Coastal teams on a knife-edge
The DHL Stormers, Crusaders, Sharks and Blues are all under massive pressure going into a round of Vodacom Super Rugby action that could see them fall significantly behind the so-called eight-ball if they lose.
What makes it particularly interesting is that two of those teams play off against one another, with the Blues starting the weekend by hosting the Stormers on Friday. It’s hard to imagine a better way to start the rugby weekend, as the match shapes up as a classic confrontation between attack and defence.
There’s probably a good reason why the Stormers go into the game boasting an impressive recent record against the Blues, who they’ve beaten on their last few visits to Auckland (this game is in Albany, but it’s basically still Auckland in the same way as Fourways is still Johannesburg). The Blues’ all action style, with what Stormers skipper Jean de Villiers has referred to as their dislike for structure, suits the Stormers’ approach.
The teams that beat the Stormers tend to be those that kick the ball in behind their defensive system. If the Blues adopt that approach, it will be the first time this season they have done so, which means there is some justification for Cape fans to be optimistic. A word of caution though – the Stormers’ defence was a bit porous at times against the Hurricanes last week and they can’t afford to repeat that against this particular team.
The Sharks start Saturday’s action for rugby addicts by facing off against the Highlanders in Dunedin. The Sharks’ team was not to hand at the time of writing but the smart money says that John Plumtree would have returned it to full-strength after last week indulging in some rotation against the Chiefs. The Highlanders would have been a game targeted before the tour, and that does introduce extra pressure for a team that looked to be regaining some of its old confidence in defeat against the Chiefs.
The Sharks need to win for different reasons than the Stormers. For the Durbanites it’s a case of needing to get back on the winning trail so they can remain in contact with the two inland frontrunners in the South African conference. The Cheetahs are guaranteed four points as they take their bye, so they can’t be overtaken on the log by the Sharks this weekend.
And the Bulls will also still be out of range for the Sharks if the Pretoria team does what is expected of them by beating the Hurricanes at Loftus. In fact, don’t bet against them banking a bonus point, all of which heaps extra pressure on a Sharks team that dominated the conference battle until a few weeks ago but has now lost three matches in quick succession.
The Stormers started their move up the log against the Hurricanes last week but they need to keep going as they are still down in 11th place. As their captain says, if they slip up over the next few weeks they will be up against it in the battle for places in the extended playoffs, let alone in the race to retain their conference title and thus get a favourable draw for the knockouts.
If the Sharks and the Stormers feel pressured they should console themselves with the knowledge that they are in good company, as the multiple champion Crusaders should also be sweating a bit after four defeats and their narrow victory last week against the lowly Rebels in Christchurch. They’re up against the top team, the Brumbies, this week, and this game will be well worth getting up early on Sunday morning to watch.
For the rest, the Waratahs have a chance to make history by becoming the first Australian team to beat the Kings, while the Reds should continue their climb up the log at the expense of the Western Force.
WEEKEND PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS (all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
BLUES v DHL STORMERS (Albany, Friday, 9:35am)
My money says the Stormers will win this one based on the fact that the Cape team are starting to head towards full-strength again and also their recent record against the Blues. Not for nothing do they enjoy a stranglehold against the Auckland team – they enjoy playing against the Blues’ style of play. Rene Ranger is on the wing for the Blues this time rather than the midfield, so it will be interesting to see what that means to the Blues’ approach. The problem with facing a team like the Blues for the Stormers is that it’s a bit like a technically skilled boxer who comes up against a big puncher – there’s always a chance a sucker punch early can turn all predictions on their head. If the Stormers slip tackles early like they did at stages of their game in Palmerston North they could well find themselves up against it. That is one of the reasons this match-up is so intriguing and so worth watching.
Prediction: Stormers by less than 7.
REBELS v CHIEFS (Melbourne, Friday, 11:40am)
The Rebels may have considered themselves a bit unlucky not to score an upset win over the Crusaders last week. They certainly came close enough to pulling it through. But my hunch is that the Chiefs will continue building what they started in the first quarter last week against the Sharks and stay safely ensconced at the top of the New Zealand conference. That’s one of the reasons why the Blues, who have extra points courtesy of two byes, are under pressure in Albany.
Prediction: Chiefs with something to spare.
HIGHLANDERS v SHARKS (Dunedin, Saturday, 9:35am)
All season I’ve been saying that at some stage the Highlanders will rediscover their mojo, and it would be sod’s law if it happened this week against a Sharks team that probably feels it deserves a bit of luck after all the injuries and the silly way they threw away an extra bonus point in Hamilton last week. To me the Sharks look like a team that is starting to come right and pick up momentum and it would be a surprise if they were to slip up in this game.
Prediction: Sharks by 5 to 12.
WESTERN FORCE v REDS (Perth, Saturday, 11:40am)
The Force shocked them in the first round but that is all the more reason why you should back the Reds to win quite comfortably and, if the Brumbies get knocked over by the Crusaders later in the weekend, maybe even go to the top of the Australian conference.
Prediction: Reds with something to spare.
SOUTHERN KINGS v WARATAHS (Port Elizabeth, Saturday, 5:05pm)
We wouldn’t have thought at the start of the season that the Waratahs would be playing this game to make history by becoming the first Aussie side to beat the Kings. But that is the case after the Kings beat the Western Force and Rebels and drew with the Brumbies. Sergeal Petersen is back for the Kings and they’re playing at home against a team that is one of more physical Australian sides. It could well be a game dominated by the defensive systems. The Waratahs are in an even worse place than the Stormers after five defeats so they should be desperate enough to make the history that beckons for them.
Prediction: Waratahs to win narrowly.
VODACOM BULLS v HURRICANES (Pretoria, Saturday, 7:10pm)
Like the Blues against the Stormers, you get the sense that the Hurricanes may play the type of game that should suit the Bulls, particularly on the Highveld, where the ball just flies miles and miles when it is kicked. The Stormers outplayed the Hurricanes in the kicking game in Palmerston North last week and the Bulls have better kickers than the Stormers. The Bulls might want to work on some aspects of their defensive game though for the Hurricanes did pose problems for the Stormers when they kept ball in hand. It could be close, but my gut says the Bulls will have some daylight between them and the visitors when the final whistle blows.
Prediction: Vodacom Bulls by 8 to 15.
BRUMBIES v CRUSADERS (Canberra, Sunday, 8:05am)
You really shouldn’t bet against the Brumbies these days, particularly when they’re at home in Canberra. But there are too many reasons for the Crusaders to need to win this game and if they revert to the spirit, commitment and sense of purpose that saw them upset the Stormers in Cape Town, they can do it. For no particularly good reason, I have a feeling they just might.
Prediction: Crusaders to squeak it.