Brett McKay previews Super Rugby round 12
May 2, 2013
Friday, May 3
The Rebels need another strong performance from James O'Connor © Getty Images
Head to Head: Played 15, Blues 8 Stormers 7
In Albany: First match between these teams at this venue
Last clash: Round 4 2012 - Stormers 27 - 17 Blues at Newlands Rugby Stadium, Cape Town
Preview: The Blues found themselves in a grind last Friday night in Brisbane, and in many ways that should give them a solid preview of what they're in for against the Stormers. Sir John Kirwan was proud of his young side last week, and they've certainly learned that success won't be easy against the top sides. They look to have an edge in attacking strike-power, but it will count for naught if they can't hold possession.
The Stormers look to be back into that safety-first defensive game that has been so rewarding for them over the past few seasons, though it will be interesting to see how their systems cope should the Blues get away to a handy early lead. Bryan Habana's rare conversion chargedown kept them in the contest against the Hurricanes last week, and eventually won them the game, but the Stormers are yet to put that proper 15-man performance together. Springboks Eben Etzebeth and Elton Jantjies make welcome returns via the bench.
Tip: Blues by 7 points
Head to Head: Played 1, Rebels 0 Chiefs 1
In Melbourne: First match between these teams at this venue
Last clash: Round 3 2011 - Chiefs 38 - 10 Rebels at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Preview: The New Zealand conference leaders were given a second-half scare from the Sharks last week, but the 37-29 win was still reasonably comfortable. They lead the competition's try-scoring tally, and shouldn't have too much trouble against the second-worst defensive team in Super Rugby. The return of Craig Clarke at lock, and as captain, has seen the Chiefs rediscover their composure under pressure, which they'll need as the competition nears the play-off stages.
The Rebels shape as a danger game for the reigning champions, though. The Chiefs should be winning easily their games over teams in the bottom teams, yet the Rebels will still be riding high after pushing the Crusaders for 60 minutes in Christchurch last Sunday. James O'Connor led a much improved attacking game from the Rebels backs, though he could make more use of outside centre Mitch Inman and fullback Jason Woodward, who are both becoming dangerous runners for defensive lines. The questions of where, and how, Kurtley Beale returns could be a major factor for the Rebels.
Tip: Chiefs by 18 points
Saturday, May 4
Head to Head: Played 14, Highlanders 5 Sharks 9
In Dunedin: Played 7, Highlanders 3 Sharks 4 (first meeting at Forsyth Barr Stadium)
Last clash: Round 11 2012 - Sharks 28 - 16 Highlanders at Kings Park Stadium, Durban
Preview: Possibly the toughest game of the round to pick, with the Sharks arriving in Dunedin on the back of three consecutive losses, and the Highlanders only getting more desperate to break their duck for the season. With the team they put out each week, it's genuinely difficult to comprehend how the Highlanders are yet to win a game in 2013.
This might be the week, though, and you can't help but fall to the home side in tight games like this. The Highlanders have had a week off with the bye to get away from rugby, and they now face a team having similar difficulties in crossing the try line. The Sharks were relieved that beefy outside centre Francois Steyn was found not guilty, having been cited during the week for alleged foul play against the Chiefs. Patrick Lambie looks to be getting back to his best, and it will be needed if the Sharks are to keep the Highlanders winless.
Tip: Highlanders by 3.
Head to Head: Played 10, Force 4 Reds 6
In Perth: Played 4, Force 3 Reds 1
Last clash: Round 5 2013 - Reds 12 - 19 Force at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Preview: The Force had been building nicely, but it all went horribly wrong in Canberra last Saturday - when they conceded six tries and a bonus point to the rampant Brumbies. The Force found themselves outmuscled at the breakdown, one area in which they had been quite competitive this season. Alby Mathewson and Sam Norton-Knight found the going difficult in the face of the rushing Brumbies defence, and there's no doubt the Reds will want to replicate this. One positive for the Force is their record in Perth against the 2011 champions, and despite their last outing they will give themselves a chance of repeating their round-five upset in Brisbane.
The Reds have perhaps paid the Force the ultimate compliment, naming a five forwards/two backs bench spilt while also welcoming back flanker Beau Robinson back from injury. It's a reasonable sign to the way the Reds expect the game to be played, though you'd also expect Will Genia and Quade Cooper to pose the same questions of the Force outside defenders as did the Brumbies, particularly with speedster Dom Shipperley returning on the wing.
Tip: Reds by 10.
Head to Head: First meeting
Preview: The Kings are now finding out just how tough a competition Super Rugby is. The honeymoon of being the news boys on the block is coming to an end, and the shock factor that propelled them to their well-earned draw against the Brumbies, and their away win against the Rebels, is well and truly gone. Teams know the Kings are capable of using good defensive line speed, and that they can more than hold their own at the breakdown. Just when the Kings thought they were tracking well in the competition, they've been given consecutive doses of reality from the Bulls and then the Cheetahs.
The Waratahs, on the other hand, will be rueing opportunities lost against the Bulls, whom they led with fifteen minutes to play only to lose track of their systems and their gameplan when coach Michael Cheika made wide use of his bench around the same time. The Waratahs had been on a solid upward trend - form wise, if not results - in the month leading up to the Bulls loss, and this match represents the perfect opportunity to show all is not lost for their supporters.
Tip: Waratahs by 14.
Head to Head: Played 14, Bulls 7 Hurricanes 7
In Pretoria: Played 7, Bulls 3 Hurricanes 4
Last clash: Round 7 2011 - Hurricanes 14 - 26 Bulls at Mclean Park, Napier
Preview: The Bulls yet again relied on the points machine that is Morne Steyn to overrun the Waratahs in Pretoria last Saturday, but this time it was the Steyn running game that sparked the revival. Springbok No. 9 Francois Hougaard looked good in his 20 or so minutes from the bench, too, and there's no doubt the Bulls benefitted from his running game when things got a bit loose in the second half.
The Hurricanes also tend to thrive in those looser situations, but so often of late they've been letting themselves down by their own handling and option-taking in those moments. Given the composure brought to the team by their inspirational captain, Conrad Smith, the individuals around him need to employ that same clear thinking. The Hurricanes have a tough few weeks coming up, but a win at Loftus could be the spark they need to put their season back on track.
Tip: Bulls by 12.
Sunday, May 5
Head to Head: Played 19, Brumbies 8 Crusaders 11
In Canberra: Played 9, Brumbies 6 Crusaders 3
Last clash: Round 4 2011 - Crusader 52 - 10 Brumbies at Trafalgar Park, Nelson
Preview: Two teams with a history of top-quality clashes - including three grand finals - meet for the first time in more than two years, and with both teams once again eyeing off play-off action. The Brumbies' confidence will be sky-high on the back of last week's demolition job on the Force, but this will be another test altogether. Games like this are the prime opportunity to gauge set-piece, breakdown and backline prowess against notoriously well-drilled opposition, but Jake White knows a thing or two about facing the best teams in the world.
The Crusaders might have taken their foot off the pedal a little in Christchurch last Sunday, letting the Rebels back into their game and lead for a period deep into the match. They got away with it against the Rebels, but a similar lapse against the Brumbies could be really costly. Dan Carter is finding his feet again, and that can only help a Crusaders side looking to regain their edge. Comfortably the match of the round.
Tip: Brumbies by 5.
Make your ESPN FootyTips selections for Super Rugby round 12
Russell Barwick and Greg Growden discuss the big issues in rugby
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt won the tactical battle and set his team on course for a shot at the Grand Slam. Tom Hamilton reports from Dublin
With the World Cup only a few months away, the last thing France needed was doubts over the future of their coach, writes Huw Richards
They came to Murrayfield looking to put down a marker, but Scotland were sent home with their tails between their legs, writes Tristan Barclay
The controversial tackling technique will be in full swing in Dublin on Sunday, writes Conor O'Shea, and could be a decisive factor for Ireland