The apple-cart can be upset
The six teams that will participate in the Vodacom Super Rugby playoffs have been finalised, but for the teams at the top of the table there is still plenty to play for and it would be a brave person who predicts that the current order remains the same at the end of this final weekend of league play.
The Vodacom Bulls, after showing their determination to prevail and big match temperament in winning it late against the Sharks a week ago, should fancy their chances of finishing in pole position. But the Stormers have also started to establish a winning habit just of late and, like the Bulls, they boast a good home record.
Only the Crusaders have beaten the Stormers at home this season, and that was a strange game that was decided by a narrow margin. Among their victims at Newlands have been both of the probable conference winners in Australia and New Zealand, and if the Stormers do win in the late game on Saturday, they would have beaten all but one of the teams in the eventual top six.
As their skipper Jean de Villiers says, that is an indication they’ve been way too inconsistent this season. But they have found some consistency just of late, and while they remain depleted by injury, the motivation to finish the season strongly while at the same time giving Bryan Habana a winning farewell should make the Stormers dangerous opponents.
In a nutshell, it is not a game you just assume the Bulls will win.
The same can be said for the Chiefs’ visit to Auckland for their match against the Blues. If the Chiefs lose, the Bulls might not even need to beat the Stormers to finish top, depending on whether the Brumbies win well with a bonus point against the Western Force.
You wouldn’t bet on a Blues win, but the Chiefs were poor last week and the Blues showed last year against the Brumbies that they like finishing the season with a good one-off win.
It’s unlikely that they will beat the Chiefs, but it is well short of being completely impossible. The Hurricanes have much less chance of upsetting the Crusaders as they have to travel to Christchurch, and the Crusaders were awesome on their home ground last week.
They also know that if they pick up a full house of log points they will keep the pressure on the Chiefs, who will then need a bonus point as the bare minimum to assure themselves of the New Zealand conference title.
There are some good games scheduled for the final round of the league stage, and in terms of what it means in Australia, the Sydney derby between the Waratahs and Reds is as big as the Stormers/Bulls showdown.
PREVIEW AND PREDICTIONS (all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
CRUSADERS v HURRICANES (Christchurch, Friday 9:35am)
The Crusaders have built an impressive head of steam just when it is needed most and they are going to be hard to stop.
Prediction: Crusaders by 20.
MELBOURNE REBELS v HIGHLANDERS (Melbourne, Friday 11:40am)
The Highlanders have played some great attacking rugby just recently but they’ve had no defence to speak of. Much will hinge on how the hosts have been impacted by the long break from Super Rugby.
Prediction: Rebels to win narrowly.
BLUES v CHIEFS (Auckland, Saturday 9:35am)
The two teams are next-door neighbours in terms of where they are situated on the north island, and for that reason the derby element might just make this a closer game than many people would expect it to be. After a strong start to the season but a disappointing middle and end part, the Blues should be motivated to finish with a flourish. But the Chiefs are a much better team and should pick themselves up from last week’s disappointment.
Prediction: Chiefs by 5 to 12.
WARATAHS v REDS (Sydney, Saturday 11:40am)
The Waratahs are out of the competition and like the Reds they will include players still feeling the disappointment of the Wallabies’ series defeat to the British and Irish Lions. The Reds have more to play for and it will be all about attitude.
Prediction: Reds to scrape it.
WESTERN FORCE v BRUMBIES (Perth, Saturday 1:45pm)
Jake White’s Brumbies still have a chance of going top of the Super Rugby log and they will travel to Perth looking for five log points. The Force do tend to make it more difficult for their opponents on home soil but the Brumbies have too much to play for to blow it.
Prediction: Brumbies by 10.
SHARKS v SOUTHERN KINGS (Durban, Saturday 5:05pm)
The Sharks have had to reshuffle again, with Butch James’s suspension and Patrick Lambie’s injury forcing a change at flyhalf. Meyer Bosman is back at inside centre, and JP Pietersen makes a welcome return to the outside backs. This is the final game to be presided over by John Plumtree’s old coaching team of Grant Bashford and Hugh Reece-Edwards and also possibly the last game for players who may be heading elsewhere. The Kings look weak on paper for this one so the Sharks should be bidding farewell to their coaches and teammates with an easy win.
Prediction: Sharks by 40.
DHL STORMERS v VODACOM BULLS (Cape Town, 7:10pm)
The Stormers are still depleted by injury but the Bulls are also now suffering because of injuries and departures for overseas and they looked decidedly creaky last week at Loftus. With Rynhardt Elstadt back in the starting team and Eben Etzebeth in good form, the Stormers should have the physicality to match the Bulls, and that could be enough to take them halfway to the winning of the match. But the Bulls have the carrot of going top of the log if they win and the non-availability of Joe Pietersen and consequent axing of Elton Jantjies has prompted me to go against my initial hunch that the Stormers would win. It will probably be a similar game to last week’s clash between the Bulls and Sharks, with the same result. In other words, Morne Steyn should be the difference.
Prediction: Bulls to scrape it.
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