Contenders playing for happy holidays
The top contenders in Vodacom Super Rugby will be playing for the pleasure of going into a three-week break from the weekly grind of the competition knowing they are in a strong position to achieve their goals after the break.
And with the overall log leaders, the Chiefs, out of action this weekend but guaranteed top spot with the four points they get for the bye, it’s the Brumbies and the Vodacom Bulls who have the most to gain from this last round before the break.
A win for the Bulls over the Toyota Cheetahs will do what the Stormers' win over them did at Loftus at the same juncture of last season – it will make them extremely difficult to keep away from the South African conference trophy.
The Cheetahs though know they will be just a point or two behind the Bulls on the log if they win, so in many senses this is a decider, or perhaps eliminator is a better word. A Bulls win will settle things whereas a Cheetahs win will just make it tight rather than settle the race in their favour.
The Australian top teams, the Brumbies and the Reds, don’t play each other this weekend, but if the Brumbies win against the Hurricanes and the Reds slip against the Rebels, then that conference is done and dusted too.
So it’s definitely elimination time, although the smart money should be on both the Brumbies and Reds winning their home games and keeping it tight for another week.
The New Zealand conference is just about already decided in favour of the Chiefs, but the Crusaders and Blues are locked together on the borderline of wildcard qualification.
WEEKEND PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS(all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
CRUSADERS v WARATAHS (Christchurch, Friday 9:35am)
Once again the first match is the one to watch this weekend. Although they both lost last weekend – the Waratahs quite surprisingly and the Crusaders less so because they were missing key forwards – these two are ranked among the top form sides in the competition. Neither can afford to lose if they want to remain in contention for anything, although for the Waratahs that bus might have left the station last week already. Corey Flynn is back for Crusaders but Sam Whitelock is now missing, and Owen Franks is also still out. So the Waratahs have a definite chance, but after betting against the Crusaders last week – a rare thing for me - I’m not prepared to do it again. Against the Chiefs they were away from home, and playing at home should give them a light edge.
Prediction: Crusaders to win narrowly.
BRUMBIES v HURRICANES (Canberra, Friday 11:40am)
The Brumbies seem to be getting through the season without any major injury concerns, and it is one of the reasons they are still flying, unlike last year when they lost both Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua at a crucial stage. They were excellent with their South African type approach last week against the Blues in Auckland and while the weather may not help them in Canberra like it in Auckland, they should have too much at forward for the Hurricanes.
Prediction: Brumbies to win by 7 to 15.
HIGHLANDERS v BLUES (Dunedin, Saturday 9:35am)
The Blues appear to have a few changes at the back for this game but will travelling to the south island in the hope that their coach, Sir John Kirwan, doesn’t have reason to blow a gasket like he did last week after that first half. There’s definitely a candidate for an anger management course there, though to Kirwan’s credit he was pretty composed during the halftime television interview. If anyone should be blowing a gasket at present it’s the Highlanders coach, Jamie Joseph. His team must really be looking forward to the June international window as a chance to escape the weekly beating. But they are back at home, and I would be tempted to tip a Highlanders win here (last time out at Forsyth Barr they beat the Sharks) if it were not for the illogic of it.
Prediction: Blues to scrape it.
REDS v REBELS (Brisbane, Saturday 11:40am)
Two weeks ago you wouldn’t have had to think too hard about this one. The Reds had built up an impressive head of steam and were on a winning trend, whereas the Rebels were on a losing one. That has changed, with the Reds' defeat to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein being followed by an unexpected one to the depleted Stormers. The Rebels have beaten the Stormers and the Waratahs in the same period. But surely the Reds are too good to lose again, and the Rebels not quite good enough to beat three strong teams in successive weeks.
Prediction: Reds by 6 to 13.
DHL STORMERS v SOUTHERN KINGS (Cape Town, Saturday 5:05pm)
The Stormers must start as favourites at home, particularly after winning last week and with some strong players coming back into the team after injury. But don’t go betting your house on this game because the weather forecasters are predicting monsoon conditions and it will thus be more of a lottery than the respective team sheets and last week’s form would suggest it should be. The Kings do have Demetri Catrakilis and on a wet day his game management might just be enough to win it for the Kings, provided they win enough ball. But that is the million dollar question, will the Kings forwards be able to do what they need to do in those conditions without Steven Sykes? My money says not.
Prediction: Stormers to win narrowly.
TOYOTA CHEETAHS v VODACOM BULLS (Bloemfontein, Saturday 7:10pm)
It’s hard to remember when last Bloemfontein hosted such an important franchise or provincial match (you probably have to go back to the 2006 and 2007 Currie Cup finals) and in that sense the Cheetahs should be primed to perform out of their socks. This is their opportunity to bust open the door and really put themselves in with a chance of winning the SA conference and making the semifinals for the first time. Conversely, the Bulls just about make sure of the conference title if they win. So it’s like a final. And the Bulls, with the likes of Morne Steyn in their team, have been good at finals in the past. But the Cheetahs impressed me with the way they handled the away game against the Kings last week and the Bulls not so much at Kings Park, so the home team may be the safer bet.
Prediction: Cheetahs to win close game.