Our Super Rugby stats guru offers his tips for the weekend’s games.
A round of low-scoring upsets interfered with the Oracle’s prediction senses last week resulting in a below-par 4/7. With an overall record of 71/95, his season remains at the 75% mark. Here’s what Round 13 has in store…
Chiefs vs Crusaders (Suva, Fiji)
If you wanted to start the week with a bang, this is the way to do it. Between them these teams have suffered just one loss and won 20. I suspect this will come down to one question: can the Chiefs do a better job of standing up to the Crusaders forwards than the Hurricanes did? If the answer is no, things could get skittery out the back; if the answer is yes, the Chiefs are a fair shot at winning. It’s been hard to get a handle on how the Chiefs are tracking at the moment since it’s been more than a month since they played any serious opposition. I’ve been a little reluctant to pick the Crusaders at times this season as I’ve felt they’re overachievers, but after a while you have to start believing what your eyes are telling you. Overachieving doesn’t happen 11 times in a row. So I’ll have the Crusaders in this one, which means a fiver on the Chiefs might be money well spent!
Stormers vs Blues (Cape Town)
This is the other clash of the round for me. It’s not so vitally important for home playoff chances, as the Stormers will get one berth as the Africa 1 table-toppers and the Blues won’t be in the hunt, but it is important for the Blues if they’re to stay in what is a frenetic race for the wildcard spots. The Blues have played five of their six New Zealand conference games already (where else did you think the five losses have come from), and a win here would go a long way towards putting the Highlanders under increasing pressure. I’m tempted to pick the Blues here because their graph is on an upward trend and the Stormers are heading the other way, but the visitors will have to be close to their best 2017 form in order to get the job done.
Hurricanes vs Cheetahs (Wellington)
Unhappy with getting a hiding at Christchurch (despite the close-ish score, that was a hiding on the run of play) the Hurricanes will be looking for someone to kick around this week and the Cheetahs might just be that side. Given that their defence has major failures in almost every game and the Hurricanes have shown the ability to punish anyone not absolutely top-class, Saturday could be a long night for the visitors – and if the forecast is accurate, a cold and wet one too. Even with a lousy weather forecast, you’d expect the Hurricanes to win easily.
Force vs Highlanders (Perth)
If this game was being played anywhere but Perth, I’d pick the Highlanders without a second thought. But they have a moderate record in the West, and a moderate record overall against the Force. God knows why, but they do. That said, the visitors have commanded all sorts of games in the last couple of months; they’ve won as front-runners, making huge comebacks, under the roof, in the Invercargill chill, in the Pretoria wet … there’s not much they haven’t overcome lately. I think Tony Brown will need Aaron Smith for a lot of this game; as long as he doesn’t have a complete nightmare the visitors should get it done with a degree of comfort.
Sunwolves vs Sharks (Singapore)
The Sharks will be fuming after losing to the Kings and won’t want to make another cock-up against a cellar-dweller this week. The Singapore field is well under regulation size, but the Sharks are one of the few teams who will adjust to it quite easily. They are happy to grind up front and will kick goals – Garth April might be a threat from his own 10m line in that stadium. The Sunwolves will try and run the Sharks around but the lack of pitch width may hurt that ambition and I doubt they have enough muscle up front. I’m picking a Sharks win, but it might be harder work than many think. Ten points would be the most I’d allow.
Lions vs Bulls (Johannesburg)
This is the start of the home stretch for the Lions. They have to keep winning – and preferably with bonus points – at Ellis Park against a string of mediocre opponents to keep the Crusaders under pressure for home field. This shouldn’t be too hard against the Bulls, who have not been anywhere near what I expected this year and who won’t get within a bull’s roar of a playoff spot. The Lions are too good, too fast, too clever and too well coached to stuff this one up – but some of their players, who have been on the go for 15 months or more, might need careful handling in the next few weeks.
Kings vs Brumbies (Port Elizabeth)
I can’t believe I’m going to write this: the Australian conference-topping Brumbies go into a match against the South Africa 2 scrubs as decided underdogs for mine. Given the way the Kings have played in the last three or four weeks, the Brumbies had better watch out because they will get burned from a long way back if they’re careless, while their plodding style of attack won’t scare the Kings at all. This year the Kings have found the tackle bags and learned to trust one another on defence, and it’s working. Assuming Lionel Cronje is at only 80% of what he did last week, I think the Kings might win quite comfortably.
Waratahs vs Rebels (Sydney)
This could be bloody ugly. Even moderately enjoyable might be asking too much. And yet leadership of the Australian conference and fourth place on the ladder could depend on the result. I really can’t think of nice things to say about either side, so I won’t insult your intelligence. I do think the Waratahs will be less bad, and therefore will win. I’m not holding my breath.
In brief: Crusaders / Blues / Hurricanes / Highlanders / Sharks / Lions / Kings / Waratahs