6 Bold Predictions for Super Rugby This Weekend: Sharks Suffer Upset in Auckland
Following on from last weekend's spirited fight against the odds in Christchurch, Jake White's Sharks face another stubborn New Zealand examination in Round 15 of the Super Rugby campaign.
The competition leaders travel to Auckland, where they'll attempt to improve on the five-point gap that currently separates them from the rest of the field, but can the South African machine maintain their stride in such harsh waters?
Elsewhere, we take a look at who fans can expect to see emerge from the Rebels' and Waratahs' derby encounter in Melbourne, along with predictions for all those fixtures set to dazzle in Round 15.
1. Blues Deal Sharks a Damaging Blow in Auckland
Auckland might be a region of New Zealand renowned for its connection to the sea, but it will be one destination which the Sharks won't find so inviting.
The Blues currently sit at the bottom of their conference, 10th in the overall standings, but one aspect of their season which has gone to plan has been that of their rigid home form.
John Kirwan's side are yet to lose a point at the QBE Stadium this term, and although the Sharks pulled off a mighty feat last time out by triumphing in Crusaders territory with just 14 men—13 for a stretch—Friday's outcome won't be quite as positive.
The injury suffered by Charles Piutau means that Lolagi Visinia will shuffle to fullback, according to Liam Napier of Stuff.co.nz, leaving Tevita Li to come onto the left wing and Pita Ahki something of a surprise selection in the centre.
Even without Piutau's talents, that's still some part of a potentially devastating back line, which threatens to take advantage of any deficiencies shown by their visiting counterparts in what should be a close affair.
2. Melbourne Rebels Reclaim Weary Dunlop Shield
The NSW Waratahs handed close rivals the Rebels a 32-8 hiding back in Sydney two months ago to keep up their good record of form against the Melbourne outfit.
However, the reverse fixture should see the tables turned, with the Rebels—much like numerous teams in Super Rugby this season—thriving mainly off their home success.
Tony McGahan's men may have been slightly fortunate in earning a maiden Super Rugby win over the Reds in Queensland last week, and as such, the side won't be starting any premature celebrations in its wake.
With the Weary Dunlop Shield on the line, the Melbourne hosts have as much inspiration to win on Friday as they'll have had at any point of the campaign thus far, and one can expect to see the likes of Jason Woodward once again leading the charge.
3. Honey Badger Booms Back into the Meat Hunt
Having enjoyed a midseason run of prolific form, the Western Force have been slightly more out of sorts of late, winning two and losing two of their last four.
Irrespective of their slump, one player maintaining his side of the bargain is "Honey Badger" Nick Cummins, who has crossed over twice in those four fixtures and comes up against the Lions this week with high hopes of adding to his try count.
In Round 14, the South African outfit was outdone in resounding fashion by the Waratahs, and it was Rob Horne and Adam Ashley-Cooper in particular who saw a lot of joy down their left flank.
With Courtnall Skosan still struggling with a hamstring injury, wing replacement Deon van Rensburg will have a hard time restraining Cummins as he goes in search of more "meat," and the Wallabies speedster can look to dot down more than once.
4. Chiefs, Highlanders Come out Shining in New Zealand Contests
Two intra-national meetings of the New Zealand variety this weekend make for some very enticing viewing as the Chiefs travel to face the Hurricanes in Wellington while the Highlanders play host to the Crusaders.
And after suffering such a disappointing result at home to the Sharks last week, the Crusaders will find it tough to bounce back in Dunedin, where Jamie Joseph's men have lost just once this season.
The Crusaders have been in fine away form, too, however, showing the ability to win by both big and small margins, but Joseph's fifth-placed Highlanders have the weapons at their disposal to distance themselves from the Crusaders, just two points below them.
In the other clash, the reigning champions will storm the gates in Wellington, recovering from a bad run of form to win their last two in a row, although both those meetings were in New Plymouth.
The two teams that have managed to beat the Chiefs on their travels this season are the Western Force and the Brumbies, each of whom have a trip advantage over their foes that the Hurricanes aren't as fortunate in possessing.
Conrad Smith & Co. have already lost twice at home this campaign, and although the talents emerging in their back line would see their attack boast some extreme potential, it's debatable as to whether or not the same can be said of their defence.
5. Bulls and Stormers Prevail in Their South African Abodes
The Bulls and Stormers each have massive weeks ahead, where a win for the former would potentially push them into a playoff spot, while the latter can move a couple of places away from the bottom of the standings should they be able to get their hands on some points.
And the hauls for either side look likely to be at least four apiece, with the Loftus Versfeld giants promising to cast the Brumbies away from Pretoria as losers, and the Stormers likely to emerge triumphant in their all-South African collision with the Cheetahs.
Neither teams are easy to travel to, but three of the Brumbies' four losses this season have come in foreign territory, not to mention it was just last week that they suffered defeat to the 12th-placed Cheetahs.
And considering the Bloemfontein team have taken just the sole bonus point from their seven away matches this season, it would seem the Stormers have that fixture to lose.
6. Western Force, Highlanders Hop Back into Playoff Parity
If predictions go to plan, we should see the playoff race shaken up further, with the Highlanders and Western Force taking up residences as high as they will have previously known this term.
The third-placed Waratahs and sixth-spot Crusaders losing will create openings for the aforementioned pair that they will gleefully take advantage of, with the Force looking to ascend from seventh to as high as third, should the Chiefs be unsuccessful in Canes land.
The Highlanders, meanwhile, can bump up a magnificent three places depending on the rest of results, coming to within just a couple of points of the Sharks in what stands to be a season-shifting round for their campaign.
The Crusaders will look to stunt that growth, but the talents of Malakai Fekitoa, Aaron Smith and all they have around them may now begin to establish a genuine challenge on the top spots.