It’s crunch time, folks. Round 14 of the 2008 Super 14 and 6 teams fighting tooth and nail for the three remaining semi-final slots.
Ghost10 is still a bit tied up, settling into his new day job (yes – we all have those around here) and has asked me to have another stab at doing the predicting. No easy feat this week, considering how many games there are that could so easily go either way.
Blues v Hurricanes
A huge New Zealand derby gets proceedings underway this weekend. This match is an absolute must-win for both teams. For the Hurricanes, they really need an absolute minimum of two points to ensure they qualify at all. Their points difference is looking very healthy on 108, thanks to the record thrashings of the Bulls and Cheetahs, so 42 points will ensure they can end no worse than fourth. A home semi final will be virtually assured, though, should they win. To make second spot unassailable, though, they will need a full house of five points.
The Blues have their backs against the wall, but a five-point win here will get them to 41 (and hopefully take them past the Canes) and put them in with a good shout should any of the Waratahs, Sharks or Stormers lose. For them, it will be crucial to prevent the Canes getting any points out of this fixture.
So, we’ll have two teams going all out to score four tries and win the game. The Blues, though, can’t afford to be as carefree in their approach as the Hurricanes can, as any losing bonus points dished out to the Wellington men could still see them finish above the Aucklanders. Looking at form coming into this game, one feels that the Blues are probably playing the better rugby right now. They are at home and should have the upper hand in the forwards, given that Neemia Tialata is out and Jerry Collins just returning from injury for the Canes. Nick Evans is coming back to his best form and is proving a match-winner at fullback, so it’s mostly with head (although there’s a lot of heart involved) that I call the Blues to triumph in the opening game, thus ending the Hurricanes’ play-off hopes.
Force v Brumbies
Um, do we care? Ok, I guess we do, because there are still SuperBru points on offer here, but it’s hard to get too excited about a game that has absolutely no relevance in the play-off race. To me, it’s quite simple. The Force are at home and they are in reasonable nick at the moment. Matt Giteau is back from injury and dictating matters from flyhalf and together with Nathan Sharpe, Drew Mitchell and Cameron Shepherd, the Force just look to have too many guns for the Brumbies. The Criminal Cavalry were absolutely pathetic against the Bulls last week and one gets the feeling that they expect Stirling Mortlock to win every game on his own. Expect the talismanic skipper to score a try somewhere along the line, but it won’t be enough to prevent a comfortable victory to the Western Force.
Crusaders v Highlanders
Another game where neither team really has anything to play for. The Crusaders have picked their strongest team and will no doubt want to tune their awesome machine for next week’s semi-final. There must be a slight doubt, though, in the backs of some minds, as it won’t help them at all if they pick up injuries by going all-out in a meaningless game.
The Highlanders have vacillated between pathetic and poor all season and should be further disrupted by Jimmy Cowan’s antisocial antics last weekend, which have left a cloud over the scrumhalf’s availability. You can pick this one with your eyes closed, guys. Saders to walk it; get those margins up.
Reds v Waratahs
The second absolutely crucial game of the weekend. The Tahs need three more points to ensure a play-off place, but can’t guarantee a home semi-final unless the Blues beat the Canes. In that case, a win will be enough to ensure the Sydney team can’t be overtaken on 43 points. Should the Blues lose out, then the Tahs will be able to finish third at best, in which case a four-point win will also be ok. The reds, of course, have nothing to play for other than pride.
The Waratahs have been badly off the boil the last two weeks. They were expecting to pick up at least 8 points on their SA tour. Instead, they got 3. They seem to be on a downward spiral and it would be tempting to say that the Reds could beat them. The Queenslanders played superbly against the Crusaders last week and had the log-leaders on the ropes, before choking in the most dramatic fashion. History has shown that these derby games are virtually impossible to pick, though and that you can usually throw the form book out of the window.
Three factors play into the Waratah’s hands here. First, the Reds are without Chris Latham, which immediately makes them 30% weaker. Second, the Reds don’t have as much at stake as the Waratahs do. You can say what you like, but there’s just not way in hell that the Reds will be anywhere near as hungry as the Tahs. Thirdly, the Tahs will no that all they need to do is win. If they get four points, then they don’t have to worry about points difference. Further, it doesn’t matter whether they allow their opponents any bonus points, as the Reds are out of the race. Their destiny regarding a home semi-final is not in their hands; even if they somehow end on level points with the Hurricanes, they would have a points differential of virtually 50 to make up, so they will know coming into this game whether they can still finish second. Either way, they will be going out to win and win at all costs.
I think it will be close, but the Tahs will definitely find a way to win this one.
Lions v Stormers
Another big derby. Here, the permutations are a lot more difficult to work out. Firstly, the Lions have the better pack, hands down. Again, though, there is the fact that the Stormers have everything to play for and the Lions nothing. The Stormers, though, will know that they have to get the full five points and win by the highest possible margin, lest they lose out. That adds a huge weight of expectation to the team.
There is also a lot of needle going into this game and no doubt a number of players who will feel they have individual points to prove. The Lions, to my mind, have an erratic genius in Earl Rose and he’s about as likely to win the game for them as he is to cause defeat. He was good last week, which makes me think he’ll be vrot this time out. Jacques Fourie will test the Stormers midfield defence, but again the Lions have some serious weakness out wide in the form of Rayno Benjamin, who seemingly can’t catch a cold.
I’m going to give this one to the Stormers, simply because they have more to play for than the Lions do. I don’t think it’s going to be convincing, though – more importantly, I don’t see the Stormers getting a bonus point.
Cheetahs v Bulls
Another game that means nothing. The Bulls are on the up, while the Cheetahs couldn’t win if they played against themselves. The Cheetahs loose forwards continue to be outstanding and should shade the Bulls in this department, given Wikus van Heerden’s withdrawal. In fact, the Cheetahs may well have the better of the forward exchanges in general, but I don’t think it will be enough of an advantage to stop the Bulls running riot, particularly if their centres target the brittle Cheetahs midfield defence.
Bulls to win, if anybody actually cares.
Sharks v Chiefs
The Sharks rose to the challenge pretty well last week, beating the Cheetahs nicely to keep themselves in the race. By the time this game kicks off, they’ll know what they need to do to qualify and in all likelihood, that will mean winning with a bonus point. Against a Chiefs team that’s battling find 22 fit players and potentially without all of their gamebreakers, you have to back the Sharks to win in style. The Chiefs will come into this game no longer able to qualify anyway, which will just mean they have that much less fire in their already tired bellies.
So, that’s how I see it. My final log positions will be
1. Crusaders 57
2. Waratahs 43
3. Sharks 42
4. Blues 41