Super Rugby: Round 14 Preview (Saturday)

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We take a look at Saturday's 4 Super Rugby games including a derby between the Bulls and Lions.

With the June Internationals fast approaching eight of the 18 Super Rugby franchises will be looking to lay down a marker this Saturday. The day presents an opportunity for the likes of the Cheetahs, Sunwolves, and Blues to further move clear of the dreaded wooden spoon. While for the Brumbies, Bulls, Crusaders, Lions, and Stormers, Saturday is all about those top local conference spots.

So which sides will go into the June break with a smirk akin to Damian McKenzie’s goal kicking face? Let’s see if we can find out!

Blues v Crusaders | Saturday 28 May | Eden Park | 09:35

To Win (80 Mins)
Blues 11/4 | Draw 25/1 | Crusaders 1/4
Blues (+9.5) 8/10 | Crusaders (-9.5) 9/10
Our first game of the day pits the high-flying Canterbury Crusaders against the New Zealand’s conference’s bottom-placed side, the Auckland Blues.

It’s been a bit of a tumultuous season for the Aucklanders. While 2016 was always going to be about rebuilding the franchise, I personally expected a bit more from Tana Umaga’s men. Yes, they’ve had to contend with some massive injury blows - the loss of impressive young flanker Blake Gibson to a fractured thumb being the most devastating – but you’d expect more from a squad that features Super Rugby veterans George Moala, Charlie Faumuina, Josh Bekhuis, and Jerome Kaino.

The Crusaders, on the other hand, have enjoyed a fantastic campaign despite having gone through a bit of a rebuilding phase themselves. Having lost talismanic veterans Dan Carter and Richie McCaw to the lure of the Euro and retirement, many thought this Crusaders side would struggle to really mount a title challenge. Well, those naysayers were miles off as the men from Canterbury are enjoying a much more prosperous season than they did last year. The men in red and black look good for a quarter-final spot as they currently sit in second place on the New Zealand Conference; one point off the table-topping Chiefs.

The Crusaders recent head to head record with the Blues makes dire reading for fans of the Auckland-based franchise. The ‘Saders have won five of the last seven clashes between the sides which includes a 28-13 victory earlier this season.

Looking at the team news, Tana Umaga will hand flanker Kara Pryor his first start of the season. Pryor comes in for the injured Tanerau Latimer in the only change to the Blues run on XV. On the 'Saders side of the coin, Todd Blackadder is yet to announce his matchday 23 but we’re likely to see Fijian sensation Nemani Nadolo return to the squad as the big man served the final week of his four-match ban, for a dangerous tackle on Brumbie Thomas Cuebilli, last week.

Verdict: Crusaders (-9.5) 9/10
The Blues were dire against the Force last week, just managing to eek out a four-point victory over the Australian Conference's bottom placed side. While New Zealand derbies are generally tight affairs, I can’t see this one following that trend. Back the Crusaders to clear the -9.5 handicap. 

Brumbies v Sunwolves | Saturday 28 May | GIO Stadium | 11:45

To Win (80 Mins)
Brumbies 1/50 | Draw 33/1 | Sunwolves 12/1
Brumbies (-28.5) 9/10 | Sunwolves (+28.5) 9/10
The Sunwolves and their 3000 thousand strong army of fans will continue their tour of Australia with a stop-off in Canberra. The Japanese franchise got their tour down under off to a decent enough start giving the Reds a real run for their money out in Queensland. Some slick hands from their backs and a dogged display from their forwards ensured the 'Wolves would leave Queensland with their heads held high having only gone down by ten points.

While the tourists were out in Queensland showing off some flashy skills and giving the Reds an almighty scare, this weekend’s hosts enjoyed a weekend off. Results also went their way during their bye weekend with Australian Conference toppers, the Waratahs, failing to even get a losing bonus point from their clash with the Crusaders. That result means the Brumbies are still only a point off the top of their domestic conference.

Steven Larkham’s men will be looking to leapfrog their domestic rivals this weekend with a bonus point victory here. They have every chance of the topping the Australian Conference and even opening up a bit of a lead as the Waratahs are taking on the Chiefs this Friday and I fully expect the New Zealanders to win that one.

While neither coach is yet to announce his matchday 23, I suspect we’re likely to see almost full strength squads take to the field. The Brumbies will still be without flying winger, and leading try scorer, ‘Smoking’ Joe Tomane, who’s sidelined with a knee injury.

Verdict: Brumbies (-28.5) 9/10
My advice here is to avoid this game like the plague. It’s a huge handicap and while I think the Brumbies could clear it, a few late Sunwolves tries – something the 'Wolves have become notorious for – could ruin your bet. If you have to, and I mean have to, take a bet on this one, back the Brumbies to clear the handicap.

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Stormers v Cheetahs | Saturday 28 May | DHL Newlands | 15:00

To Win (80 Mins)
Stormers 1/8 | Draw 35/1 | Cheetahs 5/1
Stormers (-14.5) 9/10 | Cheetahs (+14.5) 9/10
The first of Saturday’s two South African derbies sees Franco Smith and his Cheetahs outfit travel down to the ‘Mother City’ to take on a wounded Stormers side.

The Cape-based franchise are coming off the back of a North v South derby loss that will have hurt more than their previous result; an ignominious draw to the Sunwolves out in East Asia. Head coach and ex-Bok centre Robbie Fleck’s coaching credentials have come into question on the back of those results. He will need a lot more from his charges if he is to quell what is will likely be a much more vociferous Newlands crowd.

Fleck’s opposite number, Franco Smith, is under a lot less pressure. The Cheetahs mentor is still trying to rebuild this Free State side after they had their stalwarts taken from them by the Sharks in the off-season.

While the Cheetahs results don’t really indicate any massive improvement, I’ve still be impressed with the manner in which they’ve played. Their commitment to playing an attacking brand of rugby is admirable even if it has come at the expense of results. This attacking approach failed to reap dividends when the two sides met earlier this year, however, with Franco Smith’s men going down by ten points to 20.

Verdict: Cheetahs (+14.5) 9/10
I can see the Stormers taking a conservative approach to this one. They’ll look to dominate through their pack, and scrum and maul their way to victory. This tactic could well blow up in their faces, however, especially if the Cheetahs score early and subsequently get the bit between their teeth. I reckon the Cheetahs will go down by between 7-9 points, so backing them on the handicap on the +14.5 is my tip for this one.

Bulls v Lions | Saturday 28 May | Loftus Versveld | 17:10

To Win (80 mins)
Bulls 9/10 | Draw 18/1 | Lions 9/10
We close Saturday’s action off with a clash between the two African Conference’s leaders. The Bulls come into this one off the back of a huge derby win over the Stormers that saw them move to the top of African Conference One while the Lions come to Loftus after an impressive 52-24 victory over the Jaguares that has seen them maintain their five-point lead at the summit of the Combined African Conference.

This is apparently a make or break game for the hosts. They’ve got a much harder run in than their opponents - well at least in the eyes of every rugby pundit out there. I personally don’t feel they have the worst of runs. Yes they have to travel to Argentina to play the Jaguares and they’ve got the Lions this week – I expect them to lose both games – but they’ve still got a home game against the Sunwolves – a five point banker in my eyes – and an away date with the Cheetahs while the Stormers still have to travel to Australia to take on the Rebels and Force.

So while there’s a lot of onus being placed on this one - and rightly so – I don’t think it’s as make or break as it’s being touted as.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the matter at hand, and the hosts for Saturday’s fixture will be buoyed by the news that Lions kingpin, Elton Jantjies, will miss out due to a finger injury. The frontrunner for the vacant Springbok ten jumper is likely to be replaced by forgotten man of Lions rugby Marnitz Boshoff. There’s also the option for Johan Ackermann to field Ross Cronje at ten. The diminutive half back played was at stand-off for the majority of the second stanza against the Jaguares last week and did a decent job.

On to the Bulls now, and Nolias Marias has made just a solitary change to his side with Bjorn Basson coming in on the wing in place of Jamba Ulengo, who’s been given the week off due to personal commitments.

Verdict: Lions 9/10
Elton Jantjies’ absence is a huge loss for the Lions but I still think they have more than enough ammunition to see them past the Bulls.
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