Round 11 is here! We are blessed with a full slate of seven games to enjoy this week – the only team on hiatus is the Stormers. The matches are a little bit dicier to pick this week than the last couple.
Hurricanes v Blues
This should be an entertaining match. We still wait patiently for the Blues to pull off that mighty upset – it will probably be at least another week. Embattled Blues coach Pat Lam has moved Michael Hobbs to fly-half and Rene Ranger to the wing for this game. The Blues, once again, look impressive on paper across the park. However they are not playing with any confidence, their handling is poor and they simply appear to lack any cohesion.
The Hurricanes find themselves on the edge as they have suffered losses against the Chiefs and the Crusaders in the past two weeks but on form the Conrad Smith inspired men from Wellington should bounce back to the winners list this week.
It will be a good clash in the forwards but the Blues still have Tony Woodcock and Kevin Mealamu missing from the front row and the Hurricanes pack with backrower Victor Vito in fine form should have the edge.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 7
Rebels v Bulls
Super Rugby’s newest franchise is in danger of falling apart before our eyes. Why Englishman Danni Cipriani was paid out and farewelled is yet to be revealed. The decision, made in the same week that the Rebels lost back-rower Jarrod Saffy for the season and star Wallaby James O’Connor indefinitely, is borderline insanity to say the least.
Veteran centre Stirling Mortlock embarks on his first match of the season and the 35-year-old veteran will probably last about 20 minutes before another niggling injury strikes again.
The Bulls, like the Rebels, had a bye last week and begin their Australasian tour on Friday night before fronting up against the Waratahs, the Highlanders and the Chiefs before heading home to South Africa for the rest of the season. They should not have much trouble opening their tour with a win this week. Their only problem will be complacency.
Prediction: Bulls by 19
Chiefs v Lions
This looks like the greatest mismatch of the season, with the only consolation being that Lions Coach John Mitchell gets to visit friends and family in his native New Zealand. After several seasons with the Force and this his second wretched season at the Lions, the former All Black Assistant Coach has a CV that is in decline. This week will not help the situation.
The competition leading Chiefs look like they are settling in to the habit of winning, having disposed of arch rivals the Hurricanes last week and the South African Sharks and Cheetahs prior to that. The men from Waikato will have little difficulty overcoming the Lions who have not won a match since round one against the Cheetahs. It will be interesting to see if try scoring machine Chiefs prop forward Sona Taumalolo can add to his seven tries for the season – a total most wingers would be proud of.
Prediction: Chiefs by 21
Brumbies v Waratahs
This is a very difficult one to nail down. The Brumbies have been playing much better rugby than the Waratahs this year, but derbies are always a bit quirky.
What really swings me is the Waratahs’ overall body of work so far this year: they have won four games so far – Rebels twice, Force and Sharks. The Rebels are a poor team, the Force are a below average team and the Sharks were travelling and caught the Waratahs on one of their best days.
Their losses are against sides that just appear to be better than them – Reds, Highlanders, Force, Chiefs and Crusaders. The obvious standout of that lot is the Force. They split their games with them and that indicates to me, coupled with their other results, that they are at the Force’s level in this competition. Just middling.
The Brumbies have had a slightly easier schedule to start the year but they also have a great win over a quality Highlanders side. That was coming off the back of a hard loss to the Chiefs.
I think this Brumbies side has what it takes to travel back from South Africa this week and make a strong home stand.
Prediction: Brumbies by 5
Sharks v Highlanders
It’s only round 11 but the stakes are starting to rise for some games. This one is an important one for both sides.
With the Crusaders’ win last week, the Highlanders are now only one point ahead on the table. They have more victories but the Crusaders have been racking up bonus points. They’ll be very eager to keep their noses in front, even if three New Zealand sides could end up being in the finals.
Trying to change the number of New Zealand teams in the finals are the Sharks. They are one point out of that top six spot now. With the Brumbies (in sixth) being assured of a spot the Sharks really need to gun for fifth spot to try and sneak in.
So far, the Highlanders have been able to secure victories on the back of very solid all round play. They are great on the counter-attack and have accurate set piece that gives them a chance to organise plays in the backs. They aren’t the best in the competition at anything, but do it all well. That trait seems to help them build momentum for long periods. They don’t give the opposition an easy way out.
The Sharks seem to be a bit of a “Stormers Lite” side. The Stormers gave the Highlanders all they could handle up front – more than that, really. I don’t see the Sharks being able to sustain the same level of pressure for the whole match. The accuracy of the Highlanders will win out in the end.
Prediction: Highlanders by 2
Cheetahs v Force
I wrote earlier in the week about the sad removal of Johan Goosen from rugby fields this year. It’ll be interesting to see if the Cheetahs still try to play with the same kind of abandon that he has ignited in them this year now that he’s out. They’ll need to try something because we saw his replacement struggle to kick (from hand and tee) with the same kind of accuracy as Goosen. The Cheetahs will need to cover more territory with ball in hand.
I can almost see the Force winning this one. They have enough forward experience and skill to really shut down the Cheetahs as they adjust their game-plan to the new pivot situation. I could easily believe match reports that describe the Force loose forwards battering the Cheetahs into submission.
The key will be stopping the Cheetahs ticking over the scoreboard. They’ve only been held under 20 once so far this year. In contrast the Force have only scored above 20 on three occasions. Put it this way: If the game is fun to watch the Force won’t win.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 2
Crusaders v Reds
Here is the biggest match of the round. The men who put together the schedule have saved the best ‘til last. I’m sure a 2pm Sunday kick off in Christchurch will have the stadium full to the brim and rocking with enthusiasm. It’s going to be a tough ask for the Reds.
Coming off their best performance of the year to date, the Reds will need to grab a few more gears to match the Crusaders here. The Reds have finally settled the Genia deal and can now focus on defending their championship. Beating the Crusaders hasn’t been as hard for the Reds as other sides in recent years.
However, not having the distraction of Cooper out wide will greatly diminish the space Genia has had to run the show against the ‘Saders on other occasions.
Last week the Crusaders weren’t at their best but did enough to beat a Waratahs side playing about as well as they could. This week we will find out whether that was a complacent performance or the Crusaders still haven’t quite blown out all the cobwebs. You’d think a back-row of Keiran Read, Matt Todd, George Whitelock and Richie McCaw (in some form) will manage to take most of the sting out of the Reds still developing attack.
Prediction: Crusaders by 3