Rugby: Who Will Finish Top of the Super 15 Log?
As we approach the final week in the Round Robin stage of the inaugural Super 15, there appears to be a bit of a log-jam atop the standings.
Teams will be fighting it out for a place in the play-offs, as well as home-ground advantage for the "quarter" or "semi" final stages of the knock-outs.
It promises to be an exciting weekend of rugby.
But who will finish top of the Super 15 Log? And what six teams will qualify for the play-offs? Will the Reds hang on to top spot? Or do the Stormers have what it takes to overhaul them?
Check out my WEEKEND PREDICTIONS where I will look at each match, give my prediction, and in the end will reveal what the permutations will be on the final standings:
(PLEASE NOTE: Times listed for kick-offs is CAT, Central African Time)
Blues vs. Highlanders (Friday, 9.00am)
The first match of the weekend is a fascinating one, as we have two teams that are both suffering from an extreme lack of form.
The Highlanders looked a good bet in the early stages of the tournament, winning their first three matches. They have since fallen to eighth on the log and don't look quite as potent as they were in the beginning.
The Blues were serious challengers for a top spot a month ago, but a bad run of form and a series of close defeats has seen them slip to fourth. Kevin Mealamu's men will be seeking some redemption in Auckland as they look to secure a play-off berth.
The Highlanders have nothing but pride to play for and won't make it easy for their fellow countrymen, but I expect the Blues will be wanting to prove their doubters wrong by booking their place in the next round.
It could be a fairly open game with lots of tries, with the Blues securing a 12-point victory, achieving a four-try bonus point in the process.
Rebels vs. Force (Friday, 11:30am)
This is the only game of the weekend that won't affect the play-off race. So inevitably, it is the match that is garnering the least amount of attention and enthusiasm. Still, both teams will be looking to make a statement of intent for next year.
The Force will be looking to overturn the shock 25-26 defeat they suffered earlier in the season, whilst the Rebels will be wanting to end their first season on a high.
It will be a hard-fought contest but the Force will have too much in the tank for the Rebels, and will eventually run out winners by 15 points or so.
Chiefs vs. Reds (Saturday, 7:30am)
The first game of Saturday will be a big one, and is probably the most important in deciding who finishes in first place, thus securing home ground advantage for a semi and potential final. A lot is at stake for the Reds here, and their character will be tested by an unpredictable Chiefs team.
It is the Chiefs' unpredictability that makes them such a dangerous opposition. Victories against the Bulls and Stormers in recent weeks (as well as a narrow loss against the Crusaders) have shown that they are more than capable of beating the best.
The Reds' sparkling form has dwindled slightly; with a loss against the Brumbies and an unconvincing win against the Force, they are under pressure.
The Reds will find it tough going in Waikato. It is going to be a very close encounter, but I feel the form of the two teams will decide this one.
And if the Chiefs pack is able to put Genia and Cooper under pressure, they will edge a narrow victory by five points or less.
Crusaders vs. Hurricanes (Saturday, 09:35)
This fixture promises to be an exciting New Zealand affair as both teams like to run the ball. Both backlines possess a lot of pace and skill, and they will be looking to make a statement to Graham Henry and the All Black selectors.
The Crusaders will be on a mission to secure first place in the New Zealand conference. A win will be enough to achieve this objective.
Despite a number of injuries and challenges this season, the Crusaders have looked every bit a champion team and will be looking for momentum going into the play-offs.
The Hurricanes are the perennial underachievers of New Zealand, boasting so many skillful and pacy players, yet never quite reaching their true potential.
A weak point in this team has been the forwards who have struggled and haven't really given their backs anything to work with.
This will be a cagey affair, but expect the Crusaders to run away with it in the last 20 minutes, winning by about 15 points and securing their place on top of the New Zealand conference.
Waratahs vs Brumbies (Saturday, 11:40am)
This is another fixture that has potential for fireworks as the Brumbies will be do their best to prevent the 'Tahs from making the play-offs.
The Waratahs have been under a bit of pressure of late; their lack of consistency has let them down this season.
A win in Sydney will most likely see them qualify, but they will be under enormous pressure to get the job done at home. Also, the loss of Berrick Barnes for the rest of the season will have no doubt been a big blow to their confidence.
The Brumbies have had a torrid season, but in recent weeks they've managed some impressive results by beating the Rebels and upsetting the Reds.
A victory against the 'Tahs will complete a "clean sweep" of their Australian counterparts, and with this being Matt Giteau's final appearance for the franchise, they will be going all out for victory.
I expect this to be a very close affair, with the leads changing many times and both teams jostling for territorial positions. Despite a fired-up Brumbies, home ground advantage will see the Waratahs sneaking this one by less than five points.
Bulls vs Sharks (17:05pm)
This match is effectively a straight shoot-out with the winning team progressing, the losing team getting knocked out. Loftus has been sold out, so expect a cauldron of screaming blue Bull fans urging their team on.
The Bulls have been there and done it before. At the half way stage of the competition it looked as if their reign as Super Rugby champions was all bout over.
But they are a champion side and have done what champion sides do; play themselves back into contention. A close-fought victory against the Stormers at Newlands last week would've given them a moral boost that they can go all the way again.
The Sharks had a narrow escape against the Lions last week by coming back from a 21-point deficit to draw 30-30. Lying sixth on the log, they pretty much have to win this to stay alive. The forwards will have to match up to the Bulls pack if they are to stand a chance.
This is going to be another bruising, hard-fought derby. And on the highveld, expect lots of breaks and players catching their breaths.
The Bulls will exert their dominance on the Sharks, and brimming with confidence from five successive victories, will win a close-fought encounter by about 8-10 points.
Cheetahs vs. Stormers (Saturday, 19:10)
The Cheetahs will be looking to end the season on a high as the Stormers will look to secure a home semi-final.
The Cheetahs have lost their past two derbies to the Sharks and Bulls, and there will be many players looking to make a statement to the Springbok selectors (particularly Sarel Pretorius, who was inexplicably excluded from the Springbok squad).
The Stormers will know exactly what they need to do before kick-off. A top of the log finish may be on the cards, but first and foremost in their mind will be securing a home semi-final berth.
They will need to cut out their basic mistakes and improve on their performance against the Bulls if they are to achieve their goals.
It will be another brutal South African derby as both teams will be looking to win the physical and territorial battles. It will be close, but I feel the Stormers simply have too much to lose.
They will be looking to improve drastically from their performance against the Bulls, and will end up winning by about 10 points, but will miss out on a four-try bonus point.
The Final Log Positions
It is going to be extremely close, but if my predictions are correct, then the log will end up looking something like this:
1. Reds 63
2. Stormers 62
3. Crusaders 62
4. Blues 61
5. Bulls 57
6. Waratahs 56
7. Sharks 53
Which means the "quarter-final" play-offs next week will be as follows:
Crusaders vs Waratahs
Blues vs Bulls