NZ Herald / Patrick McKendry
This season’s Super Rugby competition has made a mess of many a prediction, but, bear with me – the Hurricanes, who have already qualified for a home quarter-final thanks to their superb victory over the Lions in Johannesburg – will lose to the Blues this weekend.
The match in Wellington is looming as one of the Hurricanes’ toughest challenges of the season because they have little to gain from it and they will have missed a decent proportion of their week travelling home from a successful stint in South Africa.
They will be missing a few key personnel, including midfielder Ngani Laumape who is on an All Black rest week, and will have an eye on the knockout stages of the competition.
They are also perhaps the one team who can seriously threaten the Crusaders in Christchurch – their 37-17 victory over the Lions at Ellis Park despite the late withdrawal of Beauden Barrett due to illness should not be underestimated – and are on course to meet them in a semifinal.
The second part of the equation, of course, is how the Blues perform, and nothing should be taken for granted here after another away defeat at the weekend, this time to the Reds in Brisbane.
There is nothing in this match for the Blues either. They’re out of the playoffs equation and are playing for only that intangible thing called pride, but this is likely to be the final Super Rugby match for Sonny Bill Williams, if he’s passed fit after knee surgery, and fellow midfielder Ma’a Nonu. Both deserve a half decent send-off and it’s up to their teammates to provide it.
Can they harness what will be a sense of injustice after their one-point defeat at Suncorp Stadium? Who knows, but one thing in their favour is that there will be little expectation on them and that’s how this team likes it. They don’t handle pressure well and that’s perhaps why they tend to thrive in pre-season (a dry ball and pitch helps, too) and fall apart during the season proper.
If they do manage it, it will be their first away win of the season and first away success against a New Zealand team since they beat the Hurricanes in 2013, an extraordinarily poor run that has to be broken some time doesn’t it?
I’ve started with a prediction and I’ll finish with a few more.
The Highlanders will finish their season with a victory over the Waratahs in Invercargill but will miss out on the playoffs – their draw to the Bulls in Dunedin was a killer – and the Chiefs will beat the Rebels in Melbourne to sneak into the top eight, for which their reward will be a trip to Christchurch to play a Crusaders team they made fools of in Suva recently.
The Crusaders have everything in their favour as they march towards what they will believe is their destiny of three victories in three years under Scott Robertson. They have a bye this weekend and a cast of thousands (okay, front rowers Owen Franks, Codie Taylor and Tim Perry) vying for starting positions after injury and you don’t need to be a genius to suggest they will be very difficult to beat at their fortress.
A rematch against a Chiefs side who have improved significantly over the second part of the season will be highly anticipated and so will, potentially, another against the Hurricanes.
Coach John Plumtree showed in Johannesburg that he is capable of designing effective winning strategies – he left Dane Coles and Ardie Savea on the bench in order to boost their second-half impact and the pair did it superbly. They are a danger but will struggle to beat the Blues on Saturday.
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