After a blockbuster round seven, Super Rugby Aotearoa is wide open yet again with just three rounds of action remaining. This weekend features two massive games that opens up with the winless Chiefs hosting the wounded Crusaders on Saturday night. Then on Sunday we head down to see the Highlanders up against the Blues. The Hurricanes sit out on the bye, but in their form I would expect they would prefer to be playing once again. Lets take a look at the action…..
CHIEFS vs CRUSADERS – FMG Stadium Waikato
It really is a tough tough competition. After weeks of close fought losses and now closing out with their final home game of the season, looking for the big push to pick up their first win…. The Chiefs have to deal with the Crusaders. Not even a happy Crusaders, I’d imagine a very determined Crusaders, looking to push on to the title.
Lineups have just dropped and the Chiefs will be very happy to have named Angus Ta’avao on the bench and back to rugby after a long layoff. Sitting along side him will be a debut for back rower Simon Parker. The U20s representative will be look to join the many other U20s making a name for themselves.
It is also a big night for Aaron Cruden, who will line up for his 100th Chiefs cap against the Crusaders. Cruden gets the nod in the number ten jumper this week and puts Kaleb Trask back to the bench.
Shaun Stevenson returns to the starting side on the right wing for the Chiefs and they have thankfully left Anton Lienert-Brown at outside centre, which has seen a huge transformation of the key mans form since the move a few weeks ago.
The Crusaders hit the round in what should be a foul mood. Losing last weekend has opened up Super Rugby Aotearoa for the Blues and the Hurricanes to get a sniff, the Crusaders will be desperately keen to shut that down.
Sam Whitelock deserves a huge ovation for his services to the Crusaders, 150th cap this weekend is a mammoth number for the champion second rower.
The side has a couple of changes, Sione Havili finds a mix around in the back row as he comes in at six and moves Tom Sanders to eight with no Whetu Douglas in he side. George Bower also gets a chance to shine from a starting position with Joe Moody away on bereavement leave.
Mitchell Drummond takes back the nine shirt as he swaps again with Bryn Hall. Billy Harmon returns to action via the bench as well.
There is a fear this could turn into a bit of a backlash from the Crusaders who had been cruising their way through matches, being good enough to lift the tempo at the end to overwhelm their opponents. That ended last weekend and it makes me wonder what the Crusaders will be like for the remainder of this competition.
If anything for the Chiefs, this means the Crusaders are beatable, but they will need to play their best rugby of the season and for ninety minutes as well. Yep, eighty isn’t enough now, those minutes after the hooter are so crucial!
If the Chiefs can, control the scoreboard, make the Crusaders chase the game and defend well enough. Its going to take all those experienced heads to even get close I feel. Crusaders just look too strong and they lost a game at home, its like the world really has come crashing down!
RESULT – Crusaders by 9
HIGHLANDERS vs BLUES – Forsyth Barr Stadium
A week of rest and recovery for the Highlanders couldnt have come at a better time for the team. The side had looked to be struggling in the last couple of weeks before the bye and had to throw the kitchen sink in at the end to topple the Chiefs two rounds ago.
Whats even more important than having a week off, is the fact that they are back at home, under the roof and ready to take on the Blues, who themselves struggled to put the W up against the Chiefs last weekend.
I said after the Highlanders lost to the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr stadium a number of rounds ago, that would be their final home loss of the season. A lot has passed since then but it has to be a standard the Highlanders live up to.
The Blues come into this round on the back of a narrow, some say lucky and even worse, win against the Chiefs and two losses to the Hurricanes and Crusaders the weeks before that. The honeymoon period for the Blues looks to have well and truly slipped away now. So much so, the Hurricanes are the number two side, if not number one after toppling the Crusaders, a feat the Blues could not manage.
So the Blues need a win this weekend to confirm they are still contenders for the title in more way than one. A loss will all but signal the end to their title hopes depending on other results. We have found the Blues second layer isn’t quite a strong as the first, despite the strong early form indicating otherwise.
The Highlanders need to be switched on for the whole game against the Blues. They cant afford another first forty minutes like their last outing, the Blues wont let that kind of lead slide.
Hopefully Josh Ioane will be fit to start after another week and Josh McKay will again start in some capacity in the side. Two key players who made a massive difference to the side which was progressing nicely.
Both sides sit on a edge of form which could see a fantastic high quality game of rugby or a error ridden mistake feast. Hopefully, not the latter. Starting fifteen selection is going to be a huge key as neither side can afford to give an inch in this one. Ioane if possible at ten, Hunt is playing well enough to be at fullback and show more of that form. Even for the Blues Harry Plummer trials, lets move on Leon, its time to let that one go….
RESULT – Highlanders by 1
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