Momentum question adds unpredictability
If you’re not completely sure where everything stands in Vodacom Super Rugby as we head into the last three weeks of the league phase, don’t feel alone.
The almost month break since the last action in the competition has left a lot of people needing to catch up, not least the players.
The break was long enough to introduce the possibility that those team that picked up momentum before the international season arrived could have it broken, and it could have an impact on the predictability of the games over these next few weeks.
There are just five games down for decision this weekend as the Australian teams won’t be in action for the obvious reason that there is a massive test match between the Wallabies and the British and Irish Lions to be played in their country on Saturday.
When the Aussies return to action in a fortnight, the Brumbies should wrap up the conference without too much trouble as they are five points ahead of the Reds with a game remaining.
But the pressure will be on Jake White’s team to hit the straps quickly in their remaining league game as they wouldn’t have played for a while, with the recent win over the Lions being achieved by a team without the Wallabies in it.
The momentum question shouldn’t have too much impact on the other two conferences as there is too much of a gap between the top and second teams for there to really be a risk of the lead being overturned.
The Vodacom Bulls are eight points ahead of the Toyota Cheetahs in the South African conference, and the Chiefs hold a 10 point advantage over the Crusaders in New Zealand.
Where a break in momentum could blow someone out of the water though is in the jostling for positions at the top for home ground advantage in the playoff phase, as well as in the battle to make the top six.
In that sense, the Cheetahs are under massive pressure as they tackle the depleted Stormers in Cape Town on Saturday night.
Their loss to the Bulls last time out has effectively killed off any chance of them advancing to the knockouts as conference winners, but they are currently fifth on the overall log and in the playoff frame.
With a bye, and four guaranteed log points to come, a win at Newlands should be enough to assure a reasonably comfortable passage into the playoffs, but defeat will leave them feeling the heat as they will need to then beat the Blues in Bloemfontein.
It’s a lot more relaxed for the Bulls right now, as you can tell from the wise decision to rest several top players who saw action for the Springboks in recent weeks for Saturday’s Loftus clash with the Southern Kings.
Even if they lose to the Port Elizabeth team, the Bulls will have a chance to redeem themselves and still win the conference – but in Pretoria a negative result is highly unlikely and even with the changes they look strong enough to secure a bonus point win.
The only match that isn’t a derby this weekend is the Kings Park clash between the Sharks and the Blues, with the latter needing to win to get back into the top six. They are currently eighth.
The big question hovering over the Sharks is of course the one that focuses on the upheaval that has happened off the field in that franchise recently.
WEEKEND PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS (all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
CHIEFS v HURRICANES (Hamilton, Friday 9:35am)
The Chiefs started to pick up their game again before the break and should be favoured to beat their fellow north island rivals and thus make absolutely sure of the New Zealand conference trophy for the second consecutive year.
Prediction: Chiefs by around 10.
HIGHLANDERS v CRUSADERS (Dunedin, Saturday 9:35am)
The break might help the Highlanders as their season has been a disaster and although they did show some improvement in late May and early June, it’s not like you can say they were on any kind of roll. The Crusaders have come up with an interesting selection in that although Dan Carter is starting at flyhalf, regular captain Kieran Read is on the bench, as are Wyatt Crockett, Cory Flynn and Luke Romano. So there is plenty of firepower to bring onto the field later if Crusaders do get into trouble in the big occasion south island derby.
Prediction: Crusaders by 6 to 13.
SHARKS v BLUES (Durban, Saturday 2:50pm)
Any kind of prediction involving the Sharks is pure guess-work at the moment as not only have they not played as a full-strength team since May (they had a bye before the last game heading into the break), they’ve also experienced a change of coach. There must be a lot of uncertainty, but there is still the potential that the fact a new man is coming in shortly could put a cracker under some of the players who may figure they need to impress to be part of the new dispensation. The Blues have been unpredictable too and their authority appears to have waned just recently, possibly as a consequence of what appears to be problems with the coach John Kirwan. The Sharks have nothing to play for but they do have good players back in tow who have regained momentum after injury layoffs by playing in the international games and the coaches who are guiding them this week are also experienced. Grant Bashford and Hugh Reece-Edwards were close enough to John Plumtree to ensure that there won’t be that much disruption. It’s why I think that despite everything, the Sharks will win.
Prediction: Sharks to scrape through.
VODACOM BULLS v SOUTHERN KINGS (Pretoria, Saturday 5:05pm)
The Kings team will be without regular skipper Luke Watson, who has been ruled out for the rest of the season with injury. They’ve played well enough without him in many of their games this year, but Loftus, even against a team that has lost regular captain Pierre Spies and is resting key Springboks, should be too much of a mountain to climb for the men from the Eastern Cape.
Prediction: Bulls to win comfortably.
DHL STORMERS v TOYOTA CHEETAHS (Cape Town, Saturday 7:15pm)
The Stormers shocked by beating the Reds in Cape Town two weeks before the break and must stand a chance of avenging their narrow defeat to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein earlier in the competition. However, I would be more convinced of their chances were just one Rynhardt Elstadt, Michael Rhodes or Duane Vermeulen present to add some much needed physicality to a loose-trio that may be a bit lightweight without them. Regular captain Jean de Villiers is also out injured. The Cheetahs have won twice in the last seconds with penalty kicks in matches against the Stormers this season, one of those being in the pre-season friendly in Bloemfontein, and it should be that close again. My theory that the Cheetahs are the favourites could depend though on how the Cheetahs will deal with the break in momentum…
Prediction: Cheetahs to scrape a narrow win.