Patrick Baume writes:
Ben Daley, Saia Faingaa, Laurie Weeks, Rod Simmons, Van Humphries, Scott Higginbotham, Daniel Braid, Leroy Houston — who the hell are these people, you say? Apart from former All Black Braid they are the bunch of nobodies that most pundits before the start of the season would have picked as likely to be the worst forward pack in the Super 14, who have hassled and bustled and supported the brilliance of halves Quade Cooper and Will Genia to help the Reds become not only the surprise of this year but perhaps the biggest surprise of any Super rugby season since the professional era began fifteen years ago.
But it’s not only the Reds — there’s a propload of excitement in Australian rah rah ranks at the moment, with the first ten weeks of 2010 producing the best Australian performance in Super rugby for a decade or more, with three Aussie teams in the top six and the astonishing Reds sitting in a finals spot after being hopeless for what seems an eternity to any rugby fan born north of the Tweed.
So is this where it all comes crashing down? Is this when the Saffers and the Kiwis remind us that they are they only real rugby nations? One of the Australian teams probably dips out of finals contention when the Brumbies take on the Waratahs this weekend, but there’s still room for some belief that this could be the first year with two Australian finalists since 2002.
(all times AEST)
Waikato Chiefs (NZ) vs Free State Cheetahs (SA) Fri 5:35 pm
Whither Waikato? The team that played easily the most exciting football of 2009 and made it to the grand final for the first time in Chiefs history has completely fallen apart after a few easy wins at the start of the season. Despite having some of the most exciting players in the game in Masaga, Muliaina, Donald and Kahui and a bucketload of All Blacks, they have been the biggest bust of the year. They will thump the Cheetahs, but only because the Cheetahs can’t tackle and can’t score tries.
Chiefs by 18
Queensland Reds vs Western Cape Stormers (SA) Fri 7:40 pm
So you thought last week’s monumental tussle with the Bulls was big? Well that was just a warm up to this week’s battle with the other surprise team of the competition, the boys from Cape Town. The Stormers have been the Waratahs of South Africa for a long time, except worse (in fact they should probably be called the Proteas) — tons of talent but almost always flattering to deceive.
They have ritually disappointed the Newlands faithful year after year, never making the grand final and only making the semis once in the last ten years. But this year it could all be different. They have physically battered almost every team they have played, have easily the best defense in the comp and are in smoking hot form, just like their hosts.
The Stormers pack is considerably nastier than the Bulls with Burger and Bekker (sounds like a post modern art duo, hits like a train) in particularly compelling form and it will be a massive test for the Reds no-names.
The Stormers backs have also started putting some points on the board, but this remains the classic mismatch case of whether the Reds strength in the backs will outweigh the Stormers strength in the forwards. While in the past the Cape-dwellers have played even worse in Australia than they do anywhere else, I think they may be able to turn that around.
Stormers by 3
Western Force vs Canterbury Crusaders (NZ) Fri 9:45pm
What could have been the usual middling year for the Force turned into a disaster as half of their team (the good half) collapsed with injuries at the start of the season. Then just as they’ve got all their injured stars back their player of the year James O’Connor goes down with a calf problem. Nevertheless they will be absolutely desperate to reward the most loyal fans in the Super 14 in their final home game of the year (okay, they may all originally be from South Africa or Britain but they’re Perth people now! Just don’t ask them to back the Wallabies…).
The Crusaders have always had trouble in Perth and this one will be a lot closer than most people think, however the loss of O’Connor and the ruthless efficiency of the 22 cyborgs known as the Crusaders will probably get them over the line.
Crusaders by 5
Otago Highlanders (NZ) v Wellington Hurricanes (NZ) Sat 5:35pm
Another game in New Zealand, another one no-one except Wellington true-believers really cares about, with the other big flop of the year, the Hurricanes, taking on the more predictably awful Highlanders. The articles over the ditch about how worried they should be about their teams’ Super 14 form have reached a crescendo, although the Hurricanes achingly tedious win over a very pedestrian Brumbies team last week (a game your correspondent had the misfortune of attending) gave their fans a flicker of hope.
Many were picking the Hurricanes to reach the final this year, but despite still being mathematically alive, they won’t. You heard it here first.
Hurricanes by 12
NSW Waratahs vs ACT Brumbies Sat 7:40pm
Its do or die for the Brumbies this week following their worst home performance in a very long time. That desperation undoubtedly increases the chances of an upset in what has been the marquee intra-national battle in Super 14 for a decade.
Apart from the run to the finals there are all kinds of Wallaby spots to be fought over, particularly in the second row and back row, but also the backs with Barnes, Ashley Cooper, Turner, Beale and yes, even Giteau needing to put in big games to push their claims amongst all the other star performers wearing 10 to 15 on their backs.
The history of this fixture is that the home team wins, and despite their desperation and the infuriating (for Waratahs fans) move to Homebush from the fortress that is the SFS, unless the Brumbies backs can step up several classes that’s what will happen this time.
Waratahs by 8
Northern Gauteng/Transvaal Bulls (SA) v Gauteng/Transvaal Lions (SA) Sat 11:00pm
The Bulls will be tired, sore and a bit discombobulated following their return from Brisbane and therefore will only win by 20 rather than 40. The Lions are a weekly reminder of what a ridiculous proposition a sixth South African Super franchise was.
Bulls by 20
Kwazulu/Natal Sharks (SA) v Auckland Blues (NZ) Sun 1:05am
Ahh the Blues, the Venus de Milo of Rugby teams, the perfection of beauty because and not in spite of their fundamental shortcomings. They are easily the most enjoyable team for any non-Blues rugby fan to watch, because they can play with unmatched brilliance, but you know that they’ll never have quite enough composure to be there at the pointy end of the season.
So unlike a Manchester United or a Geelong or a Melbourne Storm, the rest of us can delight in their skills without angst, while Blues fans suffer their annual psychological battering. Will they win this one? They don’t travel well and the answer has everything to do with which Blues team turns up and almost nothing to do with the Sharks, who aren’t half the team they have been in recent years.
But we’re here to tip, so Blues by 6