Must-win weekend for all but one
The New Zealand conference has already been decided and by Saturday evening that might also be the case in South Africa and Australia as the penultimate round of Super Rugby is littered with must-win fixtures that amount to mini-finals.
There is only one team that can go into their game this week feeling that defeat won’t amount to something close to a trainsmash. The Chiefs can go out onto their home field in Hamilton on Friday morning with their hands tied behind their backs or alternatively with the resolve to spend the game running around waving their arms and clucking like chickens and it won’t make a difference to their standing on the conference table.
The Crusaders can at best draw level with the Chiefs on the final table, and even if they did that – which would take some doing as it would require the Chiefs to fail to get a single log point from their remaining games while the Crusader get a full house in both theirs – the Chiefs would still have too many wins.
But even the Chiefs do have reason to want to win against the pre-tournament favourites – the Stormers are only four points adrift of them on the overall log table, and can overtake them if the Chiefs lose and the Cape team beats the Cheetahs. The Kiwi conference race may be done and dusted, but top spot – which ensures home-ground advantage in a final if that team gets there – is crucial.
The Stormers might well be going into the Bloemfontein game knowing that they are pretty assured of the conference title. The Bulls play the Sharks on Friday, and a loss there would leave the Stormers needing just to pick up a bonus point to ensure that the following week’s final league fixture against the Rebels at Newlands has no relevance to the conference standings.
But the Stormers can’t bank on the Sharks winning, so as it stands now, Bloemfontein is a must-win, and it will remain so even if the Bulls do lose, as they would like to top the overall log, which will still be in sight regardless of whether the Chiefs win or lose on Friday.
The Brumbies are in a similar position to the Stormers in that they could be assured of conference success if the Reds, who trail them by five points on the log, lose to the Highlanders in Brisbane on Friday.
That though is unlikely to happen, so the chances are that the Brumbies will go to Sydney on Saturday needing a drought-breaking win at that venue to retain their pole position on the log.
So it’s going to be a compelling and intriguing weekend, made even more so by the fact that some teams, such as the Sharks, are coming back after not playing together for five weeks.
The teams looked rusty when they came back last week, so Durbanites will be hoping that the Sharks can be the exception to the rule. The Stormers will be rooting for that too, as they would love an ease in pressure.
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PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS (all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
CHIEFS v CRUSADERS (Hamilton, Friday 9.35am)
The Crusaders have Dan Carter, Israel Dagg and Kieran Read back in the team for this game, and all of those are very influential players, particularly Carter, who makes such a difference to the alignment of the backs. The Chiefs by contrast have effectively sewn up the New Zealand conference and although they will be glancing over their shoulders at the second placed Stormers on the overall log, it might be that their rivals from the south island have more to play for. Crusaders tend to get cracking in the big ones, and this is a big one.
Prediction: Crusaders to win narrowly.
REDS v HIGHLANDERS( Brisbane, Friday 11.40am)
The Reds were a bit rusty after the June international window when they beat the Rebels last week, but started to pick up momentum when they needed to. They need to win to keep the pressure on the Brumbies, who remain marginally ahead in the Australian conference. The Highlanders, by contrast, kissed any title hopes goodbye when they lost to the Chiefs and although they do still have a mathematical chance, it is not a realistic one. The Reds should win with something to spare.
Prediction: Reds by 5 to 12.
SHARKS v VODACOM BULLS (Durban, Friday 7.10pm)
It’s test match footing for both teams going into this one, with neither management being prepared to give much away during the build-up week. A few weeks ago I would have said the Sharks would win easily, but they have lost three of the star players from the big win over the Stormers the last time they played in Durban – Patrick Lambie, Willem Alberts and Steven Sykes. The second row, in particular, looks vulnerable against a quality Bulls combination. Then there is also the question of rustiness, with the Sharks not having played together now for over a month. The key players at the back, Frederic Michalak, Frans Steyn and Tim Whitehead, have not played together at all. But the Sharks do have a good record when they are playing a match that amounts to essentially a final for them, and they are playing at home. That, and the fact they have a marginally better back row and front-row, is the only reason they start this game as slight favourites.
Prediction: Sharks to edge it.
BLUES v WESTERN FORCE (Auckland, Saturday 9.35am)
Early in the year the prediction would have been that the Blues would be facing an easy game in the run-in to what would surely have been play-off qualification. It hasn’t turned out that way, and instead they are inhabiting the dregs part of the Super Rugby barrel, as are the Force. Home ground advantage should and the lack of quality in the opposing lineup should see the Kiwi team to victory.
Prediction: Blues by 8 to 15.
WARATAHS v BRUMBIES (Sydney, Saturday 11.40am)
The Waratahs have struggled this year but they enjoy a long sequence of success against the Brumbies at home, so it wouldn’t be wise to bet too much on the top team in the Australian conference prevailing. The visitors, who had not named their team at the time of writing, do though have the carrot of knowing that a win will put them one step away from the conference title.
- Sharks team announcement
- Bulls team announcement
Prediction:A close game edged by the Waratahs.
TOYOTA CHEETAHS v DHL STORMERS (Bloemfontein, Saturday 3.00pm)
The Stormers management were a bit stung by the Superwrap’s assertion this week that they are the dullest team in the competition, but dull is what they need to be if they want to beat the Cheetahs on their home ground. It is when teams are duped into trying to slug it out with the Cheetahs in a try-fest that they make themselves vulnerable, and this was one of the reasons the Cheetahs were the only team to take a try scoring bonus point off the Stormers last year. Skipper Jean de Villiers says his players will stick with the plan, which means strangulation in the style of a python, which is never pretty but the victims also never live to give their view on it. If the Stormers stick to the tried and tested, they will win.
- Cheetahs team announcement
- Stormers team announcement
Prediction: Stormers by 7 to 14.
MTN LIONS v MELBOURNE REBELS (Johannesburg, Saturday 5.05pm)
The face saving win over the Stormers was not forthcoming but the Lions players will be eager to show that they are a notch above the Rebels. And at home they should manage it.
Prediction: Lions by 7 to 14.