Super Rugby Round 20 preview
July 11, 2013
Australian rugby fans have very quickly come down from (or perhaps fell off) the Lions series euphoria to resume Super Rugby hostilities after a five-weeks break Of course, New Zealand and South Africa have been back in Super Rugby mode for a fortnight already. This is the final round before the play-offs, and the top six will be looking to put their finishing touches on their finals preparations. The form of some teams - particularly the Australian teams - is hard to establish, but here's how Super Rugby round 20 is shaping up.
Friday, July 12
19:35 local, 07:35 GMT, 17:35 EST, 17:05 CST, 15:35 WST
The Crusaders are in ominous form © Getty Images
Head to Head: Played 24; Crusaders 15, Hurricanes 6
In Christchurch: Played 12; Crusaders 8, Hurricanes 3, 1 draw (* Highlanders 1-0 at this venue)
Last clash: Round 4, 2013 - Hurricanes 29-28 Crusaders, at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Preview: This should be the easiest game of the weekend to pick, such is the rich vein of form the Crusaders find themselves in, ominously so for potential play-offs opponents. But the way the Hurricanes were able to throw off the shackles and fight back last week against the Highlanders somewhat complicates things. Sure, the Crusaders defence won't drop off like the Highlanders' did, but the Canes showed they can still turn on the counter-attack with the best of them
In something of a blow for the Hurricanes, super-talented scrum-half TJ Perenara is said to be in some doubt, with reports from New Zealand indicating he failed to finish Wednesday's session, but they need to be better than they were against the Highlanders in every facet of the game if they're to pull off one of the upsets of the season. Mark Hammett is an honest coach, and it's easy to picture some home truths being delivered this week, despite the Hurricanes' second-half fightback.
Tip: Crusaders by 12.
19:40 local, 09:40 GMT, 19:40 EST, 19:10 CST, 17:40 WST
Head to Head: Played 2; Rebels 0, Highlanders 2
In Melbourne: Played 1; Rebels 0, Highlanders 1
Last clash: Round 6, 2012 - Highlanders 43-12 Rebels, at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Preview: I said last week of the Highlanders that there really wasn't much left of 2013 for them to play for, but they got themselves off the bottom of the Super Rugby log in turning on the entertainment in the 93-point thriller in Wellington. A bonus-point win on Friday night in Melbourne may see them jumping another few spots again. And that's important; the perceptions of a team finishing 12th are pretty different to those of a team finishing last.
For the Rebels, this match represents the end of an era. Head coach Damien Hill, his senior assistant John Muggleton, inaugural captain Gareth Delve and five other players in the matchday squad, including James O'Connor, are lining up for their last match with the Victorian club. Club captain Tim Davidson, not selected for this match, is another moving on to the next chapter.
All eyes will undoubtedly be on O'Connor, to see what kind of final performance he puts in for the club that announced earlier in the week that he would not be at the Rebels in 2014. To further compound things, O'Connor hasn't trained much with the side this week at all, and has been named on the bench.
The big question, then, is whether the "farewell" factor will be enough to get the Rebels up for one last game, or whether the Highlanders might continue on this belated yet still impressive run of form. Someone get me a coin.
Tip: Highlanders by 12.
Saturday, July 13
19:35 local, 07:35 GMT, 17:35 EST, 17:05 CST, 15:35 WST
Head to Head: Played 20; Blues 10, Chiefs 10
In Auckland: Played 9; Blues 5, Chiefs 4
Last clash: Round 7, 2013 - Chiefs 23-16 Blues, at Baypark Stadium, Mount Maunganui
Preview: Blues captain Ali Williams leads the Blues out for the last time on Saturday night, having confirmed this week that he's leaving New Zealand rugby at the conclusion of the Super Rugby season, to join what's becoming rugby's new "Galacticos", French club Toulon.
The Blues' already slim finals hopes evaporated with the big loss to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last week, and their only motivation now - aside from sending their skipper out a winner - comes with playing the spoiler role against their neighbours from down the highway.
This is crucial game for the Chiefs, though. A loss to the Blues, coupled with a bonus-point win for the Crusaders over the Hurricanes, will see the Chiefs surrender the New Zealand conference lead they've held for most of the season, and, with it, all the home-ground play-offs advantages that come with a top-two finish. The equation is simple: they must win. And I think they will.
Tip: Chiefs by 10
19:40 local, 09:40 GMT, 19:40 EST, 19:10 CST, 17:40 WST
Head to Head: Played 20; Waratahs 7, Reds 12, 1 draw
In Sydney: Played 9; Waratahs 4, Reds 5 (* 1-1l at this venue)
Last clash: Round 2, 2013 - Reds 25-17 Waratahs, at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Preview: Remember how I told you in Scrum Five earlier this week that the Reds might actually get a better run through the play-offs if they lost this last match and finished sixth, meaning they're more likely to play the Brumbies in Canberra than have to travel to New Zealand? Should Brumbies fans be reading more into James Horwill and Will Genia's injury withdrawals, or is that just the tinfoil hat talking? Of course, the Reds could still finish fourth, too, with a win and other results going their way.
Anyway, the key Wallabies leaders have been ruled out, with calf and knee injuries respectively, and it will be interesting to see what effect this has on Queensland. The Reds have played without one or the other numerous times over the past years, but not as often without both. Mind you, they did alright against the British & Irish Lions without both of them, and replacement captain James Slipper has the respect of his team-mates. And then there's the whole feel-good buzz around Ewen McKenzie at the moment, too.
The Waratahs will be without their own superstar, with Israel Folau now battling even to be right again for the first Bledisloe Test on August 17. How their other Wallabies back up from the gruelling Lions series is crucial for this game, in which a win could see them finishing seventh overall. A tough one to pick however you slice it up
Tip: Reds by 5.
19:40 local, 11:40 GMT, 21:40 EST, 21:10 CST, 19:40 WST
Head to Head: Played 10; Force 3, Brumbies 6, 1 draw
In Perth: Played 5; Force 1, Brumbies 3, 1 draw (* Brumbies 2-0 at this venue, 1 draw)
Last clash: Round 11, 2013 - Brumbies 41-7, at Canberra Stadium, Canberra
Preview: Far from a nothing game for either side, but the Force haven't played since June 9 and the Brumbies haven't started since their win over the Lions on June 18. The Force have been trotting around in club rugby, while the Brumbies had nine players involved with the Wallabies. One of them, Pat McCabe, won't play again this season after suffering a recurrence of his 2012 neck injury during the first Lions Test in Brisbane.
The Brumbies may yet finish second with a win over the Force plus a Chiefs loss, giving them the home-ground advantage into the play-offs. They can, in fact, finish first if the Chiefs and Bulls both lose,, but they can't finish any lower than third. A Force win ensures they cannot finish with the dreaded wooden spoon, should other results go against them.
On paper, this is a game the Brumbies should win easily - as you'd expect of a conference-leading team. A loss won't change their table position, but it will be a major disruption heading into the playoffs. The Force will want to finish the season on a high, too, but I expect the class and fitness of the Brumbies to win out after a passionate start from the hosts.
Tip: Brumbies by 14
17:05 local, 15:05 GMT, 01:05 EST +1d, 00:35 CST +1d, 23:05 WST
Head to Head: Played 1; Sharks 1, Kings 0
In Durban First match between these teams at this venue
Last clash: Round 4, 2013 - Kings 12-21 Sharks, at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Preview: The Sharks had a shot at upsetting the South African conference-leading Bulls last week only to see fullback Riaan Viljoen push his last-minute penalty goal attempt right of the uprights, having produced moments of truly excellent play alongside moments that have coaches and supporters questioning their life decisions.
That all said, the Sharks - in theory - shouldn't have too many troubles against the Kings, who have found the late-season going tough after a promising start to Super Rugby. Regardless of this result, the Kings face a promotion-relegation showdown with the Lions, who will be looking to re-enter Super Rugby after a year in the wilderness, and with their players disappearing to all corners of the conference. The Kings have rung the changes, too, with only three starters from the Stormers clash retaining their place for the final game of the season. Some changes have been injury-forced, while others have been made with an eye on the Lions.
Tip: Sharks by 15.
19:10 local, 17:10 GMT, 03:10 EST +1d, 02:40 CST +1d, 01:10 WST +1d
Head to Head: Played 19; Stormers 10, Bulls 8, 1 draw
In Cape Town: Played 9; Stormers 5, Bulls 3, 1 draw
Last clash: Round 2, 2013 - Bulls 25-17 Stormers, at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Preview: The Bulls head to Cape Town to pick up the South African conference trophy that has resided at Newlands for the past two seasons, but also with a chance to claim the No.1 spot on the Super Rugby ladder - and all the home-field advantages that confers through the play-offs. But they know the final match of the regular season against the Stormers will be far from easy.
The Bulls have the luxury of knowing how the Chiefs and Brumbies have fared by the time they kick-off themselves. If either of the other conference leaders drop their final game, the Bulls will be guaranteed a top-two finish. They might then be tempted to rest some weary bodies at the last minute, but that probably won't happen given a top-two finish means the first week of the finals off.
The Stormers will be just as keen to finish on a high, and a fifth successive win to end the season will issue a timely reminder of how good a team they should've been in 2013. Reports out of South Africa suggest Stormers captain Jean de Villiers will return, which might tip the midfield battle towards the home side with young Springboks centre Jan Serfontein ruled out for the Bulls.
This could be the match of the weekend, definitely one to watch (or record, as the case may be).
Tip: Bulls by 3.
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