Round 17 saw the playoff places decided with the Bulls, Crusaders and the Lions all knocked out of the competition due to the Brumbies and Waratahs securing victories. The Stormers will be the sole South African representative in the knockout rounds but it remains to be seen whether they will automatically advance to the semifinals or if they will have to go through the playoff round. This weekend sees a plethora of derby action with the only non-domestic grudge match taking place at Gio Stadium between trans-Tasman rivals the Brumbies and Crusaders. The coastal derby between the Sharks and Stormers is the only game of real significance for the South African franchises. This weekend also sees a few of the franchises say goodbye to their stalwarts. Richie McCaw and Dan Carter end their Canterbury careers while Quade Cooper and Will Genia don the Reds’ uniform for possibly the final occasion. In the Republic, the Sharks will bid the trio of Willem Alberts and the Du Plessis brothers farewell whilst Willie Le Roux plays his last game for the Cheetahs.
Blues vs Highlanders | Friday 12 June | Eden Park | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Blues (+10.5) 9/10
Highlanders (-10.5) 9/10
It has been a torrid 2015 campaign for the Blues; they’ve been badly hit by injuries throughout the season and have lacked leadership on the field. The Aucklanders come up against the high-flying Highlanders at Eden Park this weekend. The two sides came up against each other in Round 10, where the Highlanders edged a tightly contested affair at home. On to the teams for this weekend; the Blues will have Charles Piutau back for the first time in five weeks whilst Angus Ta’avao returns to the second row. Keven Mealamu skippers the side in his 175th Super Rugby match. In the Highlanders department, talismanic All Blacks Ben and Aaron Smith return to the starting fifteen whilst the other international in the squad, Malakai Fekitoa, is a doubt with a groin problem.
VERDICT: Highlanders (-10.5) 9/10
The men from Otago will be looking for a bonus point victory to ensure they get a home playoff game and with both Smiths back in the starting line-up, we’re likely to see a big win for the Highlanders.
Rebels vs Force | Friday 12 June | AAMI Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Rebels (-9.5) 9/10
Force (+9.5) 9/10
The Rebels are coming off the back of a narrow 21-20 victory over Bulls whilst the Force have only won two games this year with both victories coming against the Waratahs. Neither team has anything to play for bar pride so it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a high-scoring encounter. In terms of team news the Force will go into this one without Aussie eight Ben McCalman who sustained a broken cheekbone against the Brumbies last weekend. Their opponents will be without the services of centre Tamati Ellison who is ruled out with a groin injury and joins winger Sefanaia Naivalu on the treatment table. The Rebels won the previous encounter by a fine margin of 17-21 in round five and will want to do the double over their lacklustre opponents.
VERDICT: Rebels (-9.5) 9/10
The Rebels will want to end their season of what-ifs on a high and with their opponents only having won two games this season and leaking tries, the Melbourne lads should be able to clear the margin.
Brumbies vs Crusaders | Saturday 13 June | Gio Stadium | 7:30
To Win (80mins)
Brumbies (-3.5) 9/10
Crusaders (+3.5) 9/10
The only non-derby game of the weekend sees the sixth-placed Brumbies take on the eighth-placed Crusaders. The Brumbies will be looking to top the Australian conference and ensure a home semi-final but they will need to win this one and hope the ‘Tahs slip up against the Reds in order to do so. Their opponents won’t make life easy as they will want to put on a good performance to bid their stalwarts Richie McCaw and Dan Carter a fond farewell. Team news coming out of the ‘Saders camp is that Kieran Read will return to the starting lineup and skipper the side; he will be joined in the pack by a fit again Sam Whitelock whilst unknown quantity Jone Macilai comes on to the right wing. The Brumbies have named an unchanged side with Henry Speight overcoming an ankle problem that saw him leave the field against the Force. Matt Toomua returns to the squad after overcoming a muscle strain and will give Stephen Larkham an attacking option to bring off the bench.
VERDICT: Crusaders 15/10
The Crusaders will want to end the Carter / McCaw era in style and a win away from home against the old Australian enemy will put the icing on the farewell cake.
Chiefs vs Hurricanes | Saturday 13 June | Yarrow Stadium | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Chiefs (-5.5) 9/10
Hurricanes (+5.5) 9/10
The Hurricanes secured top spot on the log last week with victory over the Highlanders. The ‘Canes now have 62 points which is a massive tally when you consider the Highlanders and their opponents for this weekend have the second highest; 48 points. The Chiefs meanwhile secured their play-off participation last week with victory over the Reds. They will now be hoping to secure fourth-place on the overall log which would give them a home playoff. The Hurricanes will rest Ma’a Nonu in accordance with the New Zealand rugby union’s subscribed rest period for All Blacks. Key pivot Beauden Barrett will also take no part in this game as he is struggling with a slight groin strain. Whilst the Chiefs will rest their All Black flanker Sam Cane, Ben Tameifuna returns to the front row whilst James Lowe and Sonny-Bill Williams return to strengthen the backline. These two sides met a few weeks ago in Wellington where the ‘Canes emerged 22-18 victors.
VERDICT: Chiefs (-4.5) 9/10
Nine times out of ten I’d back the ‘Canes to do the business in this one, however with Ma’a Nonu and Beauden Barrett out and Sonny-Bill Williams returning for the Chiefs, this is that one time that I’d back the Waikato side to put one over their Wellington opponents.
Waratahs vs Reds | Saturday 13 June | Allianz Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Waratahs (-12.5) 9/10
Reds (+12.5) 9/10
The second Aussie derby of the weekend sees the current Australian conference toppers come up against the struggling Reds. The ‘Tahs will secure a home playoff by matching whatever result the Brumbies achieve whilst the Reds will want to send the dynamic duo of Will Genia and Quade Cooper off on a high. Although Cooper has yet to confirm he will be leaving, he has been strongly linked to follow his schoolboy compatriot to France. The team news coming out the Waratahs camp is that hard man Will Skelton will return to the fold having completed his three-match suspension whilst Rob Horne is still serving his ban and will take no part in this encounter. The Reds have only made one change to the team that went down to the Chiefs last time out, with Chris Kuridrani replacing Chris Feauai-Sautia on the wing. The Waratahs won the previous matchup between these two sides 5-23 in Round 4.
VERDICT: Reds (+12.5) 9/10
The Reds - much like the Crusaders - will be bidding farewell to two of their favourite sons this weekend. Will Genia has already confirmed he’s off to France whilst Quade Cooper is also likely to make the journey when the international season concludes. The emotion of the occasion may inspire the Reds to end their season on a positive note. Although I can't see the Queenslanders winning this one they should be able to stay within the handicap margin.
Bulls vs Cheetahs | Saturday 13 June | Loftus Versfeld | 17:00
To Win (80mins)
Bulls (-16.5) 9/10
Cheetahs (+16.5) 9/10
The first game of Franco Smith's tenure seemed to be going well with the Cheetahs leading in a high scoring first half against the ‘Tahs, until the men from New South Wales scored two late first half tries which took the wind out of the Free State franchise’s sails. The Bulls also had a weekend to forget with their playoff hopes dashed in their loss to the Rebels and the Brumbies and ‘Tahs victories. Franco Smith has tinkered with his team bringing in Sharks bound Willie Le Roux into the fifteen berth. Willie’s return sees Clayton Blommetjies shift to the right wing and Sergeal Petersen move to the left. Ryno Benjamin will start at inside centre having not been cited for a Paul Scholes-esque slide tackle on Israel Folau in last weekend’s game. The Bulls will be without Jan Serfontein who is yet to recover from a MCL knee injury. The Loftus-based franchise won the previous encounter at Free State Stadium 20-39 in Round 4.
VERDICT: Cheetahs (+15.5) 9/10
Franco Smith will want to build on last weekend’s first half performance against the Waratahs. As with the Reds, I can’t see the Cheetahs pulling off a win but I can see them putting on a dogged display which keeps them within the handicap margin.
Sharks vs Stormers | Saturday 13 June | Kings Park | 19:05
To Win (80mins)
Sharks (-5.5) 9/10
Stormers (+5.5) 9/10
The final game of the weekend will see South Africa’s two coastal franchises go at it hammer and tongs in Durban. This derby always throws up a surprise or two and with Province opting to field a “B” side we should be in for a tightly contested affair. The Stormers need a bonus point win in this and will have to hope the Brumbies and ‘Tahs slip up to have any chance of getting a home semi-final. The Sharks’ Springbok trio of Willem Alberts and the brothers Du Plessis will play their final game in a Natal jumper, with all three off to the Northern Hemisphere at the conclusion of the international season. They will be joined in the starting lineup by Andre Esterhuizen, who continues at inside centre due to Frans Steyn’s injury troubles. Meanwhile, the Stormers will have to make do without skipper Duane Vermeulen who is out for this clash after suffering a severe neck muscle spasm in last weekend’s draw against the Lions. The Capetonians have Jaco Taute back and he will be joined in the side by the promising loose trio combination of Michael Rhodes and Sikhumbuzo Notshe as well as skipper for this weekend Nizaam Carr. A bit of spice has been added to what was already looking like a fiery encounter with ostracised former Sharks coach John Plumtree being touted as a possible successor to Allister Coetzee at the Stormers.
VERDICT: Sharks (-5.5) 9/10
With Province fielding a “B” side the Sharks have been given an opportunity to end a disappointing season on a high note. If they can get the forwards going and dominate the tight exchanges they should be rewarded with a victory.