Lea-Ann van der Merwe - Sport24
Cape Town - After some surprising results from the Australasian teams in Week 17, the South African franchises rejoin the competition having had a month-long break from Super Rugby action.
With the Crusaders losing to the Hurricanes and the defeat of the Brumbies at the hands of the Waratahs, the top of the table has seen some significant changes that could severely affect the knock-out phase of the competition.
Could more changes rock the boat further in Round 18?
Friday, July 4
Chiefs v Hurricanes, Hamilton - 09:35
Playing their final match of the round-robin phase this weekend, the Hurricanes will want to put a win over the Chiefs to ensure that they can remain within the top six on the log. After their promising start at the beginning of the season, the Chiefs stumbled on tour, but will be hoping that two wins in the final two weeks of the regular season could put them back in contention for a play-off spot. The last time these two teams met the Hurricanes put 45 points past the Chiefs, and their recent win over the Crusaders will also provide them with a confidence boost. However, their lack of a hooker on the released team sheet may indicate trouble in the Hurricanes forwards camp. This is a must-win for both teams if they want to remain in the competition, so they will need to leave everything they have on the field come kick-off.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 9
Lions v Rebels, Johannesburg – 19:10
Coming off their victory over the Bulls in the last round of Super Rugby matches, the Lions will want to build on their momentum against the Rebels at home this weekend. Although neither team can make the knock-out stages of the competition anymore, the Lions will be looking towards the upcoming Currie Cup Season and will want to have a good platform to build on going forward. I expect the home ground advantage will play in the Lions’ favour if they crowd comes to the party, as well as the involvement of recently capped Springbok Marnitz Boshoff and his dangerous right boot.
Prediction: Lions by 15
Saturday, July 5
Crusaders v Blues, Christchurch – 09:35
After a rocky season, Todd Blackadder has possibly the best team of the season at his disposal with the return of flyhalf Dan Carter from a lengthy sabbatical, as well as the return from injury of Israel Dagg. Kieran Read’s return to health will also provide further back-up for the forwards. After playing both Carter and Read off the bench in their loss to the Hurricanes, they will bolster the team from the kick-off to keep the Crusaders in contention for a home semi-final. The Blues, on the other hand, will be coming off the high of their impressive defeat of the Western Force and will be hoping that a win could put them in contention for a top six spot come the end of the round-robin phase.
Prediction: Crusaders by 8
Western Force v Reds, Perth – 11:40
With a surprisingly good season thus far, the Western Force will be hoping that two wins in the final round-robin matches will provide them with an opportunity to make the knock-out stages of the competition. The Reds, who are officially out of contention for the playoffs, have nothing to play for after a particularly unpredictable season. On the other hand, the Force have everything to play for. I believe they won’t be taking anything for granted this weekend and will want to put a bonus point win past their west coast rivals on home ground.
Prediction: Western Force by 10
Stormers vs Bulls, Cape Town – 17:05
If the Bulls are to have any hope of making it to the knock-out rounds, they will have to win their final two games of the pool stages, both with bonus points. With Flip van der Merwe unavailable due to injury, there will be no rest for Matfield, who has perhaps been overplayed this season. Further injuries to the Bulls’ loose forwards may create problems for them on the ground. It will be a tough battle at scrum time for the Stormers who have suffered several injuries to their front row players, but the return of several key backline players will certainly bolster their ranks and the Bulls’ inclusion at flyhalf of new Bok Handre Pollard could perhaps allow for an impressive kicking battle. The Bulls have more to play for, but will they crack under the pressure?
Prediction: Bulls by 2
Cheetahs v Sharks, Bloemfontein – 19:10
With the Crusaders hot on their heels, the Sharks will need to win both their matches in the next two weeks – both away derbies – if they want to ensure they remain in second position on the log. The Cheetahs, however, are well and truly out of the competition and only have pride to play for after a disappointing season. Recent rumours have also pointed to the fact that several Cheetahs players could be leaving the franchise soon, and they will want to end their run with a bang. The loss to injury of Heinrich Brussow means the Cheetahs may be lacking a fetcher on the ground, but they will be bolstered by the battalion of returning Springboks. Jake White, on the other end, has named most of his returning Springboks on the Sharks bench. Can the young guns up front successfully hold off a Cheetahs side with a point to prove long enough for the bench to make their appearance?
Prediction: Cheetahs by 3
Sunday, July 6
Waratahs v Highlanders, Sydney – 08:05
After leapfrogging the Sharks into first place on the combined log, the Waratahs will want to further their lead as they eye a possible home final. On the other hand, the Highlanders will be playing to win in the hopes that they could overtake the Crusaders to perhaps secure themselves an easier route to the final. The loss of Waratahs captain Dave Dennis could not have come at a worse time, and this may affect their game plan upfront against the Highlanders. This game could have a massive impact on the log if the Highlanders can cause an upset in Sydney, and from a South African point of view, the Sharks will certainly be hoping that they can.
Prediction: Waratahs by 3