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Greg Growden
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After more than 30 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in Australia, Greg Growden now writes exclusively online for ESPNscrum. Never afraid to step on toes, you can expect plenty of compelling insight from one of Australia's most renowned rugby writers.
Super Rugby
Super Rugby preview: Round 18
Greg Growden and Brittany Mitchell
July 3, 2014
Super Rugby Preview: Round 18

Friday, July 4

Chiefs v Hurricanes, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton

19:35 local, 07:35 GMT, 17:35 EST, 17:05 CST, 15:35 WST

Head to Head: Played 23; Chiefs 10, Hurricanes 12, Draw 1

In Hamilton: Played 11; Chiefs 6, Hurricanes 4, Drawn 1

Last Played: Round 15, 2014 - Hurricanes 45-8 Chiefs, Westpac Stadium, Wellington

Preview: The Hurricanes were impressive in a tight match against the Crusaders, and they can be expected to be just as strong in their final round match of the season against the wayward Chiefs. Beauden Barrett had a huge match against the Chiefs, taking control and leading the backline in Conrad Smith's absence, while lock Blade Thomson was the standout for the side as he crashed over for two tries. The Hurricanes were physically dominant and led throughout although their discipline did slip on occasions. They have injury concerns at hooker and, like several sides, they have struggled away from home, but, with confidence following last week's win, they are sure to be a tough side to beat.

In another tight contest, the Chiefs fell away late in the second half to go down to the Highlanders and risk their chance at a finals bid. They dominated possession and territory in both halves in Dunedin, but were punished for their poor discipline (12 penalties conceded). The two-time defending champions have made a raft of team changes now they are bottom of the New Zealand conference, and they must improve in defence (15 missed tackles against the Highlanders) and watch their discipline if they hope to shut down the Hurricanes machine.

Greg Growden's verdict: My pre-season tip that the Chiefs would win the tournament is looking very, very sick. But I'm not discarding them just yet, believing this round they will actually show what they are capable of. Nurse!

Tips: Greg Growden: Chiefs by 7 Brittany Mitchell: Hurricanes by 3 Brett McKay: Hurricanes by 7.

Lions v Melbourne Rebels, Ellis Park, Johannesburg

19:10 local, 17:10 GMT, 03:10 EST +1d, 02:40 CST +1d, 01:10 WST +1d

Head to Head: Played 1; Lions 1, Rebels 0

In Johannesburg: Played 1; Lions 1, Rebels 0

Last Played: Round 17, 2012 - Lions 37-32 Rebels, Ellis Park, Johannesburg

Preview: The Lions have beaten all expectations so far this season with five wins, including a three-point success over Queensland Reds. They went into the June Test window full of confidence following their 32-21 win over the Bulls, and they will be aiming to dominate the scrum and set-piece play here; they have the most successful scrum in Super Rugby (92% success rate), the Lions. But they also have the worst try record this season (20) so need to improve their execution.

The Rebels were disappointing in their last match at home for the season, against the Reds, as they returned to the fumbling side of old. Making too many mistakes early, the Rebels lacked cohesion and suffered poor defence and poor discipline. They fought back throughout the second half, and won all five of their scrums, but the Rebels are likely to find the trip to South Africa daunting.

Greg Growden's verdict: The Lions have been one of the big surprises of 2014, defying tradition by actually being entertaining now and again. They've even at times been worth watching. Their kicking game will be too much for a depleted and scrambling Rebels.

Tips: Greg Growden: Lions by 12 Brittany Mitchell: Lions by 9 Brett McKay: Lions by 3.

Saturday, July 5

Crusaders v Blues, AMI Stadium, Christchurch

19:35 local, 07:35 GMT, 17:35 EST, 17:05 CST, 15:35 WST

Head to Head: Played 24; Crusaders 13, Blues 11

In Christchurch: Played 11; Crusaders 8, Blues 3

Last Played: Round 3, 2014 - Blues 35-24 Crusaders, Eden Park, Auckland

Preview: The Crusaders were simply outmuscled by the Hurricanes last week, dominated at the breakdown and unable to gain a foothold throughout the match - especially in the second half, as both sides struggled to create opportunities. They maintained their position at the top of the New Zealand conference on countback only with a bonus point, and they will be hungry for a win here in order to secure a finals place. The Crusaders will find confidence at home and in the return of No.8 Kieran Read and fly-half Dan Carter.

The Blues dismantled Western Force last week, devastating the home defence to earn a four-try bonus point within the opening 20 minutes. Having ended their 13-game losing streak away from home, the Blues will be brimming with confidence heading to Christchurch to continue their bid for a place in the finals. They struggled to earn possession (41%) or territory (36%) last week, but the Blues capitalised on the Force's mistakes; and with a huge 13 clean breaks and 28 defenders beaten, the Blues were impressive all around the park. A determined Crusaders side in Christchurch is a different proposition, however..

Greg Growden's verdict: Now there's even talk of four New Zealand teams making the play-offs, but the local derbies in the final two rounds could stop that. Here's one of the better ones. The Blues were good against the Force, but the Christchurch factor could be too much to overcome.

Tips: Greg Growden: Crusaders by 4 Brittany Mitchell: Crusaders by 5 Brett McKay: Crusaders by 5.

Western Force v Queensland Reds, nib Stadium, Perth

17:40 local, 09:40 GMT, 19:40 EST, 19:10 CST, 17:40 WST

Head to Head: Played 12; Force 5, Reds 6, Drawn 1

In Perth: Played 5; Force 3, Reds 1

Last Played: Round 8, 2014 - Reds 29-32 Force, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

Preview: The Force are known for their determination and unbreakable defence, but the wheels fell off the machine in their dismantling by the Blues at home last week. They dominated both possession (61%) and territory (68%) in the first half yet were kept pointless and watched the Blues earn a four-try bonus point within the opening 20 minutes. Missing a huge 28 tackles, the Force will be looking to return to their defensive best when they take on the Reds, as well as finding momentum in attack in order to keep themselves in contention for a finals place.

A resurgent Reds produced a six-try hammering of the Rebels last week, showing the side can find winning ways without injured stars Will Genia and Quade Cooper. Half-back replacement Nick Frisby starred as he steered his side to a 22-point half-time lead, while James Horwill returned to his best as he led his side to avenge their round-14 loss. Although their possession dropped in the second half, and they gave away the ball cheaply, the Reds continued to apply pressure and dominate in defence. The Reds will be confident heading to Perth, believing they can claim their sixth win of the season, but they will face a tough Force side desperate to earn a finals place.

Greg Growden's verdict: The Force dyke at last broke last weekend, when the Blues obliterated them in the opening quarter. And the Reds showed against the Rebels that at last they have some pluck. Here's another chance for the fringe Reds performers to show off their talent and ability to - unlike the Force - to change their game plan.

Tips: Greg Growden: Reds by 8 Brittany Mitchell: Force by 5 Brett McKay: Force by 7.

Stormers v Bulls, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town

17:05 local, 15:05 GMT, 01:05 EST +1d, 00:35 CST +1d, 23:05 WST

Head to Head: Played 22; Stormers 11, Bulls 10, Drawn 1

In Cape Town: Played 10; Stormers 6, Bulls 3, Drawn 1

Last Played: Round 13, 2014 - Bulls 28-12 Stormers, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria

Preview: The Stormers went into the June Test break confident after defeating the Sharks in Durban, and they will be fighting here to move up from third in the South African conference. They have the second-best scrum in Super Rugby (89% success rate) so will look to dominate through their set-piece, but they have struggled in execution. The Stormers should be confident with the home-ground advantage, but they will need to watch their discipline to keep a lead over the Bulls.

The Bulls have to regain the winning habit after their surprise loss to the Lions in the last round before the June break, but they have one of the worst try-scoring records and a sub-par defensive record as they travel to Cape Town..

Greg Growden's verdict: Home ground advantage. Nothing more.

Tips: Greg Growden: Stormers by 3 Brittany Mitchell: Stormers by 5 Brett McKay: Stormers by 10.

Cheetahs v Sharks, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein

19:10 local, 17:10 GMT, 03:10 EST +1d, 02:40 CST +1d, 01:10 WST +1d

Head to Head: Played 13; Cheetahs 5, Sharks 8

In Bloemfontein: Played 5; Cheetahs 1, Sharks 4

Last Played: Round 10, 2014 - Sharks 19-8 Cheetahs, Kings Park, Durban

Preview: So far dominating the South African conference and securing their finals place, the Sharks will be confident despite their loss to the Stormers in the round before the June break. They are a side known for their defensive abilities and kicking-game, so the Sharks will certainly look to dominate through field position, but a lack of ball in hand could hinder them against a fast-moving Cheetahs side. That said, the Sharks will have their tails up and are sure to be strong around the park with the return of several players from South Africa's successful Tests against Wales and Scotland.

The Cheetahs sit bottom of the South African conference, but still will be aiming to ruin the Sharks party in their run to the finals. Willie le Roux enjoyed great success during South Africa's June Test series, and he is joined in the side by seven more Springboks as the Cheetahs aim to put behind them their 33-0 loss to the Stormers before the June break. The Cheetahs, at their best, are difficult to put down, and they will be fighting hard to end their home season with some success.

Greg Growden's verdict: The Sharks are clearly the standout South African team, and the Cheetahs have floundered, but this game has upset, upset, upset written all over it. The Cheetahs do occasionally astound in Bloemfontein. And the Sharks' performance in this game will give you a good guide as to whether they deserve to be rated strong tournament prospects.

Tips: Greg Growden: Sharks by 2 Brittany Mitchell: Sharks by 10 Brett McKay: Sharks by 12.

Sunday, July 6

New South Wales Waratahs v Highlanders, Allianz Stadium, Sydney

16:05 local, 06:05 GMT, 16:05 EST, 15:35 CST, 14:05 WST

Head to Head: Played 17; Waratahs 12, Highlanders 5

In Sydney: Played 8; Waratahs 6, Highlanders 2

Last Played: Round 3, 2012 - Highlanders 18-17 Waratahs, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin

Preview: The Waratahs face their biggest injury challenge with the loss of captain Dave Dennis heading into the final rounds and the finals, having maintained a relatively unscathed side throughout the season. After securing their top-of-the conference finish, the Waratahs now will be aiming to maintain their top-of-the-ladder place in the final two matches. They have been one of the best attacking sides this season, they will hope their dominant forward pack punches through the defence so they can then use their strong attacking line. The Tahs are unbeaten at home, and they will believe they can dominate, but will poor discipline be their undoing.

The Highlanders will be full of confidence coming off the back of a tight win over the Chiefs at home last weekend, stealing victory despite their lack of possession or territory. They have achieved much this season without possession, but they must have the ball here if they hope to put the Tahs on the back foot. The Highlanders are undoubted underdogs in the match-up, but they should not be underestimated as they are sure to give the Waratahs a run for their money.

Greg Growden's verdict: Sydneysiders love afternoon football, and the crowd figure will show whether fickle Waratahs fans have jumped back on the cart. This game will also show whether they can adequately overcome the loss of their skipper Dave Dennis. At last they seem to have the depth to cover big injuries.

Tips: Greg Growden: Waratahs by 6 Brittany Mitchell: Waratahs by 10 Brett McKay: Waratahs by 10.

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