The rugby last weekend was a bit up and down, Highlanders, Hurricanes and Crusaders earned a pass mark only. The Blues and Chiefs went hard at it in an engaging game – I would now like to see the rematch with both teams at full strength!! And great to see the returning AB’s running into a bit of form. Big Kev, Rodders, Jerry, Haymaker and Woody all fronting. Second up syndrome hit McCaw and Mauger. All in all after 2 weeks Henry would be pleased. Even happier looking at the surfeit of wings, locks, hookers and loosies running around. A real scrap going on at halfback. But centre remains a concern – Smith only battling, Toeava with form on the board and Kahui showing some excellent touches after injury – the next 5 rounds are crucial, especially for Smith and Kahui who will probably not get semi’s or a final to further prove themselves. On the assumption that Nonu and Mils make the WC30, there is only room one of those 3. The NZ A games are going to play a big part in selecting the WC30 – a 4th prop, 3rd hooker, 3rd, and maybe 4th, lock, the tight/loose utility, 3rd halfback and centre are all tightly contested positions, And I reckon Rokcoko and Sivivatu are fighting it out for the 3rd wingers spot as well.
Here is where the 48 points come from this week.
Blues v Cheetahs – this will be a hiding, no 2 ways about it. A limited Cheetahs team, battling in the bottom 3rd of the table, will be encouraged by their showing against the Highlanders but only because the scores were so close. They have a few injuries, have yet to win a game in NZ, and, let’s be honest, don’t have the players that can win games against the top sides. The Blues, however, make 6 changes, look all the stronger for them, and keep rolling along, building a squad with admirable depth and plenty of game breakers. Who could afford to leave the likes of Rokocoko, Wulf, Mcdonald, Rawlinson and Witcombe out. They were very impressive in the 2nd half against the Chiefs – they needed to muscle up and they did, and the big name players got them home. Will be far too strong.
Highlanders v Chiefs – with a very congested S14 table between 5th and 11th the loser of this game can say good bye to a top 4 spot. The Highlanders have battled all year, even the good wins have had blemishes with their defence leaking as many points as they score. The stars in Hayman, Ryan, Blackie, Cowan and Evans need to be spot on in every game, unfortunately for them this is not the case and Evans in particular is struggling to hit top form – injured perhaps? The Chiefs are looking a bit ominous of late. The addition of class players the like of Kelleher, Sivivatu, Kahui, Gibbes and Robinson over the last 2 weeks gives them the impetous for a real push over the last 5 rounds. The cobwebs are blowing off these guys and they should be right in this. Need to focus on the basics though before anything else – the lineouts are atrocious, they still drop or turnover too much ball, and Gibbes needs to write on the blackboard 500 times – “I must not miss a tackle on Big Kev in the 22 again”. The halfback match up is a beaut. With the greater momentum, despite last weeks loss, the Chiefs will be all over this I reckon. I see Blackie is out now as well, swinging it more in the favour of the Chiefs.
Crusaders v Force – the game of the round for me – 2nd v 3rd, the Crusaders, full of pedigree, but with a question mark after an average run last week v the Force, with real momentum, at near full strength and are a team that travel well. Fell asleep during the Crusaders game last week, but woke in time for the better part of the 2nd half and they did well to hold a revitalised Waratahs side, though Hamilton needs to write on the blackboard 750 times – “I must not miss Lote cold again”. At home, with Carter fit and McCaw over the 2nd game blues, they will be too strong. The Force are definitely the big improvers this year. You feel however that if you can hold Giteau, and generally pressurise the inside backs they become vulnerable with no outstanding loosies to support them. But they will need to be watched, especially the VG outside backs.
Reds v Sharks – the hardest game to pick. The Sharks have dropped 2 in a row and have never won in Brisbane. The Reds have 5 good players fit again, are coming of the bye (which has and just cannot keep losing. Despite a journeyman front row, they still have plenty of grunt up front and McMenamin is a huge gain. Barnes and Schiffers add some relative experience to the backline and they are not without a big chance to win this. The forward packs will break even I reckon, the backlines are both a mix of good and bad, so this could well come down to goalkicking. The Sharks need to go back to the basics on their defence which was excellent early and if the Sharks can get their backline moving then they should win – the likes of Pienaar, Peterson, Barritt and Steyn are too good to not fire 3 weeks in a row.
Sharks 1 – 12
Stormers v Lions – the surprise packet of the tournament v the chronic underachievers. The Stormers have won the last 5 games between these sides, but that was against a Lions side that was vastly inferior to this current team finishing last or 2nd last on the table every year of those 5 years. The Lions have been very solid up front all year with their excellent flankers to the fore, and with Andre Pretorius a very capable, if slightly erratic, runner of the game they should win. The Stormers continue to flatter to deceive – with a marshmallow T5, which impacts on their excellent loosies, which impacts onto a reasonably capable backline, they are just too inconsistent and flakey, even at home, to think they can win. The Lions have a sniff of a Top 4 berth and this will see them home.
Lions 1 – 12
Brumbies v Waratahs – a Sunday game for a change and always plenty in this one. The Waratahs have won the last 3, but this side is a shadow of those. They have made another raft of changes in the midfield and outside backs – how this is going to help with combinations is beyond me. But at least they improved last week and that will give them some confidence, though how much was them doing it and how much the Crusaders giving them the opportunity (Hamilton needs to write on the blackboard 750 times – “I must not miss Lote cold again”) suggests they still have a way to go. The Brumbies will be extremely pleased with 2/3 in SA and go into a 4 week phase of 3 home games and a bye with a Top 4 spot now a distinct possibility, and in fact a win here could well see them 4th. A good Wallaby trial for knuckles to look at with good matchups in the front row, No.8, halfback and both wings. I think with the home advantage, a more cohesive forward pack and more stable backline the Brumbies will win convincingly.
Have a safe and happy Easter all.