It is that time of the week again when ‘Orrible Punt arrives in the Planet Rugby prediction hot-seat to give his Super Rugby calls
We arrive at the penultimate round of the regular season and with only the Hurricanes on a bye, there is a whopping seven fixtures scheduled.
Remember you can contact Russ with all your comments and questions on Twitter - @rpetty80.
The Chiefs secured their post-season place with a win at the Highlanders last week. Combining fine attack with a top defence they continue to illustrate that they might be the best balanced side in the competition (4th best attack and 4th best defence). To give an idea of their efficiency in attack - at halftime they only had seen 32% of territory and 47% of possession yet led by 9 points. Their record against the Crusaders (5 wins from 18 matches) isn’t great but the same was said last week about the Hurricanes form. Having lost away in a semi-final in 2004 and a final in 2009, the importance of obtaining home advantage will not be underestimated by the Chiefs. It was highlighted last week that without Dan Carter, the Crusaders average a score of 23-22 in 2012 and that wasn’t too far off what happened versus the Hurricanes. Despite dominating the set piece, territory and possession, the Crusaders lost by 1 point. Both the ‘Canes tries had more than a hint at obstruction about them and comments from Todd Blackadder suggests there is a sense of injustice bubbling in the camp. They will have to improve on just a 80% tackle success rate and some poor decision making but the re-introduction of Carter, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg to the team should greatly improve them. The battle between All Black master Richie McCaw and apprentice Sam Cane could go a long way to deciding this. Tough to go against the Chiefs with the way they have performed in 2012 but I can see the Crusaders edging it by 3.
Under Jamie Joseph’s reign, the Highlanders have been characterised by a relentless pack with a strong ‘pick and go’ game and that contest each breakdown fiercely. In both seasons of his tenure this has led them to 7 wins from the first 9 games. However in 2011, the Highlanders went on to lose 6 of the remaining 7 matches, while this year they have lost 4 of the last 6. 13 of their 17 wins under Joseph have come by 7 points or less and they try to grind teams down, rarely coverting their overwhelming possession into points. With Hosea Gear and Ben Smith (1534 and 1182 metres carried so far) lurking the backline, they certainly have attacking threat but the preferred option is usually a power game through the pack. It may be that the Highlanders require an extra playmaker to effectively link their pack and dangerous runners and the loss of Colin Slade hasn’t helped. The Reds continued to put pressure on the Brumbies at the top of the Australian conference, with a 15 point win over the Rebels. Considering they shipped 133 points on that nightmare of an away tour between rounds 4-6, that they are still in contention is an achievement. There are several reasons to favour them in this match - they’ve won 18 of their last 20 games on home turf, and have the motivation of a post-season place, whereas the Highlanders’ season is effectively now over. The Highlanders have also lost on 19 of 28 trips to Australia (including 7 of the last 9). The Reds seem to have momentum so I can see a home win by 10.
The big question last round was how teams would cope with the break. The Bulls found plenty of joy playing a Cheetahs side that seemed to be under the misconception that it was an exhibition match. The home side collected a bonus point and led 24-0 at the break and 40-0 by the hour mark. Conceding 4 tries unanswered tries after making a number of substitutions will have displeased their coach but it was still a case of ‘job done’. The Bulls post-season record has seen 5/5 wins at home, and 4/5 losses away - so it isn’t a surprise that their players have been mentioning the importance of getting home advantage in the play-offs. It was way back on June 2 that the Sharks played their last Super Rugby match, when they suffered a 38-28 upset at the Lions, having trailed 32-11 at half-time. It may have been complacency or simply the fact that the Sharks have lost 5 of 8 away games this season but that loss halted a run of 4 straight wins. They have won 15 of their last 18 home matches but the record against the Bulls isn’t great with the opponents winning 7 of their last 10, 5 of the last 6 at Durban. The inclusion of Frans Steyn at 12 is a boost but has been tempered with the losses of Pat Lambie and Willem Alberts. I think with the Sharks wanting to respond to that Lions defeat, as well as stay in the chase for a play-offs, they will win by 5!
The Force embark on their 2 game trip to New Zealand without key back-row personnel in Matt Hodgson (153 tackles, 103 runs) and David Pocock (206, 125). If rumours are to be believed, then it gives the Force a chance to try out some combinations in preparation for Pocock’s departure but it’s hardly ideal for a team that has already lost 11 games to be without such talent. The Force went in at half-time with a 22-0 deficit against the Brumbies but managed to win the second half (but not the game) by 11 points. They have scored 70% of their tries after the break and this has been a regular pattern for the organisation with 73% in the 2009/10 season too. In 8 matches they have outscored teams after the break, and 5 of those have been by 10 points or more. The Aucklanders’ woes and alarming slump from 4th place in 2011 to 14th in 2012 have been well documented and with only 2 wins under the belt they are only playing for pride at this stage. The Force have 4 wins and a draw from their last 9 trips to NZ but with no Pocock or coach - even the Blues must fancy their chances of victory. Their match against the Chiefs before the break saw Rene Ranger carry 11 times for 137 metres and link up with Lachie Munro and Francis Saili for 3 of the 4 tries scored. The Force concede 46% of their tries against wingers and centres and if those 3 players see plenty of ball, along with an apparently rejuvenated Ma’a Nonu then the home crowd should see their second win of the Super Rugby season. Blues to win this by 15.
Most pre-season predictions wouldn’t have had the Brumbies in third and the ‘Tahs eleventh at this stage. The 2011 Brumbies who ousted coach Andy Friend, only picked up 4 wins for the season and were humbled 41-10 by the ‘Tahs in the final game of the season. Even with Jake White in charge, this term was expected to be one of simple consolidation. The mixture of senior pros and exciting rookies have bought into White’s playing style and culture and have been rewarded with 9 wins from 14 matches. It is worth noting that 7 of those 9 wins have been against bottom 5 teams and they haven’t beaten a top 5 team yet this season, but that shouldn’t detract from their efforts. The 10 losses in 2012 mean that this is the Waratahs’ worst season, surpassing the 2007 effort. 7 of the losses have been in losing bonus-point range, with 3 of them being by a single point. The fixture has been dominated by the home side - with the ‘Tahs winning 9 of 10 in NSW and the Brumbies winning 7 of 9 in Canberra. The average score is ‘Tahs 29-18 Brumbies in Sydney, but this match should break the trend. The ‘Tahs backline does look to be dangerous and full of international experience but the half-back combo is untested and the Brumbies will surely target new 9, Grayson Hart. The uncertainty over the coach’s future and the way they fell apart against the Hurricanes in their last home game are enough to put me off backing the Waratahs so I will go for a rare Brumbies victory there. Let us say a success by 3 points at Allianz Stadium.
The Stormers have stuck to a pattern all season and we are close to finding out how far their style will take them. They have scored 64% of their tries and 61% of their total points in the first 40 and have led at half-time in 10 matches - by an average of 6 points. This dominance hasn’t been translated into bonus points however, with none collected and only 25 tries scored in their 14 matches. Second halves have not been pleasant watching for Stormers fans, with 44% of their tries conceded occurring in the 20 minutes after the break. A defence that has only conceded an average of 16 points a game has usually seen them home, though injuries to their back-row have been mounting. The Cheetahs have lost to the Stormers in the last 6 meetings, and whilst this season was by just 2 points - the other defeats have been by 6 points plus. I don’t see the table lying this week. Stormers by 8!
With these sides sitting in 12th and 15 place, it’s understandable if this match doesn’t get many pulses racing and the major talking point seems to be that the referee will be Francisco Pastrana of Argentina. The Rebels were 24-3 behind at half-time against the Reds, before an injury to James O’Connor saw Kurtley Beale move to 10 and make the score more respectable. Much of the Rebels improvement in the latter half of the season has come from Beale’s play at pivot and his (and O’Connor’s) absence will be felt by the Melbourne side. They have lost 12 of 14 away games in their history at an average score of 37-16 and have only scored 33% of their tries and 35% of their points away from home. The Lions don’t often start games as odds-on favourites, understandable really if you consider they have only won 5 games in their last 43 games (last 3 seasons). They made things very uncomfortable for the Stormers for 70 minutes last weekend and recorded a win over the Sharks before the break. Without both their playmakers, the Rebels may struggle to find a spark and could get pushed around by a Lions team who are possibly playing their last home Super Rugby game for a while. Lions to prevail by 11 points in Johannesburg!