Friends, the Ghost is tied up again, so I’m going to take a stab at doing the predictions this week. Remember, I’m down in 18th position on SuperBru, so perhaps take that into account when reading these!
It’s crunch time this week, with all fourteen teams in action and all but five of them still in within reach of the play-offs. There are several key match-ups this week that will go a long way to deciding who will still have something to play for going into the final round next weekend.
Hurricanes v Force
The Force are all but out of the race. They can reach a maximum of 38 points, which looks like being at least 4 or 5 shy of what they’ll need. That said, they are well positioned as spoilers going into the last two rounds and an upset win over the Hurricanes could really knock the third-placed Wellington lads back into the chasing pack. The Canes probably have the toughest remaining fixtures, with the Blues away after the Force game so will know that they really need to take five points here to try and force home ground advantage in the play-offs. Should they lose, they could find themselves facing a do-or-die clash in Auckland to make the play-offs at all.
The Canes tend to blow hot and cold, but they’re hitting some decent form at the moment and have plenty of power and pace pretty much right throughout the team. The Force will be reeling from the loss of centre Ryan Cross, one of their stars. They’ll look to Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell to add some magic, but I’m afraid you have to pick the home side in this one. Hurricanes to win with quite a bit to spare.
Bulls v Brumbies
This is probably a meaningless game at this stage, although the Brumbies are on the same number of points as the Force and could possibly still sneak a play-off spot, if a number of really unlikely results come off over the next fortnight. It really is a hell of a long shot, though, meaning that this encounter will be about two teams playing to restore some pride and build some continuity for the years to come.
That makes it very hard to call. The Bulls were good against the Tahs, but the weather played into their hands. They are starting to find some rhythm again, although they won’t have Derick Hougaard on the bench this week to bail them out if the game turns into a kicking-fest. The Brumbies have been disrupted by some illnesses in the camp this week and thus might not have had the build-up they would have liked. They have nonetheless named a very strong team and were impressive against the Stormers last week.
I’m going to make a gut-feel call here and back the Brumbies to take this one, just because I feel their individual skill levels are so much better than the Bulls’ and also due to the fact that, once they get going, they can hold onto possession through phase after phase after phase like no other team in the competition. Faced with this, I suspect the Bulls’ discipline might implode.
Highlanders v Blues
There can only be one winner here: the side from Auckland. The Blues are finding form again and will whip the Highlanders, themselves somewhat buggered having made the long trip back from South Africa this week. From the point of view of the Sharks and the Stormers, it’s pretty vital that the Blues really hit their stride in this match, because we need them to go into the last match against the Hurricanes with everything to play for. Should the Blues no longer be in contention when the ‘Canes come to Auckland, there’s every chance the Wellington side could walk right over them and claim a home semi in the process.
David Nucifora has tinkered with his backs yet again, dropping Ice Toeava and bringing Benson Stanley back in at 12. Isa Nacewa will again be at flyhalf, a move which has not quite convinced all critics yet, but against the Highlanders, I don’t see it making any difference. Blues to win this game at a canter.
Reds v Crusaders
The Reds have quietly been putting in some pretty good performances over the last few weeks and actually ran the Blues a lot closer than the scoreline suggested last week. They have talisman Chris Latham back at fullback after a lengthly spell on the sidelines.
The Crusaders, though, look pretty unstoppable at the moment and will have the best possible insurance policy, with Dan Carter named on the bench. I don’t buy that this match is going to be complete on-way traffic as the Reds will be competitive for at least 40 minutes, but you have to bet on the Crusaders to win comfortably, thus sowing up first place in the standings with a week to play.
Sharks v Cheetahs
Local derbies are always a real pain to call, but to me, the equation here is simple. The Cheetahs have named the same exact side that couldn’t put away a team reduced to 13-men for ten minutes, at home last week. They have a good pack of forwards, that’s for sure, but their backs have leaked tries all year. They have a journeyman at scrumhalf, another at flyhalf and have only managed a single win in their last 11 starts.
That Sharks may well be disrupted through the loss of Johann Muller, but the squad has been bolstered by the return of Johan Ackermann and together with Steven Sykes and Bismarck du Plessis, both of whom should be back, should have the firepower to match the Cheetahs up front. The Durban team’s defence was pretty good against the Crusaders last week and I expect more of the same this week. The signs just don’t point to a Sharks loss here.
Then again, for the Sharks to keep their slim play-off hopes alive, they need to score four tries and win by as big a margin as possible. If they play like we know they can, they should have the Cheetahs buried by half time. I am going to back them to do just this. Quite frankly, they just don’t have any other option. It’s time for the boys to stand up. Sharks to win by plenty.
Lions v Chiefs
Man, but wouldn’t we love the Lions to pull off an upset here. Both teams have traveled to the republic this week, so there shouldn’t really be any advantage as a result of that. Both sides lost last week, so neither will be on a huge high going into this game. The Lions will welcome back centre Jaque Fourie, but it’s unlikely he’s going to make that much of a difference to a team that hasn’t managed to win since the first round of the competition.
To me, this game is unfortunately very easy to call as well. The Lions have nothing to play for, the Chiefs everything. A loss for the Hamilton side will mean no semi-final this year. They have the game to absolutely annihilate the hapless Lions and just the thought of Masaga opposing Rayno Benjamin is enough to convince me that the Chiefs are going to win this one with plenty to spare.
Stormers v Waratahs
The game of the round. Both of these sides know that a failure to pick up at least two points from this encounter will leave them vulnerable to losing out to either the Sharks or the Chiefs. Both have relatively simple games in the last round, so this match really is the final hurdle for both sides in terms of making the semis. A good win here could set either side up for a potential second-place finish.
The Tahs weren’t good against the Bulls, but they are a superb side nonetheless, with dangerous runners all over the field and a set of lose forwards that can win a game on their own. The Stormers, in contrast, are looking a little bit short in the pack, given injuries to JD Moller and Schalk Burger. They do have the momentum on their side at the moment and their fans will pack the stadium to the rafters and carry them on. They are capable of playing some superb rugby, but have developed a worrying tendency to try and defend a lead in the second half. The Tahs have played their best rugby in the second half in just about all of their outings to date, so the Stormers are going to have to ensure that they play for the full 80 minutes here.
I’m going with my heart and calling the Stormers to win here, but my sense of reason is screaming that it’s not going to end that way. If the Tahs get the better of the home side in the forwards, which they are well capable of doing, it could go the other way by a big margin.Tweet