With the international break over (Australia and the Lions aside) we turn our attention back to Super Rugby and the last few rounds of the play-offs. The battle for the qualification places is still wide open, leaving most teams with plenty to play for. Here’s a look ahead to Round 18’s action.
Chiefs v Hurricanes
The first NZ derby of the weekend sees the Chiefs welcome the Hurricanes to Hamilton. The Chiefs are looking good for top spot of the New Zealand conference, while the Hurricanes know they desperately need to win here to keep their play-off chances even remotely alive. The Canes have been given a boost with prop John Schwalger confirmed available for the final three rounds of the competition, while the Chiefs have also been buoyed recently by the news of several of their key players re-signing for next season.
The Hurricanes need the win more, but the Chiefs at home will re-start their campaign with a win in front of their fans.
Prediction: Chiefs by 10
Highlanders v Crusaders
There is only one team here with anything left to play for other than pride, and while the Highlanders shocked the Blues last time out at home they are unlikely to repeat that feat against the play-off chasing Crusaders. The men from Canterbury are in the midst of a reasonable run of form, with only a loss to the Chiefs in the negative column since mid-April. Richie McCaw has confirmed that he is aiming to be back for the play-offs, so the whole squad will be pulling together to make sure they do actually get there!
The Crusaders will be too strong for the Highlanders, who have little left to play for.
Prediction: Crusaders by 18
Sharks v Blues
The Sharks know it will take a monumental effort to get into the hunt for the play-offs, and will be targeting a big win against the faltering Blues to leave themselves with at least a chance. The stuttering Auckland franchise have hit a horrible patch of form, and have largely failed to recapture the kind of form that saw them the early frontrunners back at the beginning of the season. They have been hit during the break with the news that influential back Rene Ranger will leave them at the end of the season, which will not have helped morale. The Sharks’ off-field issues represent an unwelcome distraction for the players, but they can at least welcome back some of their previously injured players (notably Bismarck du Plessis).
Both sides know that to have any chance of making the play-offs they need to win here. It will be close, but home advantage will see the Sharks prevail.
Prediction: Sharks by 5
Bulls v Kings
The high-flying Bulls have not lost since round seven and look a formidable opponent for anyone at the moment. They beat the Kings 34-0 earlier in the season in Port Elizabeth, so back at home we could be looking at a cricket score. The new boys have put up a valiant fight and will still be trying to avoid finishing bottom of the overall log, but they will not have any luck here.
A no-brainer – the Bulls will stroll to victory.
Prediction: Bulls by 40
Stormers v Cheetahs
The reverse of this fixture back in April saw the Cheetahs sneak a narrow victory by 2, and we are unlikely to see much more of a margin here either. The Free State franchise have been a bit of a surprise package and find themselves with an eight point cushion over their opponents this weekend, with a bye in hand also. The Stormers simply have to win, and even then they are still unlikely to make it into the play-offs. Still, back at Newlands, they are a tough nut to crack and can welcome back plenty of international stars who will bring with them the confidence of a Quadrangular Series well won.
It will be tight, but in Cape Town the Stormers will prevail.
Prediction: Stormers by 4
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43