers (-14.5) 9/10
Cheetahs (+14.5) 9/10
The Stormers will be looking for revenge as they come up against the Cheetahs for the second time this year; the men from the Cape lost 25-17 against their Free State counterparts in Round 12. The Stormers occupy top spot on the South African conference and will want to ensure they remain there. The men in blue and white are coming off the back of a decent win against the Rebels however some poor finishing in the second half of last weekend’s encounter cost them what may prove to be a vital four-try bonus point. The Cheetahs coaching duo of Naka Drotske and Os Du Randt will oversee their final game this weekend and have decided to tweak their starting fifteen with Sharks-bound Joe Pietersen returning at ten and Tienie Burger coming in on the flank. The other change to the Bloemfontein based franchise sees Sergeal Petersen come in for Springbok Cornal Hendricks on the wing. The Stormers will rest in-form veteran flanker Schalk Burger for this one. While Jaco Taute has been training with the squad it’s not clear if he will play for the Western Province Vodacom Cup side or return to the Stormers match day 23.
VERDICT: Cheetahs (+14.5) 9/10
The Cheetahs will want to finish the Drotske and Du Randt era on a high and although I can’t see them winning at Newlands I think they will give the Stormers a run for their money.
Lions vs Waratahs | Saturday 30 May | Ellis Park | 19:10
To Win (80mins)
Lions (+2.5) 9/10
Waratahs (-2.5) 9/10
The Lions are coming off the back of a 40-17 victory over the Cheetahs which saw them move up to second place on the South African conference log. Both teams could be under heaps of pressure on Saturday evening with their top six rivals all playing earlier in the weekend. The ‘Tahs will be without hooker Tolu Latu and man mountain Will Skelton who both received suspensions for their tackle on one of the Crusaders players in last week’s encounter. Johan Ackermann has once again left things late in terms on announcing his squad but I suspect he’ll want to keep the continuity going and start a similar side to the one that outplayed the Cheetahs last time out.
VERDICT: Lions 13/10
Simply put the Lions need to win this one to stand any chance of making the playoffs. With the support of their home crowd behind them I can see them putting one over the ‘Tahs.