Brett McKay previews Super Rugby round 18
June 27, 2013
Jean de Villiers' injury should give the Cheetah's a better chance of upsetting the Stormers © Getty Images
Stormers 28 - 3 Cheetahs Bulls 48 - 18 Southern Kings Sharks 22 - 20 Blues Highlanders 12 - 40 Crusaders Chiefs 34 - 22 Hurricanes
Remember Super Rugby? Well, despite the Second Test between the Wallabies and the British & Irish Lions in Melbourne on Saturday night taking all the attention of the rugby world, Super Rugby resumes in New Zealand and South Africa after the completion of their respective series against France, and the quadrangular tournament with Samoa, Scotland, and Italy.
For the next two weeks, we'll have this funny situation of Super Rugby continuing in New Zealand and South Africa while the Wallabies and Lions continue to take centre stage. It could really be a vital time for the leading sides in those conferences, too; there won't be a better chance to fly under the radar in 2013.
Friday, June 28
19:35 local, 07:35 GMT, 17:35 EST, 17:05 CST, 15:35 WST
Head to Head: Played 21; Chiefs 9, Hurricanes 11, 1 draw
In Hamilton: Played 9; Chiefs 5, Hurricanes 3, 1 draw
Last clash: Round 14, 2013 - Hurricanes 12 - 17 Chiefs, at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Preview: The Chiefs enter a simple period of maths over the next fortnight, where even just one more win will maintain their current 10-point gap over the Crusaders in the New Zealand conference, which could be enough to secure top spot over the ditch. Of course, beating the Crusaders in Christchurch next weekend will also have a major bearing. They've also announced a raft of re-signings in the past week or so, with Gareth Anscombe and Ben Tameifuna re-committing until 2014, and Andrew Horrell, Rhys Marshall, Pauliasi Manu, and Michael Fitzgerald all re-signing until 2015. The Chiefs already have a Championship under their belt; now it feels like they're building a dynasty.
The Hurricanes have been forced to name a relatively inexperienced side for their return to Super Rugby, after Andre Taylor and Tim Bateman picked up shoulder and knee injuries, while forwards Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and Motu Matu'u are also unavailable through injury. Ardie Savea is being rested after playing for the Junior All Blacks in their recent Under-20 World Championship.
The 'Canes will also have Victor Vito, Dane Coles, Jeremy Thrush, Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea and Conrad Smith returning from All Blacks duty, after the series clean sweep of France. It's hard to see their presence alone being enough to topple the table-topping Chiefs.
Tip: Chiefs by 12
Saturday, June 29
19:35 local, 07:35 GMT, 17:35 EST, 17:05 CST, 15:35 WST
Head to Head: Played 23; Highlanders 8, Crusaders 15
In Dunedin: Played 10; Highlanders 5, Crusaders 5 (* Highlanders 1-0 at Forsyth Barr)
Last clash: Round 10, 2013 - Crusaders 24 - 8 Highlanders, AMI Stadium, Addington, Christchurch
Preview: The Highlanders have a major task ahead of them over the remaining three rounds of Super Rugby; bridging the points gap to the teams immediately above them to avoid the wooden spoon for season 2013. If they want it enough, it's quite achievable, with the Southern Kings currently only two points further ahead (and with three tough derbies coming up), and the Western Force only another three points ahead again.
The Highlanders might have a tough ask this weekend, facing the Crusaders, but after that comes very winnable games against the Hurricanes in Wellington, and the Rebels in Melbourne. If they want it enough, avoiding the spoon is quite achievable.
But if we've learned anything from history, and we should have, given how much they've featured in post-season action, we'll know that the Crusaders are starting to fall back into their groove.
They did enough to get home by a point in their last-start win over the New South Wales Waratahs, and that's the sort of result we should start getting used to for the Crusaders.
All the big guns have been there and done it before. Dan Carter found some form and fitness in the Test series against France, while Kieran Read returned like he'd never been away. And then there's the Richie McCaw factor, with the inspirational All Blacks and Crusaders due for a return any day now.
The Highlanders are capable of pulling off an upset, with the form of Ma'a Nonu and especially Ben Smith only getting better during the June Tests, but they will have to repeat their superb 15-man effort against the Blues in round 16, where they dominated our Team of the Week. It's hard to see the Crusaders folding like the Blues did, though.
Tip: Crusaders by 15
14:50 local, 12:50 GMT, 22:50 EST, 22:20 CST, 20:50 WST
Head to Head: Played 16; Sharks 12, Blues 4
In Durban: Played 9; Sharks 7, Blues 2
Last clash: Round 8, 2012 - Blues 23 - 29 Sharks, Eden Park, Auckland
Preview: The Sharks could do some serious damage to the Blues' already slim hopes of qualifying for the play-offs with a win in this match. New CEO, former Sharks and Springbok Captain John Smit, has already made his presence felt on taking up the corner office at Kings Park, by announcing that New Zealander John Plumtree will not be at the helm past this season, despite having taken his teams to Currie Cup success and a Super Rugby final in the past twelve months.
Plumtree then took the equally curious and admirable step of ending his tenure with immediate effect, with the Sharks to now finish the season under the guidance of assistant coaches Grant Bashford and Hugh-Reece Edwards, with Brendan Venter set to join as director of rugby ahead of the Currie Cup. It will be interesting to see what, if any, effect this has on the team.
Blues coach, Sir John Kirwan, recognises the importance of this match in Durban: "If we can't win the next three then it depends what happens elsewhere, we will be waiting for people to lose around us. That's not ideal. The most important game for us is the Sharks, because that will keep us in touch."
Even if he's already sweating on other results - never a sign of confidence - a win this weekend could potentially surge the Blues back into the top six. A loss, though, would almost certainly put the line through them for 2013.
The cavalry is finally back for the Sharks, with a host of big names returning to action just before or during the June Internationals. There is also some interesting talk out of the Republic that Patrick Lambie may switch to inside-centre, with Butch James coming in at fly-half.
Tip: Sharks by 12
17:05 local, 15:05 GMT, 01:05 EST +1d, 00:35 CST +1d, 23:05 WST
Head to Head: Played 1; Bulls 1, Kings 0
In Pretoria: First match between these teams at this venue
Last clash: Round 10, 2013 - Kings 0 - 34 Bulls, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Preview: A big win for the Bulls at home would go a long way toward sewing up the South African conference, and push them onwards toward a top-two finish overall and home-ground advantage heading into the semi-finals.
The major news out of Loftus this week has been that Bulls captain, Pierre Spies, has been ruled out for the rest of the season, after tearing a bicep while playing for South Africa against Samoa in the final of the Quadrangular Tournament last weekend. Spies underwent surgery on Tuesday, and the recovery period required will knock him out of action for both the Rugby Championship and the Springboks' Spring tour to Europe.
This was already on top of news that hard-working backrower Arno Botha had also been ruled out for the season after rupturing knee ligaments in the Springboks win over Scotland in Nelspruit. Botha and Spies had been the Bulls' top two tacklers for the season, creating a major hole in their defensive patterns for the rest of the Super Rugby season.
The Kings are not without injury trouble themselves, with their captain, Luke Watson, also out of action for six months with an ankle injury. Inside-centre Andries Strauss will captain the Kings for the remainder of the season.
The Kings are essentially unchanged from the side that played the Stormers on June 1, with Michael Killian coming in for Siviwe "Shakes" Soyizwapi on the right wing, and Shaun Venter starting at scrumhalf. Nicolas Vergallo will come off the bench.
Tip: Bulls by 17
19:15 local, 17:15 GMT, 03:15 EST +1d, 02:45 CST +1d, 01:15 WST +1d
Head to Head: Played 10; Stormers 7, Cheetahs 3
In Cape Town: Played 5; Stormers 4, Cheetahs 1
Last clash: Round 10, 2013 - Cheetahs 26 - 24 Stormers, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Preview: The Cheetahs absolutely must win this game, ideally with a bonus point to remain in touch with the Bulls in the hunt for the South African conference lead. Their nine wins in 2013 is already a record for the franchise, and while Free State finished seventh in the old Super 12 in 1997, the Cheetahs have never finished higher than 10th overall, since they re-entered the competition with the expansion to Super 14 in 2006.
But the Stormers remain the best defensive side in the competition, and so just scoring one try - never mind four - will be a tough ask. The Stormers have only let in 17 tries in 2013, while the best defensive side in the top six currently, the Reds, have let in 21. As the best South African sides in the competition, the Cheetahs and Bulls have let in 28 and 27 tries respectively.
That said, a major opportunity exists for the Cheetahs, with Stormers and Springbok Captain Jean de Villiers finally succumbing to his crammed playing schedule and having a week off. While also one of the few strike weapons the Stormers have gone to this season, de Villiers is also their defensive lynchpin, something the unpredictable Cheetahs would be mad not to explore.
Willie le Roux, Adriaan Strauss, and prop Trevor Nyakane have all impressed in their time in the national set-up, and it will be interesting to see how that translates back to the Cheetahs. For not the first time this season regarding the Cheetahs, I find myself sniffing an upset.
Tip: Cheetahs by 5
Byes: None - the Australian conference remains in its June recess for the British & Irish Lions tour.
Make your ESPN FootyTips selections for Super Rugby round 18
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
It was another bumper year of rugby action in 2014; join us as we take a look back at some of the season's top statistics
Salary caps, Saints, sinners and scrums - Monday Maul looks back at the key talking points from an eventful weekend
The latest Week in Pictures takes in a fiery East Midlands derby and all the action from the Aviva Premiership and Top 14