Banana skins await step into unknown
The teams contesting Super Rugby take a step into the unknown this weekend as for the first time ever the Sanzar competition returns after a three-week break and with the battle for supremacy across the conferences still fairly delicately poised.
The Chiefs, Stormers and Brumbies enjoy what could on the face of it be termed a fairly comfortable lead at the top of their conferences, with the Chiefs seven points clear in New Zealand and the Stormers and Brumbies enjoying a five-point gap on the second-placed teams in the South African and Australian conferences respectively.
But that is close enough for all three conferences to have a different leader by the end of this next phase of competition in three weeks from now should the leaders lose the plot, and it would be surprising if the coaches of those leading teams didn’t experience a bit of anxiety at the possibility that the four-week gap may have robbed them of their momentum.
While coaches of teams that had players busy in their international teams during the June window would rightly worry that they might return to the competition feeling a bit jaded, the counter-argument is that at least those players should be match sharp. Those that haven’t been playing might need a bit of time to get back into the swing of things, as sometimes happens after a team has taken a break for a bye.
On top of that uncertainty is the potentially perilous fixtures that this first week back in Super Rugby is throwing up at the protagonists.
The Stormers, second on the overall log in addition to being top of the South African conference, would have regarded the Lions game at Newlands as a gimme a few weeks ago, but the Lions' win over the Sharks, coupled with the failure of key players to make their expected recoveries from injury, has made this one a potential banana skin that the Cape team could slip on.
Certainly that is what the Bulls and to a lesser extent the Sharks will be hoping for, as a Stormers loss will bring them back into the competition. A win for the Stormers will make it almost impossible for the other teams to catch them as they will then have only two matches left.
Not that the Bulls should take anything for granted in their clash with the Cheetahs either. The Bulls had lost three matches on the trot when the break arrived in early June, and some of the key Bulls players who played in the England series appeared to be struggling for confidence. The Cheetahs are mostly rested and have players such as Heinrich Brussow who must feel they have a lot to prove.
But this is a weekend where the overseas games have the potential to be even more interesting than the ones to be played in South Africa – the Chiefs are riding high but travel to Dunedin to play the one team that beat them on their home patch in the first half of competition, while the Crusaders won’t be taking the unpredictable Hurricanes lightly either. Of the two games on Kiwi soil, the one in Dunedin is the harder to predict.
- Weekend’s Teams
- Working the Blindside - video preview
PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS (all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
HIGHLANDERS v CHIEFS (Dunedin, Friday 9.35am)
The Highlanders have lost some of the players who were so impressive when they beat the Chiefs in Hamilton at the start of the competition, and with it has gone some of their momentum. Nonetheless, the knowledge they have beaten the Chiefs and know how to do it should inspire confidence, and this one could be very tight. The Crusaders will hope their south island neighbours can do it as it will bring them right back into conference contention with a derby between the two teams still to come. The Stormers will also be rooting for a Highlanders win as they look for top spot on the overall log.
Prediction: Chiefs by a whisker (something like 22-19).
REBELS v REDS (Melbourne, Friday 11.40am)
The Reds have recovered from their early-season form lapse and injury problems. They had just named their team at the time of writing, and although they are still without regular captain James Horwill, it looked a strong one, with Quade Cooper there to join Will Genia in spearheading a full-strength backline. The Rebels though have Kurtley Beale at fullback and James O'Connor returning from injury and down to play flyhalf, plus the motivation of wanting to give the legendary Stirling Mortlock a fitting send-off in what will be his last home game. So while the Reds should be favourites, it might be close.
Prediction: Reds by 5 to 12 (something like 27-19).
CRUSADERS v HURRICANES (Christchurch, Saturday 9.35am)
Phew, the Crusaders are a bit like the Stormers this weekend as they go into a crucial game with several players out to injury, in their case courtesy of ailments picked up playing for the All Blacks. Dan Carter isn’t there, so Tom Taylor plays flyhalf – and there is a massive difference when that happens. Richie McCaw moves to No 8 for the injured Kieran Reid, which on the evidence of the All Blacks’ rout of Ireland last week may not be too much of a train smash. Another All Black out is Israel Dagg, while Tom Marshall is also sidelined. But the Hurricanes also have All Blacks missing to injury (Corey Jane and Victor Vito) while they are still waiting on the fitness of Jack Lam.
Prediction: Crusaders by 7 to 15 (31-22).
WESTERN FORCE v BRUMBIES (Saturday, Perth 11.40am)
The Brumbies have five Wallabies in two for this one and Sam Carter is back so they should be favourites to beat a Western Force team that will be playing to give veteran Nathan Sharpe a fitting send-off as he plays his final game in Perth. He will be joined in the team by one other member of the inaugural Western Force team, Richard Brown. All the emotion and sentiment is sure to rouse the Force, but you fancy that Jake White’s men should be too wily to be caught out.
Prediction: Brumbies by 3 to 8 (21-13).
DHL STORMERS v MTN LIONS (Cape Town, Saturday 5.05pm)
Tyrone Holmes against Derrick Minnie wasn’t something the Stormers would have been anticipating as a match-up for this game when they looked ahead at the start of the season, but so far Allister Coetzee has been pretty accurate when it comes to throwing players into the deep end and getting them to swim. The Stormers know this one will be tough, they accept that, but the injuries that have seen them play so significantly under-strength for so long have only served to strengthen the resolve of the unit, as we saw at Loftus last time out.
- Stormers team announcement
Prediction: Stormers by 2 to 10. (23-16)
VODACOM BULLS v TOYOTA CHEETAHS (Pretoria, Saturday 7.10pm)
The Cheetahs didn’t have many Springboks involved in the series against England but they did end up losing their next best player after Johan Goosen in the form of Coenie Oosthuizen. That is a significant loss, and it is interesting to see WP Nel playing off the bench in this one. When it comes to name players, it looks like Heinrich Brussow versus a quasi-Springbok team. The Bulls have dominated the Cheetahs for a while now in this competition and that trend should continue.
- Bulls team announcement
Prediction: Bulls by 10 to 20 (33-18)