By some unfathomable form of sorcery the Sharks clung on to a championship lead they’ve enjoyed since the opening round of the competition, claiming an historic maiden victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch despite being cut down to fourteen men in the 17th minute. Jake White’s post-clash euphoria was undoubtedly enhanced by news of the Cheetahs pulling off an inscrutable victory over the Brumbies in Bloemfontein, securing the Sharks a five-point lead over the Aussie conference leaders. We now approach the final five rounds of the regular season with a meagre ten points separating tenth from second, so expect the unexpected from here on in as this year’s scramble for a Top Six finish promises to be one of the most ferocious yet.
Blues vs Sharks | Friday 23 May | North Harbour Stadium | 09:35
The Sharks wrap up their overseas tour in Auckland this week against a desperate Blues side determined to keep their playoff aspirations alive.
To Win (80mins)
Blues (+1.5) 9/10
Sharks (+1.5) 9/10
The Blues have proved an unpredictable bunch this season, having pulled of impressive victories over the likes of the Crusaders and Waratahs, but failing to collect the points against weaker opposition such as the Lions and Bulls. They’ve had a week off to work on the comedy of unforced errors that cost them against the Chiefs in Round 13, and will be bolstered by the return of skipper Luke Braid after almost a month off with a shoulder injury. But with fullback Charles Piutau sidelined for the next six weeks with a tendon injury the home side’s reshuffled backline may prove more vulnerable than coach Sir John Kirwan would like. The Sharks proved their grit last week by securing a 30-25 away victory over the Crusaders despite spending over 60 minutes of the match with just fourteen men. They have definitely been the most consistent side in this year’s competition, winning nine of their twelve outings so far, and have an impressive record against the Blues in the competition, having won their last eight clashes against the Auckland based side. Only one change to the side this week with the suspended Jean Deysel being replaced by Jacques Botes, earning his first start of the season.
VERDICT: Sharks 11/10
The Blues won’t be easy at home, and will be fighting hammer and tongs to keep their playoff chances alive, but the loss Charles Piutau in the first half against the Chiefs created a defensive vacuum in the Blues backline that I’m not sure has been adequately addressed with the reshuffle. If the Sharks can beat the Crusaders at home with fourteen men they should have no problem against Sir John Kirwan’s unsettled side.
Rebels vs Waratahs | Friday 23 May | AAMI Park | 11:40
The Rebels take on the Waratahs for the second time this season, but will be hoping the home ground advantage will prevent them suffering another 24-point hiding.
To Win (80mins)
Rebels (+6.5) 9/10
Waratahs (-6.5) 9/10
The Rebels secured their first every victory over the Reds last week with a Jason Woodward penalty in the dying minutes, giving the Melbourne side their fourth victory of the season. Their chances of claiming their fifth win this weekend took a massive knock with the loss of ex-Waratahs scrumhalf Luke Burgess to injury. With regular number nine Nic Stirzaker also out of action the home side have been left with youngster Ben Meehan and Josh Holmes as their only options. The Waratahs secured an impressive 41-17 victory over the travelling Lions last weekend, and with a tough fixture list featuring the Highlanders, Chiefs and Brumbies coming up, they will be hoping to pull off a similar victory over the Rebels to take the pressure off in the closing rounds of the competition. Only two changes for the Waratahs this week with Jacques Potgieter returning at lock and Alofa Alofa starting on the wing.
VERDICT: Waratahs (-6.5) 9/10
The Rebels may have pulled off their first ever victory over the Reds in Queensland last week, but the Reds have been a lost cause for most of the season, and the penalty that handed the Rebels the game was a contentious one to say the least.
Bulls vs Brumbies | Friday 23 May | Loftus Versfeld | 19:10
The Bulls return from their bye in Round 14 to take on an agitated Brumbies intent on turning their South African tour around.
To Win (80mins)
Bulls (-3.5) 9/10
Brumbies (+3.5) 9/10
The Bulls are another side playing for their survival this week, just four points behind the Crusaders who currently occupy the last wildcard spot on the log, but have three teams within closer reach of that sought after sixth slot. Bulls Captain Flip van der Merwe returns after a three-match ban for dirty play, making up one of the three changes to the side that took down the Stormers two weeks ago. Coach Frans Ludeke has made a questionable selection in Jacques-Louis Potgieter at ten ahead of Handre Pollard, while in the front row Werner Kruger rotates with Marcel van der Merwe. The Brumbies were caught off guard by the Cheetahs last weekend thanks to a menacing Heinreich Brussow at the breakdown coupled with poor decision making on the field. The kicking game that invariably takes place at Loftus actually suits the Jake White influenced style of the Brumbies, so long as Jesse Mogg is on form.
VERDICT: Brumbies 14/10
The Bulls need to come away with a victory to remain in the running for a wild card spot in the playoffs, but the Brumbies are certain to come out with a vengeance having suffered a shock defeat to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last week. The Bulls don’t often lose in Pretoria, but the Brumbies managed to pull off a rare Loftus victory the last time these two met, in last year’s semi-finals. No reason they can’t do it again.
Highlanders vs Crusaders | Saturday 24 May | Forsyth Barr Stadium | 07:35
A brutal Kiwi derby this Saturday fuelled by the possibility for the victor to claim top spot on the New Zealand Conference should the Chiefs slip up against the Hurricanes later in the day.
To Win (80mins)
Highlanders (+4.5) 9/10
Crusaders (-4.5) 9/10
The Highlanders have managed to claw their way up the table with four wins from their last five outings, including that impressive 34-18 win over the Sharks in Durban, leaving them in second place on the Kiwi conference, just a point behind the Chiefs. They failed to cross the whitewash last week but still managed to secure an away win over the Hurricanes, but they won’t be able to kick their way to victory over their upcoming opponents. The Crusaders will still be in shock from their home loss to the Sharks last week that ended their impressive five-match winning streak, a result that’s led coach Todd Blackadder to make a whopping six changes to the side. Tim Perry, Ben Funnell and Nepo Laulala form a new front row, while in the backline Andy Ellis starts at scrumhalf, Israel Dagg returns to fullback and Tom Taylor moves into the midfield.
VERDICT: Crusaders (-4.5) 9/10
The Crusaders have more to prove this week than their upcoming opponents after last week’s dismal showing, and so shouldn’t have any problem clearing the modest 4.5 handicap.
Hurricanes vs Chiefs | Saturday 24 May | Westpac Stadium | 09:35
The Hurricanes will be hoping to take advantage of the Chiefs’ poor record on the road this season when the two clash in Wellington this Saturday.
To Win (80mins)
The Hurricanes are just a point shy of the sixth-placed Crusaders, but with their remaining fixtures being against the Blues, Crusaders and home and away legs against defending Champions the Chiefs, things are not look all that promising for the ‘Canes making the playoffs. Unless, of course, they can draw first blood against Dave Rennie’s crew this Saturday. The Chiefs will be fresher, returning from a bye in Round 14, and won’t be short of confidence coming off the back of two bonus point victories in Rounds 12 and 13. Chiefs flyhalf Aaron Cruden looks set to return to the field this week after more than a month sidelined with injury, and could possibility prove to be the deciding factor in this evenly weighted contest.
VERDICT: Hurricanes 1/1
A tough one to call but I’m going to back the home side purely because the Chiefs haven’t won away from home since their opening game of the season, and have only beaten the Hurricanes away in the competition once in the last five meetings.
Force vs Lions | Saturday 24 May | NIB Stadium | 11:40
The Lions wrap up their overseas tour with a clash against this year’s Cinderella story, the Force, in Perth.
To Win (80mins)
Force (-9.5) 9/10
Lions (+9.5) 9/10
The Force return to Perth this week from their mixed South African tour, their loss against the Stormers last week having forced them out of the Top Six, but they remain just four points off the Aussie Conference leading Brumbies with a game in hand. Force head coach Michael Foley has made two changes to his side for their return to the “Force Field”, with Dane Haylett-Petty coming in at wing and Wilhelm Steenkamp starting in the second row. The Lions have now lost six in a row, throwing away their impressive start to their returning season to Super Rugby, last weekend having suffered a massive 24-point battering at the hands of the Waratahs. Coach Johan Ackermann has rung in the changes this week with six changes to the forwards and a new-look backline with Coenie van Wyk starting at fullback and Alwyn Hollenbach and Deon van Rensburg teaming up in the midfield.
VERDICT: Lions (+9.5) 9/10
The Force should collect the win at home, but the long trip back should prevent it turning into too much of a bloodbath. The Lions should be able to stay within the 9.5 handicap.
Stormers vs Cheetahs | Saturday 24 May | Newlands | 17:05
We end off the weekend with a South African derby in Cape Town.
To Win (80mins)
Stormers (-6.5) 9/10
Cheetahs (+6.5) 9/10
The Cheetahs pulled off a phenomenal victory over the Brumbies in Bloemfontein last week, bouncing back nicely from their loss to the Force a week earlier. Coach Naka Drotske has understandably kept the run on side that pulled off last week’s unexpected win, but has brought Springbok lock Hilton Lobberts onto the bench. The Stormers secured a 16-point home victory over the Rebels in Cape Town last week, and will be hoping for a similar result this week to help them move slightly higher than their current thirteenth spot on the log. Their chances have been bolstered with the return of vice-captain Schalk Burger and captain Jean de Villiers from injury, and the return of Kurt Coleman to the number ten jersey.
VERDICT: Stormers (-6.5) 9/10
Both sides must continue their attempts to salvage their dismal 2014 seasons, and the game is bound to be a conservative affair, but the Stormers welcome back some big names, and are near impossible to overcome at Newlands. Expect them to clear the 6.5 handicap, but only just.
Think we’ve got it wrong? Well leave your comments below and tell us how you think this is going to play out.