Referee Steve Walsh took his newfound status as an Australian seriously by putting the Brumbies out of their misery and keeping the more likely Waratahs in the semi-finals hunt with a string of “courageous” decisions, while boring the audience stupid with a million scrum resets. You can’t help think that a packed to the gills SFS would have mightily helped in turning this snoozefest into a decent game but I’m also going to have to blame the Brumbies for playing probably the most negative game I’ve ever seen from a team that had to win with a bonus point to stay in contention.
The rest of the Super 14 news remained mighty good, with a steely performance from the Reds bringing a whole new round of superlatives for the recently missing Link and his young, ferociously fit and determined team. The “when will he be Wallabies coach?” talk already abounds. And the Force, who your correspondent didn’t quite have the guts to tip last week put a very average looking Crusaders team to the sword with a particularly awesome performance from the loose forwards, who clearly hadn’t been told that Richie McCaw is a living legend and you just can’t make him look that bad.
(all times AEST)
Otago Highlanders (NZ) vs NSW Waratahs Fri 5:35 pm
The Waratahs have had the wood on the Highlanders for some time, but the Otago boys seem to be playing with a lot more spirit now that they are just playing for fun, and this could be a dangerous game for the tahs, who had practically zero penetration from the forwards against the Brumbies without the gone for the season Wycliff Palu and the hopefully returning this week Tatafu Polota Nau.
Polota Nau has become a totemic player for NSW this year and there’s still a chance this might be a walloping if he’s in and the team fires up, but treat this as an easy game and the sky blues will get burnt. Here’s hoping for a free-flowing game and some entertainment from the Highlanders pretty decent back three and the Waratahs very good back three.
Waratahs by 10.
Western Cape Stormers (SA) vs Canterbury Crusaders (NZ) Sat 3:10 am
A monster game as second plays third, both coming off a loss and both still to play the competition leading Bulls in Pretoria. This won’t be pretty, in fact it will be brutal as the most successful team in Super rugby history takes on the best defence in the comp in front of a Cape Town crowd that will be baying for the success they’ve missed out on for so long. These are probably the two best forward packs in the competition, but the Crusaders got touched up by the Force last week and it gets a whole lot harder here.
Will the Crusaders legendary teamwork and big game experience lead them to a victory and quieten down all those hoping for the first Super season ever without an NZ team in the finals? No.
Stormers by 6.
Wellington Hurricanes (NZ) vs Waikato Chiefs (NZ) Sat 5:45pm
There could be a thooouuusand tries scored in this match, with the Hurricanes needing the bonus point for the win to mean anything, and the Chiefs having given up any pretense of a defense a couple of months ago. It would be just like the Chiefs to suddenly find their form again in a game that can’t do anything for them, but can finish off their neighbour’s mighty slim finals hopes.
There will also be a few All Blacks backline spots to play for (All Black selection hopes are a distant memory for any Chiefs forward) so hopefully this will be as entertaining as last week’s Hurricanes-Highlanders game. The perfect game for those early evening bevvies down at the local, where you know that whenever you look up at the screen in between conversations you’ll probably see a try.
Hurricanes by 15.
ACT Brumbies v Queensland Reds Sat 7:40pm
The wronged and vengeful Brumby finally awakes and bites the upstart reject Reds on the arse? Perhaps, but just like last week it would take a massive change in mental state for the Brumbies to beat the buzzing bees from Queensland. Bruce Stadium has been a graveyard for the Reds with exactly no wins to their name but they’ve never had a team like this before, a team that believes it can win every game no matter who it’s playing, where.
There are some big matchups all over the park, including up and coming Scott Higginbotham taking on Wallaby skipper Rocky Elsom, Peter Hynes up against Ashley Cooper at the back and the Faingaa brothers clearly keen to show Andy Friend what he should have seen last year. But the one everyone will be watching is Giteau v Cooper. Let’s just hope the new referee let’s them play and the Brumbies actually try and run with the ball from their own half occasionally, because they still don’t seem to have noticed that that’s the only way to win in 2010.
Reds by 7.
Free State Cheetahs (SA) v Auckland Blues (NZ) Sat 11:00pm
The Cheetahs looked as stunned as everyone else that they scraped a draw last week after the Chiefs somehow managed to miss eight goal attempts, but that may well give them a bit of impetus to fire back a few shots now that they are back in the world’s excitement capital, Bloemfontein, after being totally outgunned in every game on tour. The Blues remain the least tippable team in any sport, but I’m going to stick my neck out once again, purely because it would keep their win one, lose one run going.
Blues by 8
Gauteng/Transvaal Lions (SA) v Western Force Sun 1:05am
I said last week that the Lions were a joke and the Bulls would win only by 20 rather than 40 because they would be exhausted after the tough Reds match and long flight back from Brisbane. Obviously this column is widely read in Johannesburg and they were galvanised into action, promptly losing by 40 just to prove how wrong I was. I’d love to tip the Force by 40, but unfortunately they have been awfully inconsistent the last few weeks, despite playing far better overall. It’s a shorter trip to the veldt for the Perth boys though, they’ve always done reasonably in the Republic and the Lions are seven shades of crap.
Force by 12.
Northern Gauteng/Transvaal Bulls (SA) v Kwazulu/Natal Sharks Sun 3:10am
For the last few years this has been one of the mightiest local derbies in Super 14, with the Sharks and Bulls fighting epic battles to decide who was the best of the South African provinces. The Sharks were tres ordinaire for the first half of the season, but have rediscovered their gritty “not flash, just Gordon” style of winning, with the scrum reasserting its historical dominance and Ruan Pienaar back in form as one of the best halves in the world. Nevertheless Gordon is coming up against the Barack Obama of rugby teams this weekend and they will be too smart, too polished and too at home in the spotlight to let the Sharks stop their run to a home final.
Bulls by 5.