Our rugby scribes give their opinions on Thursday and Friday's Super Rugby fixtures.
Our rugby scribes, much like the Sharks against the Reds, put in a mixed-bag of a performance during the opening round of the 2017 Super Rugby season. There were highs – the Hurricanes clearing the cap being one of them – and there were lows – the Bulls getting blown away by the Stormers sticks out. It’s early doors, however, and our two oval-balled fanatics should be allowed a bit of leniency.
They both reckon they’re about to get their respective innings moving at a much quicker rate. So, let’s hope they go the way of a Hashim Amla knock: a consistently large return.
Each of them has covered one of the opening two matches with Darry Worthington previewing the Aussie derby between the Force and Reds, and Shaun covering Friday’s all-Kiwi affair between the Chiefs and Blues
Rebels v Reds | Thursday 2 March | nib Stadium | 12:30
To Win (80 Mins)
Rebels 12/10 | Draw 22/1 | Reds 6/10
Rebels (+3.5) 9/10 | Reds (-3.5) 9/10
The Perth Sprit may have one the National Rugby Championship a few months ago, but It looks like citizens of the Western Australian city are in for a few long months of entertaining yet error-strewn performances.
It may be a tad harsh on my part to single out their ball handling deficiencies – hell, even the Hurricanes dropped a few last weekend. It’s not so much last week’s display that has made me signal a warning to greater Perth, but rather the playing personnel that still compromise – poor pun completely intended - the Force’s run on XV.
Look there are some real quality rugby players in the Force team – Dane ‘talismanic x-factor possessor and occasional black out drinker’ Haylett-Petty being the pick of the bunch – but they are few and far between. This ultimately cost the Force against the Waratahs as they butchered some solid try scoring opportunities and were unable to spark anything when those opportunities dried up during the final twenty minutes of their 19-13 defeat to the Tahs.
In terms of team news for this one, Force coach, Dave Wessels, has opted to shuffle his pack with off-season signing Ben Daley coming into the front row. The only other change to the engine room sees young lock Matt Philip take over from Ross Haylett-Petty in the second row, with the later switching to flank.
It wasn’t the blast from the past that Reds fans were hoping for, but their boys still managed to get one over a spirited Sharks outfit. The 28-26 victory looked highly unlikely with the Natalians leading for the majority of the 80-minutes, but a late show from the Queenslanders saw them get their campaign off on the right foot.
Last week’s fixture may have been the perfect preparation for the Reds first derby of the year as there are a few similarities between the Force and the Natalians. Like last week’s opposition, the Force will also look to use the driving maul as an attacking weapon. It was an area where the Reds looked susceptible last week and had it not been or some shocking officiating, the Sharks may have bagged an extra five-pointer or two.
Switching the focus to the Reds again, their loose trio were highly impressive last week with George Smith and Scott Higginbotham rolling back the years. The two senior statesmen will have massive roles to play this week with the Forces’ loosies likely to give it their all at the breakdown.
While his counterpart has opted to make a slew of changes to his matchday 23, Reds mentor Nick Stiles has made just one, with young gun Taniela Tupou coming onto the bench.
Verdict: Reds (-3.5) 9/10
It won’t be one for the record books, but I can see the Reds winning it by six to ten points.
Chiefs v Blues | FMG Stadium Waikato Friday | Friday 3 March | 08:35
To Win (80 mins)
Chiefs 7/20 | Draw 22/1 | Blues 19/10
Chiefs (-6.5) 9/10 | Blues (+6.5) 9/10
Dave Rennie's Chiefs made a huge statement after their round one 24-15 away defeat of the Highlanders in Dunedin. Their victory was built on a platform of outstanding rush defense, and clinical capitalization of opposition errors. The Chiefs' ferocious intensity on ‘D’ resulted in the 'Landers inability to attack the gainline effectively and, as a result, began throwing some rather speculative passes (two of which were intercepted and led to scores for the away side). Rennie's astute tactics have always been up there with some of the best in the game, and round one was a testimony to the fact. If his side can emulate the strategy they used last Saturday this weekend against the Blues, they should be able to grind out another victory.
Should the Chiefs manage to shut down the space of the Blues backline (and, more specifically, Rieko Ioane), the game will have been halfway won. Interestingly, the Blues pack, led by loosehead Pauliasi Manu, took apart the Rebels scrum on Thursday. Chiefs front rowers Nepo Laulala, Hika Elliott and Atu Moli will be tasked with limiting the scrumming powers of the likes of Manu this Friday, and thus set the platform for their proposed defensive strategy. Fly-half and captain Aaron Cruden should thrive behind a dominant forward pack, and his tactical kicking nous should keep his side in good field positions this weekend - upping the pressure on the Aucklanders throughout the eighty minutes.
As cliched as it reads, the platform for a Chiefs victory this weekend really does start up front. It's imperative that their set pieces are clinical and precise, so that Cruden and company can squeeze the life out of their opponents.
The men from the capital seem to be building something special under new coach Tana Umaga, in typical Umaga-style. Their 56-18 annihilation of the Melbourne Rebels was an amalgamation of speed, skill and imagination - how about that Augustine Pulu’s score! The performance of newly-capped All Black Rieko Ioane made the whole rugby world sit up and take notice, as the outside centre powered his way to a sumptuous hat-trick. Ioane may not get as much space against the Chiefs as he did against the battling Rebels however, and his performance this weekend is going to make for interesting viewing against classier opposition.
The way the Blues forwards dismantled the Rebels' scrum left nothing to the imagination. The performances of the likes of Manu made the jobs of his backs that much easier, but Umaga will expect a step-up against a more complete pack this weekend. If the Blues are to challenge for the New Zealand conference, they need to perform as they did on Thursday, against the tournament's ‘Big Dogs’.
Verdict: Chiefs (-6.5) 9/10
A pretty safe bet. Hamilton is a fortress for the Chiefs, and they are a lot more complete side than the up-and-coming Blues. In what is going to be an absolute cracker, back the Chiefs to clear the handicap.