Oddly enough, after nearly five months of relentless unpredictability, we approach the final round of regular clashes prematurely armed with a definitive list of who goes home and who continues on in the quest for Super Rugby glory, even before the first match kicks off. But don’t be deceived into thinking that that leaves nothing left to play for. With the final order of those smug buggers in the top six still far from being decided, there is still a lot riding on what happens out on the field in Round 20.
Crusaders vs Hurricanes | Friday 12 July | AMI Stadium | 09:35
The Crusaders made it quite clear last week that they are set on claiming their eighth Super Rugby title this year and that they have the means to do so. If their clinical 43-15 destruction of the then table-topping Chiefs is an indication of what’s to come from this Canterbury unit, then we may as well just hand over the silverware now and get it over with.
To Win (80mins)
Crusaders (-14.5) 9/10
Hurricanes (+14.5) 9/10
The Crusaders are currently sitting in fourth spot, but a bonus point win coupled with a Chiefs loss could see them moving up as high as second place. However, if they trip up again against the ‘Canes like they did back in the fourth round they might find themselves falling to fifth. Not surprisingly, the Crusaders have made only one change to the side that crushed the Chiefs last week, and a forced one at that. With Luke Romano now sidelined with an ankle injury, coach Todd Blackadder has named Tom Donnelly as Sam Whitelock’s partner in the second row.
The Hurricanes managed an impressive feat last week by losing at home to the Highlanders. I am sure they will be looking to do all they can this week to not extend their impressive losing run in the competition to five games on the trot when they run out at AMI stadium on Friday.
VERDICT: Crusaders (-14.5) 9/10
The Crusaders will want to do everything humanly possible to secure that invaluable week off reserved for the competition’s top two sides. The Crusaders by 15.
Rebels vs Highlanders | Friday 12 July | AAMI Park | 11:40
The irrelevance of this game is so unbelievably high that I am surprised they have actually managed to find commentators willing to sit through such unnecessary pain.
To Win (80mins)
Rebels (1.5) 9/10
Highlanders (+1.5) 9/10
The Rebels are looking for their fifth win of the year to beat their previous best of four wins in a season achieved in 2012. Riveting stuff really. This match will be the last game in a Rebel’s jersey for six of the match day 22, who have wisely decided to sign up with other clubs from next year, including captain Gareth Delve and failed Aussie flyhalf James O’Connor. They could be a little rusty having not played for over a month, but rusty may very well be all they need considering they are up against the Highlanders.
The Highlanders did me a massive favour by pulling off a half decent performance against the Hurricanes last week in a game that saw them crossing the try line six times and landed them their unexpected third victory of the season. I was running out of ways to describe how disgraceful their 2013 campaign has been, so their victory really took the pressure off. I am almost certain that if they had failed to claw their way out of last place on the log last week the New Zealand government would have gone through extensive efforts to have the entire side exiled to Australia.
VERDICT: Highlanders 1/1
If the likes of Aaron Smith, Colin Slade and Hosea Gear come out firing like they did for the Highlanders last week against the Hurricanes, then the Rebels are unfortunately going to have to settle for merely equalling their wins-in-a-season record from last year. The Highlanders by 7.
Blues vs Chiefs | Saturday 13 July | Eden Park | 09:35
With their ears still ringing from the humiliating slap they caught off the Crusaders last week, the Chiefs will be determined to come away with the win in Auckland this Saturday. Not only to ensure a top-two finish for themselves, but probably more importantly, to remove any possibility of those cheeky blokes from Canterbury finishing second.
To Win (80mins)
Blues (+6.5) 9/10
Chiefs (-6.5) 9/10
The Blues really did a number on themselves this season. After taking down the Rebels back in Round 13 and moving into fifth spot on the log, it seems they decided it would be a bit more interesting to see if they could catch up with the Highlanders on the other side of the log. To their credit they gave it a good go, having now lost five in a row, most recently catching a 21-point hiding from the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. All Black scrumhalf Piri Weepu returns from injury to take over from Jamison Gibson-Park, and veteran Keven Mealamu will start at hooker for the home side this weekend. Rene Ranger has shifted inside to centre, leaving a gap for Lolagi Visinia to make his Blues debut out on the wing.
Dave Rennie has rung in the changes for this week’s must win game for the reigning champs, naming Toby Smith and Liam Messam in his run on side. Robbie Robinson, Lelia Masaga and Andrew Horrell make up the back three while Tim Nanai-Williams cracks the nod at centre. The Chiefs need only one point to ensure they finish top of the New Zealand conference, but they will be more set on the win to help them skip the hassle of having to take part in the playoffs.
VERDICT: Chiefs (-6.5) 9/10
The Chiefs won’t be caught napping two weeks in a row. And with the Blues currently looking about as threatening as milk tart, I can’t see them offering much resistance against this Chiefs side set on claiming a bonus point victory in Auckland. The Chiefs by 12.
Waratahs vs Reds | Saturday 13 July | ANZ Stadium | 11:40
Having had a solid month off to watch the Wallabies embarrass the nation, these age old enemies will be raring to get out in the middle and cause some carnage.
To Win (80mins)
Waratahs (-2.5) 9/10
Reds (+2.5) 9/10
Berrick Barnes will run out for the Waratahs for the last time this weekend, where he will be lining up alongside Rob Horne in the absence of Adam Ashley-Cooper, sidelined with an ankle injury. Missing big names such as Wycliff Palu and Israel Folau means the Waratahs are going to be tested in depth when they run out against this determined Reds outfit. Captain Dave Dennis will play his second match of the season at number 8.
With Reds head coach Ewen Mckenzie having been officially announced as Robbie Deans’ replacement, this will be his last crack at Super Rugby glory before he takes over the national duties. Currently in fifth spot on the log, a victory over the ‘Tahs combined with a Crusaders loss would see the Queenslanders move up to fourth and secure a home elimination final, which is always handy. However, failing to take down their New South Wales neighbours will cause them to drop down to sixth, forcing them to make their way over to Canberra to take on the Brumbies. Quade Cooper will be determined to put in a massive performance this week for the Reds just to make Robbie Deans even more aware of how flawed his decision was not to include the angry flyhalf in his Wallaby side during the British and Irish Lions series. The Reds have suffered two major injury blows with Will Genia and James Horwill both ruled out. James Slipper will take over the captaincy in Genia’s absence.
VERDICT: Reds 5/4
Although not exactly a do-or-die situation for the Reds, Ewen McKenzie will be looking to do all the right things to help his side finish off on a high before he sets off on his mission to rebuild the National side into something slightly more credible.
Force vs Brumbies | Saturday 13 July | NIB Stadium | 13:45
If there is one side that has really earned the right to contest in the final stages of this year’s competition then it has to the Brumbies. Jake White’s charges set the pace for the rest of the teams from the very first week, and managed to retain the coveted top spot for most of the competition. They have watched as their side dropped down to third over the last few weeks, but if the Chiefs slip up against the Blues and the Brumbies manage to secure a bonus point against the Force then they will still manage to sneak a comfortable second place.
To Win (80mins)
Force (+9.5) 9/10
Brumbies (-9.5) 9/10
Richard Brown will be running out for the Force for the very last time this weekend, having decided to make the move to Japan to play for Honda Heat from next season. The Force seem to be occupied with things other than trying to cause an unlikely upset against the Brumbies. They seem wrapped up at the moment deciding on whether to re-sign the services of unpredictable James O’Connor, who’s poor behaviour seems to bring more hassle than it’s worth, even more so now considering his poor form of late.
The Brumbies will be running out with seven Wallabies at their disposal for their must win battle against the Force this Saturday. George Smith has surprisingly been named on the bench alongside Fotu Auelua. Ben Mowen will start at number 8 this week, and will have the added responsibility of captaining the side. The explosive Christian Lealiifano will be looking to continue his brilliant form that saw him becoming a household name throughout the country during the recent Lions tour.
VERDICT: Brumbies (-9.5) 9/10
The most lethal thing at Jake White’s disposal before a clash of this nature has to be time. His ability to pinpoint the most subtle of weaknesses in upcoming opponents, and furthermore, to adapt his own side’s game plane for maximum exploitation of that weakness, means he more often than not goes in with the upper hand. And having just had a good month or so to find what he was looking for can only mean trouble for the Force. The Brumbies will be looking to finish strong; they could comfortably take it by 10 points or more.
Sharks vs Kings | Saturday 13 July | Kings Park | 17:05
The only other game this weekend that has absolutely no impact on how the rest of the tournament turns out, but it does allow the Kings one last chance of climbing off the bottom of the log.
To Win (80mins)
Sharks (-21.5) 9/10
Kings (+21.5) 9/10
Having lost the services of Butch James after being cited for an illegal tackle during last week’s game against the Bulls, and now with Pat Lambie looking less and less likely to play due to a minor back injury, the Sharks could find themselves in a spot of bother this Saturday with regards to a flyhalf. There is talk of Riaan Viljoen moving to 10, but just how effective that will be we will have to wait and see. Although the outcome of this match is of no real importance, the Sharks will still be hoping to end an otherwise forgettable season on a high note in front of a home crowd.
With the Kings running out for what could possibly be their last Super Rugby clash for quite some time, they have named a massive 12 changes to their side that managed to push the Stormers remarkably close in Cape Town last week. With their promotion-relegation series coming up against the Lions, the Kings decided to use this last opportunity to keep their players fresh ahead of the must win series for both unions.
VERDICT: Sharks (-21.5) 9/10
The Sharks should manage to end the season off with a convincing home victory despite their positional problems in the backline. The Sharks by 25.
Stormers vs Bulls | Saturday 13 July | Newlands Stadium | 19:10
Out of all the smug buggers that managed to snatch a spot in the top six, the Bulls are the ones with the most to lose this week. Following their hard fought victory over the Sharks in Pretoria last Saturday, the South African conference leaders claimed pole on the consolidated standings, meaning a victory for them this weekend will guarantee they won’t need to travel again in the competition.
To Win (80mins)
Stormers (+2.5) 7/10
Bulls (-2.5) 11/10
The Stormers managed to navigate themselves relatively well through a train wreck of a season that saw them crippled with injuries from the start. Now boasting an impressive four match winning streak, coupled with their near flawless home record this season, means they are going to make the Bulls work for every inch out in the park this Saturday afternoon. Elton Jantjies has been dropped for their final game of the season, with Gary van Aswegen being preferred at pivot because of his useful right boot.
Hate them or love them, you can’t deny that they deserve to be where right where they are, leading the overall standings. Pulling off a remarkable comeback after a shaky start to the season, the Bulls have now won nine games in a row, and have set themselves up with a very real chance of lifting the trophy in Pretoria, if they can manage to keep the momentum going through to the end. Jano Vermaak returns at scrumhalf this week, while Francois Venter replaces the injured Jan Serfontein.
VERDICT: Bulls 9/10
This game will be just as close as last week’s roller coaster ride between the Sharks and the Bulls in Pretoria, but just as they always seem to do, I predict the Bulls will manage to hold on just that tiny bit extra that invariably allows them to sneak the win in the dying minutes of the game. The Bulls by 3.
Think we’ve got it wrong? Well leave your comments below and tell us how you think this is going to play out.