5 Key Battles for Super Rugby Round 18
This is the penultimate regular season round in Super Rugby 2014. The Sharks have run away with the South African conference, winning 10 out of 14 games. The Bulls are their nearest rivals, with 33 points to the Sharks' 45. The Waratahs, at the top of the Australian conference, also cannot be caught.
The most enticing round-18 action will involve the New Zealand conference. The Crusaders sit atop the table on points difference from the Highlanders in second. Both teams are well positioned to qualify for the finals but will want an overall top-three spot for a favourable draw in the knockout stages. They cannot afford to concede ground in this game week.
With the Sharks dominant in South Africa, the bottom three qualifiers are likely to come from the fiercely fought New Zealand conference and the Australian conference. The Brumbies, the Highlanders and the Hurricanes currently sit in the remaining qualification spots.
However, the Western Force, the Blues and the Chiefs all have games in hand on the Hurricanes and the Brumbies. This means that a round-18 win will set up an enthralling final weekend for the regular season.
Chiefs vs. Hurricanes
The Chiefs vs Hurricanes tie will be closely observed by New Zealand selectors. The tie sets up an important clash between the two All Black outside-halves. For the Chiefs the man in possession, Aaron Cruden. For the Hurricanes the player in pursuit, Beauden Barrett.
Cruden has come under pressure for his poor form in the black shirt. It is not difficult to see why Beauden Barrett has been earmarked as his replacement. The 23-year-old Hurricanes fly-half is the top scorer in Super Rugby with 198 points and five tries.
Cruden showed positive signs in round 17 against the Highlanders. A well-weighted chip through saw Dwayne Sweeney pick up a try. However, Cruden will have to be performing at his peak if he is to steer the Chiefs to a win and keep their dwindling finals hopes alive.
The Hurricanes, with a game in hand, top the tables for tries scored, defenders beaten, clean breaks and metres made. They are a side that are not afraid to run the ball, earning them their tally of nine bonus points. A win here will ensure they are not sweating on their finals spot on their week off in the final round of fixtures.
The back-row battle between Liam Messam and Victor Vito will be a big one. The wings will be where the Hurricanes will do their damage though. All Black finishers Cory Jane and seven-try Julian Savea will prove potent. The Hurricanes' running rugby should see them over the line and the defending champions out of the title race.
Crusaders vs. Blues
The Crusaders currently sit top of the New Zealand Conference and are third in the overall standings. A win over the Blues would all but secure their place in the finals. They go into their penultimate game on the back of a 16-9 loss to the Hurricanes.
This game allows the Crusaders a chance to bounce back. They must not allow a defeat to turn into a downward slump.
The Blues are not out of finals contention themselves but must win their two remaining games to progress from the closely contested New Zealand division. The Blues ended a 13-game away losing streak against the Western Force last week, with a 14-40 win. An away tie to the Crusaders will prove whether their travelling troubles are truly behind them.
The formidable Dan Carter made a return for the Crusaders off the bench last week and could star from the start against the Blues. He has all the experience required to marshall the Crusaders into the finals. With Richie McCaw and Israel Dagg injury doubts, Carter's role could be crucial.
The Blues possess plenty of threats of their own. A front-row founded upon the strength of Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu is always going to provide a solid base. Consider the power-carrying of Jerome Kaino and Ma'a Nonu and it is clear that this will be no easy task for the Crusaders.
Waratahs vs. Highlanders
For the Waratahs—who have sewn up the Australian conference—the result of this game is no longer important. For the Highlanders, the outcome could be crucial.
If the Highlanders secure a bonus-point win, finals qualification will be assured. With the Waratahs no longer required to play a full-strength side, this could be a real possibility.
The Waratahs will most likely look to keep continuity with a side that is topping the Super 15 table. They are a team studded with Australian internationals. Their back line contains the likes of Rob Horne, Kurtley Beale, Adam Ashley Cooper and Israel Folau.
Folau, in particular, has been in rich form this season. He is the top-scorer in Super rugby with 10 tries. He also holds the titles of most offloads and most clean breaks. His head-to-head battle with the Highlander's Ben Smith will be a fascinating one.
Ben Smith had an impressive Test series for New Zealand against England and will be looking to bring that form back into Super Rugby. A try last week against the Chiefs suggests he is not letting up. The Kiwi is a key runner for the Otago team, his 1089 metres made the most in the competition.
The other Highlander to watch is outside-centre Malakai Fekitoa, who has scored six Super Ruby tries in 2014. He has beaten a tournament-best 54 defenders with his blend of power and darting feet. Will the stand-out stars of the Highlanders, Fekitoa and Smith, undo the wide-spanning strength of the Waratahs back line?
Stormers vs. Bulls
Both the Stormers and the Bulls will be disappointed with their Super Rugby Season in 2014. The Sharks are 12 points clear in the South African conference.
The Stormers cannot make the finals and, barring a bonus point-based miracle, neither can the Bulls. While the South Africans have struggled in Super Rugby this year, the Springboks have had a successful summer. The Springboks went unbeaten in their Tests against Wales and Scotland.
With these internationals returning to the clubs, hopefully this all-South African encounter will showcase the skills we know they have.
The Bulls' lineout has proven their source of strength again this year. The evergreen Victor Matfield has ensured a success rate of 90.5 percent at the set piece. The loss of Pierre Spies through injury has been damaging. However, Bulls fans would have expected better with the international quality in their squad.
The Stormers too have suffered injuries to key players. Etzebeth, De Villiers and De Jongh have all had problems. While their defence has been tight, they have not scored enough tries to be a force in the competition. Will they look to finish with a bang, or will they continue to keep it tight against a Bulls side needing a bonus point?
Force vs. Reds
The Super Rugby season holds little in store now for Queensland Reds. Their season will not stretch to the finals in 2014, after playing 14 and winning only five. They have largely been undone by injuries to their two key men, Will Genia and Quade Cooper.
For the Western Force, this game represents their last real chance to avoid joining the Reds on the Super Rugby scrapheap. If they win here, they can bridge the gap to the Brumbies with a game still in hand.
The Force lost 14-40 to rivals for finals qualification the Blues last week. They will need to bounce back in some style at home against the Reds. The visitors come into the game on the back of a 20-36 victory over the Rebels. Scrum-half Nick Frisby picked up two tries in the high-scoring contest.
The Reds need this win to restore pride after a sorry season. The Western Force need the win to make the latest of late charges for the finals.
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