Come next week, the highly anticipated June Internationals will temporarily shut down the exhilarating Super Rugby title race, leaving us stranded in an agonising, suspense-riddled limbo for the next month. Round 15 saw both the Chiefs and Brumbies tumble right out of the play-off comfort zone following brutal defeats to the Hurricanes and Bulls respectively. The Waratahs bulldozed their way into the lead of the Aussie conference with an emphatic 41-19 victory over a lacklustre Rebels side, while just across the water the fashionably-late Crusaders seized control of the Kiwi conference by sneaking a narrow two-point victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin. We now approach the final four rounds of the regular season, but with a trivial six points separating the Bulls in ninth and the Waratahs in second, it would seem that even at this late point of the competition there are more sides still within contention for the playoffs than sides that are not.
Crusaders vs Force | Friday 30 May | AMI Stadium | 09:35
Plenty at stake in the opening clash of the weekend. with a mere point separating the resilient Crusaders and the overachieving Western Force as they prepare to go head-to-head in this crucial Christchurch clash.
To Win (80mins)
Crusaders (-12.5) 9/10
Force (+12.5) 9/10
The Crusaders have shown just how serious they are about claiming a record eighth title this season, having astonishingly clawed their way up into a top three seat despite a catastrophic start to the season had them limping into the Round 5 in fourteenth place. The formidable Kieran Read returns to skipper this star-studded side after a six week injury layoff, and is the only change to the side that snuck the two-point win over the Highlanders last week. The Force secured an invaluable bonus point win last week by taking down a tamed Lions side 29-19, which keeps their dream of a maiden playoff berth alive and well, for the moment at least. They have a tricky road ahead of them with matches against the Blues, Reds and Brumbies awaiting them after this weekend’s clash with the competition’s most successful side.
VERDICT: Crusaders (-12.5) 9/10
The Force have never managed a win at AMI Stadium, a statistic that is unlikely to change anytime soon as the Crusaders run out in front of the Christchurch faithful for the first time since their humiliating defeat to a 14-man Sharks outfit in Round 14. They will be dead set on making amends.
Reds vs Highlanders | Friday 30 May | Suncorp Stadium | 11:40
The Reds return from their bye in Round 15 with high hopes of ending their depressing six-match losing streak, and, probably more importantly, climbing out of the soul destroying fifteenth spot.
To Win (80mins)
Reds (+2.5) 9/10
Highlanders (-2.5) 9/10
The Reds have battled under coach Richard Graham to recreate the audacious, brazen self-confidence that became trademark characteristics of the side under Ewen McKenzie. The thing that makes explosive talents such as Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Dom Shipperley as lethal as they are is their ability to turn half chances into points. But with the entire side apparently devoid of the once standard arrogance needed to succeed in their natural expansive game, those half chances are becoming more and more of a rarity, and their conversion of them into points is at an all time low. This week they’ll have to do without the feisty Quade Cooper due to injury. The Highlanders are currently clinging onto sixth spot for dear life, and will be desperate for the win to keep their ambitious playoff aspirations alive. But while they have played some pretty decent rugby over the past few weeks, the standard of their performances over the past four matches seem to have been dictated to them by the quality of their opponent’s game. They’ve won two of those four, all decided within a two-point margin. That doesn’t sound all that bad when we’re talking about the likes of the Crusaders and Hurricanes, but with the Stormers and Lions also included in those last four clashes I’m far from convinced that they pose a real threat to the title this year.
VERDICT: Reds 14/10
The Highlanders are the obvious choice, but judging by their last four outings the 2.5 handicap may prove just too much for the Clan. The Reds may lack the incentive of a playoff spot, but they still have a team brimming with talent, and they have to win eventually, don’t they?
Chiefs vs Waratahs | Saturday 31 May | Yarrow Park | 06:35
If there was only one game this weekend that would see me voluntarily up and about anywhere before the crack of noon, it would have to be this playoff influencing clash. The reigning champs will try to climb back up on their horse after suffering a confidence shattering 37-point pummelling courtesy of the Hurricanes, but have the added misfortune of meeting the Waratahs in their prime.
To Win (80mins)
Chiefs (-3.5) 9/10
Waratahs (+3.5) 9/10
Having grown accustomed to setting the pace over the last two seasons, the Chiefs now find themselves in unfamiliar territory chasing a spot in the Top Six at probably the least opportune time in recent history. They may be a mere two points behind the Kiwi conference leading Crusaders, but there are four other high-flying sides sitting between the Chiefs and Crusaders on the overall log. And they’ve seemingly drawn the Waratahs just as Michael Cheika’s charges happened to find the lethal consistency that has avoided them most of the season. They’ve secured bonus point wins from their last three outings, and put 41 points past the Rebels last week while only conceding 19. The aggressively natured Cheika has decided to go with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality this week, retaining the same side that emerged victorious in Melbourne.
VERDICT: Chiefs (-3.5) 9/10
The Chiefs are always going to be tough at home, but they’re likely to be that much tougher this time around as they fight for their survival in the competition, still hell-bent on claiming that record setting third consecutive crown. And since a mere win alone may not be enough see them through, they’ll be out looking for the bonus point, so prepare for some innovative and exhilarating attacking play from the home side.
Blues vs Hurricanes | Saturday 31 May | Eden Park | 09:35
The Blues host the Hurricanes in Auckland this Saturday as the two meet for their second and final derby of the season.
To Win (80mins)
Blues (+1.5) 9/10
Hurricanes (-1.5) 9/10
The Blues tightened their vice grip on the bottom of the New Zealand conference last week by going down 29-23 at North Harbour Stadium to the Sharks, ultimately killing off any remote chance they may have had of progressing to the playoffs. Still, the Blues are a proud side and will want to keep their unbeaten record at Eden Park this season intact. And with the June Internationals looming around the corner, there is the added incentive of potentially catching the fancy of Steve Hansen. Scrumhalf Piri Weepu returns from injury this week and takes up a spot on the bench while youngster Ihaia West starts at pivot in his first ever Super Rugby start. The Hurricanes blew their name right into the mix for one of the coveted playoff spots with a phenomenal bonus point victory over the defending champions in Wellington last week, managing to crash over the whitewash an impressive six times. This week they’ll be without the elusive Andre Taylor at the back, but the able Matt Proctor takes over the number fifteen jersey. Point machine Beauden Barrett collects his 50th cap for the Hurricanes this week and will undoubtedly be looking to make it a profitable one by punishing the Blues for any ill discipline whenever the opportunity so arises.
VERDICT: Hurricanes (-1.5) 9/10
Should be a relatively even-weighted affair, but what I feel gives the Hurricanes a slight edge here is their hunger for their first playoff appearance since 2009, coupled with their ability to put points on the board. They lead the table in total points scored so far this season, as well as claiming the most tries, averaging over three a game up until now. Expect them to hit the field running, hoping to walk away with yet another resounding bonus point victory to stand them in good stead for when the competition resumes in a month’s time.
Brumbies v Rebels | Saturday 31 May | Canberra Stadium | 11:40
Having plummeted right out of the Top Six following last week’s shock defeat to the Bulls, the Brumbies welcome the hapless Rebels into the Aussie capital hoping for an easy bonus point victory to get their season back on track.
To Win (80mins)
Brumbies (-9.5) 9/10
Rebels (+9.5) 9/10
The Brumbies’ South African trip resulted in two shock defeats, to the Cheetahs and Bulls, leaving them in dire need of a compelling bonus point victory against the Rebels this week in order to ensure an extended run in the competition. Coach Stephen Larkham has dropped both Robbie Coleman and Jesse Mogg from the run on side, while Clyde Rathbone makes his first start of the season and Pat McCabe claims the number fifteen jersey. The Rebels were out of the race for a Top Six finish some time ago, but they have pulled off a few surprise defeats this season, one of those being their 32-24 victory over the Brumbies in Melbourne. The Rebels have been hard hit with injuries over the last few rounds, but there could be some relief in the form of All Black Tamati Ellison and prop Laurie Weeks, should they clear their fitness tests before the big game.
VERDICT: Brumbies (-9.5) 9/10
Brumbies have no option but to win this game, and judging by the brutal home defeat their opponents suffered at the hands of the Waratahs last weekend, the effects of the ever-growing Rebels injury list is beginning to show.
Lions vs Bulls | Saturday 31 May | Ellis Park | 17:05
I may very well use this time slot to catch up on the sleep I missed out on during the Chiefs-Waratahs spectacular. The Bulls have an outside chance of making it through to the knockout stages, but considering there are five sides with a game in hand already ahead of the Bulls on the log, it’s a long shot in the least.
To Win (80mins)
Lions (+7.5) 9/10
Bulls (-7.5) 9/10
The Lions suffered their ninth defeat of the season last week by going down 29-19 to the Force in Perth, prompting coach Johan Ackermann to reshuffle his weak pride. Up front, Schalk van der Merwe, Julian Redelinghuys and Robbie Coetzee form a new look front row, while in the backline speedster Courtnall Skosan returns from injury to take up residency on the wing, and Stokkies Hanekom starts at outside centre. Bulls coach Frans Ludeke is probably more surprised than anyone with regards to his team’s 44-23 victory over last year’s losing finalists. So much so, that he has called in a few unforced changes to the side just for good measure. Werner Kruger drops to the bench to make way for Marcel van der Merwe, while Victor Matfield is apparently being rested for a must win game, opening up a spot for Grant Hattingh in the second row with Jacques Engelbrecht starting at the back of the scrum.
VERDICT: Bulls (-7.5) 9/10
The Bulls are actually playing some decent rugby at the moment, which is more than enough to absolutely destroy the Lions at Ellis Park. The Bulls should clean up nicely, unless Stuart Berry is refereeing. Then I call the Lions by 30.
Sharks vs Stormers | Saturday 31 May | Kings Park | 19:10
The Sharks return home from their rewarding tour of the Antipodes to take on their age-old rivals from the Western Cape.
To Win (80mins)
Sharks (-8.5) 9/10
Stormers (+8.5) 9/10
The Sharks made it an impressive three from four wins on the road last week as they wrapped up their fruitful tour of Australia and New Zealand with a hard fought 23-29 victory over the Blues in Auckland. They remain a solid five points clear at the top of the overall standings as they prepare for their hero’s welcome this Saturday, making their first appearance at the Shark Tank since their poor showing against Highlanders in Round 11. Jake White has made only one change to his side for this week’s coastal derby with Marcell Coetzee returning from injury to start at flank. The Stormers pulled off a rather convincing 33-0 victory over the Cheetahs in Cape Town last week despite their incessant injury problems having claimed many of their big names. With Jean de Villiers out for eight weeks, and substitute captain Schalk Burger now sidelined with a neck injury, Duane Vermeulen has been awarded the honours of leading the Stormers out in Durban this Saturday.
VERDICT: Sharks (-8.5) 9/10
The Stormers have shown marked improvements over the past few rounds, having claimed victories over the Cheetahs, Force and Highlanders, but the table-topping Sharks are a different kettle of fish altogether. The Sharks look a team possessed at the moment, an injury crippled Stormers outfit shouldn’t prove too much of a bother for the side that defeated the Crusaders with a man short. They may even go in with thirteen men this week, just to give a few blokes a rest.
Think we’ve got it wrong? Well leave your comments below and tell us how you think this is going to play out.