It is that time of the week again. I have looked into the crystal ball and come up with this week’s fearless Super Rugby predictions.
Blues v Sharks
One win from six games is just not good enough for the Blues. Fans will be getting very antsy and there will be a fair bit of heat building in Pat Lam’s seat.
The players he has in his squad just do not add up to the play his team has produced. I don’t understand some of the personnel decisions he has made, especially in the half-back/fly-half combinations.
He has some great options there with Piri Weepu (who needs to be made to run laps), Alby Mathewson (a great player when he’s not getting excessively angry) and Gareth Anscombe (one of the seemingly endless supply of up-and-coming New Zealand fly-half prospects).
Somehow these positions have felt unstable and unable to lead the side all year, and Lam hasn’t been able to settle on a combination for more than a couple of games.
The Sharks are coming off a shellacking against the Hurricanes last week, but we now know the Hurricanes are the real deal in an upside-down year. Wins against the Brumbies and a narrow loss to the Waratahs show the Sharks’ true pedigree. They are in the group just below the top sides and above the main pack.
I don’t know exactly how this game will be played – both sides have shown expansive and compact tendencies on various occasions – the main thing is that the Blues are falling lower and the Sharks will want to finish the hardest part of their schedule on a high.
Prediction: Sharks by 3
Force v Waratahs
Quite often here we will pronounce one or two games a week as possible pearlers or stand-out games of the round.
This isn’t one.
The Force managed to put a fair few points on the board against the injury depleted Reds. I can’t see the Waratahs leaking too many points to anyone, though, let alone the Force.
At the same time, the Tahs aren’t likely to explode for 40-plus either.
We know the Force will be able to secure good ball. The Waratahs are able to physically match the Force in the ball running and set piece department.
Out wide the Force are slowly finding their feet with the underrated Nick Cummins, new boy David Harvey* and rapidly improving James Stannard.
In the back division, the Tahs are pretty much the same-same. We know we’ll get a couple of good runs out of Kingston (reminds me of Lachie Turner back when he used to back himself), Adam Ashley-Cooper will be a solid pro and not a lot more, Berrick Barnes will continue to slowly trust his instinct to attack as the year goes.
The possible return of Rocky Elsom is going to be interesting to watch, because he’s Rocky Elsom.
I suspect this won’t be a big margin and, in a similar vein to the first match, will come down to a few great plays from individuals chancing their hand. I’m going out on a limb and will predict Sarel Pretorius will do something fantastic to secure a Waratahs win.
Prediction: Waratahs by 5
*An aside about Harvey – so many people have derided the ability of the Waratahs to scout the players under their noses, and criticised the fact they always seem to lose great players to other teams.
David Harvey wasn’t one of the obvious ones. I saw him play last year and the year before in club rugby, up close. He was a good player, but not one that stood out so much that he absolutely had to be picked. He has upped the ante this year. Power to him for taking his opportunity.
Crusaders v Stormers
Last week the Crusaders were storming home and had a try disallowed that would have pulled them within two points with eight or nine minutes to go. Instead, they eventually got over the line with only three minutes left to score again.
They’ll consider that aspect of the loss a bit unlucky, along with the try off the unlucky bounce to the Bulls. I’m pointing that all out because I don’t think the Crusaders have played quite as badly as their record suggests.
The Stormers are formidable but not way out of the Crusaders’ league.
An interesting bit of news heading in is that the Crusaders will probably play Dan Carter at inside centre in this game to help solidify that position in the side. I’m fairly sure it’ll be more than solid with him there, but a very interesting choice to make with the best fly-half in the world.
The Stormers were able to tag the Highlanders with their second loss last week. Their defence is back to its incredible best, as shown by holding a potent attacking side to just six points.
The key is that they tackle as ferociously as any Test side, they drive players backward in contact, and pick their moments to attack the ruck without diluting the defensive line. They are superb.
Prediction: Stormers by 2
Brumbies v Rebels
This looks like it should be an interesting local derby. The Brumbies went down to a more experienced Reds team last week and will be desperate to get back on track. The Rebels took on a disappointing Blues team to register a morale-boosting win at home.
The Rebels have improved their defence and will obviously rely on Beale, O’Connor and Cipriani for strike power.
The Brumbies are playing with structure but need to throw the ball wide as they did in the first five matches of the competition and test the Rebels’ defence.
Scrumhalf Nic White is a good surprise attack weapon. Providing he does plenty of running and not kicking, the Brumbies will have some options around the scrum and breakdown area.
It is hoped that both teams open up and do not resort to aimless kicking for ‘field position’. Unless both of these teams can show something different in attack then they are not going to surprise any other franchises in Super Rugby, as neither possesses the forward power or depth to outmuscle any of the teams above them on the ladder.
The Wallaby front row duo of Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore have been in outstanding form, leading their young Brumbies from up front, and lanky winger Jesse Mogg has been a revelation.
While the Rebels have plenty of flare in their glamorous young backline stars, the real star of the back-line has been veteran full-back-cum-winger-cum-centre Mark Gerrard. The former Wallaby has a glorious boot, and is a deceptive runner who keeps his opponents guessing every time he touches the ball.
I think he could be the game breaker.
Toss a coin for this one.
Prediction: Rebels by 2
Cheetahs v Chiefs
Remember my tip about the Cheetahs two weeks ago? Get your money on a wild-card spot before it’s too late.
The Cheetahs have done their international travelling for the season, they have arrived home, avenged their first-round loss to the Lions last week, have two byes in hand and are ready for the Chiefs at Free State Rugby Park in downtown Bloemfontein this Saturday.
This could be the match of the round. A try-fest could be on the cards as the Chiefs’ potentially dynamic backline, with centres Sonny Bill Williams and Richard Kahui, looks to cut loose, after looking flat and ineffectual against the Force last week.
They will be matched by the entertainers of Super Rugby this season, the Cheetahs, who have attacked from all over the field and are growing in confidence each match.
Unfortunately young gun fly-half Johan Goosen was injured last week against the Lions, but at least looks as though he will take his place on the reserve bench. Sias Ebersohn replaces Goosen and gets his first run-on chance for the season.
Cheetahs captain and hooker Adriaan Straus has been outstanding this year and he and prop forward mates W.P Nel and Coenie Oosthuizen will need to be at their best against the gigantic Chiefs front row of Tameifuna, Schwalger and Taumalolo.
Should be a beauty, and expect some fireworks in the forwards in the first 20 minutes into the match.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 8
Lions v Bulls
This South African derby will be an extremely physical encounter. The Bulls will be keen to notch a four-try bonus point win against the Lions in Johannesburg after a two-point win over the Crusaders last week. But they are going to be required to do some ground work before that can be accomplished.
The Lions will throw everything at the Bulls for the first 30 minutes, and it will be interesting to see if the Bulls show any ill effects from last week’s bruising affair.
Lock Willhelm Steenkamp (what a name) will make his debut for the Bulls but the rest of the powerful pack remains unchanged. The Bulls are travelling well and I could not go past a team that has the strike power of Morne Steyn in their side
Nor can you go past a team from the Republic with names like Flip van der Merwe, Pierre Spies and Chiliboy Ralepelle – they are sensational.
Those names typify the beautiful international flavour of this provincial competition, and the South African teams are also playing some great rugby.
Prediction: Bulls by 15