The round robin fixtures came to a thrilling conclusion last weekend with some massive upsets occurring in both Australasia and in the Republic. The biggest surprise of the past weekend was probably the Cheetahs putting one over the Bulls at Loftus, while both the Brumbies and Chiefs saw their favourite tags count for little as they went down to the Crusaders and the Hurricanes respectively. On to this weekend and we get our first taste of knockout rugby on Saturday morning with the derby between the Highlanders and Chiefs. There is a host of U20 World Cup action to keep viewers entertained before the second playoff between the Stormers and the Brumbies. Make sure the bottle store run is done good and early and assign the braai duties to a mate. You’re not going to want to miss a minute of the action.
Highlanders vs Chiefs | Saturday 20 June | Forsyth Barr Stadium | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Highlanders (-4.5) 9/10
Chiefs (+4.5) 9/10
The men from Dunedin began their 2015 campaign with an underdog tag attached to their name; nineteen weeks later and they are favourites to go through to the semi-finals. The Highlanders coaching team need to be given a lot of credit for achieving this feat. Unlike most New Zealand franchise coaches, Jamie Josephs hasn’t had a plethora of New Zealand internationals to call upon. Despite this he has found the right mix of experience and youth, with young ten Lima Sopoaga and Nasi Manu testaments to their internal promotion policy. In terms of their overall season the Highlanders have played an exciting brand of rugby and deservedly finished with the second highest points tally in the competition. This weekend sees them take on the Chiefs in what will be the third meeting between these two sides this season. There are returns to the starting lineup for co-skipper Nasi Manu and Mark Reddish who will bolster the pack along with Brendon Edmonds who returns to the front row. All Black Malakai Fekitoa returns from a three-week injury stint to partner Richard Buckman in the centres. Fullback Ben Smith has the ability to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and may be the key factor if the Highlanders are to advance to the semis.
Waikato’s finest have struggled since they lost All Black Fly half Aaron Cruden to injury mid way through the season. They have also been with out the services of talismanic centre Sonny-Bill Williams who only returned to the starting fifteen last week. With Williams back on the field the Highlanders centres will have their hands full. Hika Elliot who will earn his 100th super rugby cap this weekend returns to the pack as doe’s young All Black flanker Sam Cane. Whilst Tim Nanai Williams will partner cousin Sonny-Bill in the centres. The Key man for the Chiefs will be Liam Messam who skippers the side from the eigthman berth. The Chiefs will be playing in their fourth playoff in a row having been involved in this round of the competition since 2011.
VERDICT: Highlanders (-4.5) 9/10
Despite the Chiefs having some of New Zealand’s biggest names in their starting fifteen they are woefully out of form. I am backing the Highlanders to make it three from three against their local rivals in 2015.
Stormers vs Brumbies | Saturday 20 June | DHL Newlands | 17:05
To Win (80mins)
Stormers (-4.5) 9/10
Brumbies (+4.5) 9/10
South Africa’s sole representatives in the playoff rounds have an arduous task of making it to the final showpiece in Wellington. Their first challenge to conquer will be the unpredictable Brumbies who they will host in Cape Town. Allister Coetzee opted to rest the majority of his big names last weekend against the Sharks in order to keep his side fresh for this weekend’s encounter. With the Cape based franchise’s starting fifteen effectively enjoying a bye this past weekend and their opponents having to travel to Cape Town off the back of an energy sapping loss to the Crusaders, Coetzee’s charges should be able to go the distance in this one whilst their opponents may start to feel some weary legs in the final quarter of the game. The team news coming out of the Stormers camp is that eighthman Duane Vermeulen will miss the match but influential ten Demetri Catrakilis will be fit for the encounter.
The Brumbies will venture to South Africa’s Western Cape for the second time this year and unlike most visitors to South Africa’s tourism capital, Stephen Larkham and his charges will not have fond memories of their visit. The Brumbies were on for a vital victory at Newlands earlier in the year when Christian Lealiifano missed a place kick from right out in front of the poles, which saw the Stormers steal the points in the dying minutes of the game. The Brumbies have named an unchanged side from the one that went down to the Crusaders at GIO Stadium last weekend. Larkham will be looking for some magic from his backline, particularly fullback Jessie Mogg who is yet to rediscover his form from last year. The Brumbies pack has opted to use the rolling maul as an attacking weapon this year however they come up against probably the best defenders of a rolling maul this weekend.
VERDICT: Stormers (-4.5) 9/10
Duane Vermuelen’s side have shown resilience that has been lacking in Stormers sides in the past. Although one may cite the home draw against the Lions as a typical Stormers slip up these have been far and few between this year. I think the Stormers will hold their nerve in this one and advance to the next round.