Champion Chiefs to stumble early
Greg Growden and Brittany Mitchell
February 20, 2014
Super Rugby round two kicks off with a balltearer in Hamilton © Scrum.com
The countdown is over, and Australia and New Zealand open their Super Rugby accounts this weekend. New Zealand hosts the opening game of the weekend, and what a game: the Crusaders and the Chiefs; it might just be the most anticipated match-up of the season. Certainly Greg Growden believes it will have a big bearing on deciding the New Zealand "king-dog". Here's how the weekend's looking.
Friday, February 21
19:35 local, 06:35 GMT, 17:35 EDT, 17:05 CDT, 14:35 WST
Head to head: Played 23; Crusaders 15, Chiefs 8
In Christchurch: Played 7; Crusaders 6, Chiefs 1
Last clash: Semi-final, 2013 - Chiefs 20-19 Crusaders, at Waikato Stadium, Hamitlon
Preview: This could be a grand final preview, with both sides expected to battle strongly for the title. But the Crusaders come into the match as favourites after successful trial matches, which saw the return of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. Home-ground advantage could be key for the Crusaders - as Christchurch is a fortress that many raiders fail to storm - but they'll have to battle for the full 80 minutes without All Blacks strong men Kieran Read and Dan Carter against the back-to-back champions.
The Chiefs had a few hiccups during their trials, with a loss to the Reds and the injury to Sam Cane against the Blues, but they remain a side packed with All Blacks; with Aaron Cruden leading the side, we expect they will be quick as ever in attack and solid in defence. The absence of Cane and Tanerau Latimer front the back-row leaves them potentially short in the loose, but they will certainly be strong out wide with the return of former All Blacks hero Mils Muliaina from Japan and Robbie Fruean taking the field against his former team to offset injuries to stars such as Gareth Anscombe and Tom Marshall.
Greg Growden's verdict: I know. I know. I tipped the Chiefs to win the title, but all champions have early stumbles. Christchurch this time of the year will be tricky.
Tips - Greg Growden: Crusaders by 3 Brittany Mitchell: Crusaders by 3
Greg Growden and Russell Barwick preview the weekend's Super Rugby action
19:10 local, 17:10 GMT, 04:10 EDT +1d, 03:40 CDT +1d, 01:10 WST +1d
Head to head: Played 12; Cheetahs 1, Bulls 11
In Bloemfontein: Played 6; Cheetahs 0, Bulls 6
Last clash: Round 16, 2013 - Cheetahs 25-30 Bulls, at Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Preview: Both sides suffered disappointment in the opening round, and they each need to redeem themselves this weekend; another loss here, and the season begins to look very long. The Cheetahs led throughout against the Lions only to be stunned by Marnitz Boshoff in the dying minutes, and their fans will be hoping Johan Goosen and Edgar Watts relocate their kicking radar after missing three penalties collectively. The Cheetahs displayed strength in attack, crossing the chalk twice, but they were disappointing in defence, giving away too many penalties, and conceding territory and possession; they will be horrified to have had only 37% possession and 41% territory at home to a team considered by many to be easy-beats.
The Bulls were also disappointing in defence, missing 25 tackles in conceding 10 clean breaks and four tries against the Sharks. They also lost three lineouts and missed two penalties on a day when most things fell apart as the Sharks clicked. They also showed they haven't changed their aerial tactics, but their kicking from hand, from Francois Hougaard and Louis Fouche, was poor. They will continue to maul, but the late withdrawal of Pierre Spies, replaced by Jacques Engelbrecht, may be key. Will they improve enough to trouble the Cheetahs? It's going to be a long season if they don't. Tis could easily go either way.
Greg Growden's verdict: This will be a snooze-athon. The Bulls were boring last week, with the dullest of No.10s, and the Cheetahs have clammed up. Next!
Tips - Greg Growden: Cheetahs by 2 Brittany Mitchell: Bulls by 2
Saturday, February 22
19:35 local, 06:35 GMT, 17:35 EDT, 17:05 CDT, 14:35 WST
Head to head: Played 22; Highlanders 8, Blues 14
In Dunedin: Played 11; Highlanders 6, Blues 5
Last clash: Round 16, 2013 - Highlanders 38-28 Blues, at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Preview: The Blues lost all three of their trials, copping heavy defeats by the Waratahs and the Chiefs with Benji Marshall all at sea as fly-half. Little has gone right for them this year, and they will miss absent All Blacks stars Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Ma'a Nonu with rising star Charles Piutau also under an injury cloud.
The Highlanders are also coming off disappointing trial matches, after defeating the Brumbies in Queenstown, but they can take some hope out of their performance against the Waratahs in Newcastle, where they showed off flashes of flair in getting within three points of their hosts. Guilty of errors and turnovers in Newcastle, they must improve their ball-handling to win against the Blues. All Blacks Aaron and Ben Smith also must take control in order for the side to maximise their home-ground advantage.
Greg Growden's verdict: Considering the talent the Highlanders boasted last year, they were among 2013's biggest duds. They couldn't be that bad yet again, and the Blues are often shaky this time of year.
Tips - Greg Growden: Highlanders by 4 Brittany Mitchell: Highlanders by 3
19:40 local, 08:40 GMT, 19:40 EDT, 19:10 CDT, 16:40 WST
Head to head: Played 22; Brumbies 17, Reds 4, Drawn 1
In Canberra: Played 12; Brumbies 10, Reds 2
Last clash: Round 10, 2013: Reds 19-19 Brumbies, at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Preview: The Brumbies endured a disrupted pre-season, but coach Stephen Larkham is nevertheless confident his side, chock full of Wallabies, will provide formidable opposition for all-comers, especially at their home ground. Larkham has plenty of talent to choose from, and they have one of the best starting XVs in the competition, on paper. They were accused of playing too safe last season under Jake White, and Larkham has promised a restructured game plan. Their ability to change that structure is key to their prospects, as is the form of the returning David Pocock at the ruck.
The Reds produced a mixed bag during their trial series, with a convincing win over the defending champions the Chiefs and a shock loss to the Rebels. Quade Cooper is available after his neck injury last week, and his presence is vital for the Reds as they have promised to return to their extravagant ways with a multi-focus attack.
Greg Growden's verdict: With Jake White gone, will the Brumbies, via Jesse Mogg, boot everything down the other end of the field? Or will they actually unleash their backline? Let's hope the latter. Home ground gives them the edge.
Tips - Greg Growden: Brumbies by 5 Brittany Mitchell: Brumbies by 7
17:05 local, 15:05 GMT, 02:05 EDT +1d, 01:35 CDT +1d, 23:05 WST
Head to head: Played 17; Sharks 9, Hurricanes 7, Drawn 1
In Durban: Played 7; Sharks 4, Hurricanes 3
Last clash: Round 7, 2012 - Hurricanes 42-18 Sharks, at New Plymouth
Preview: The Hurricanes headed to South Africa with little reason for confidence after just one trial win and a string of injuries. Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea, Conrad Smith, Cory Jane, Alapati Leiua and TJ Perenara, are strike players, to be sure, but the Hurricanes are otherwise relying heavily on rookies in the absence of Victor Vito, Brad Shields and Matt Proctor. The Canes have a decent record in Durban but they face an uphill battle against Jake White's side.
The Sharks produced a great display of attacking prowess against the Bulls, running in four tries, and they will be looking to get on the front foot again this week. No doubt they were aided by the Bulls' turnstile defence, but the Hurricanes are not known for their defensive systems and Patrick Lambie and Francois Steyn, dominant in attack last week to justify White's faith in them as twin playmakers, will be looking to link with JP Pietersen and Odwa Ndungane to keep the pressure on the visitors. Bismarck Du Plessis leads the side from the front, and the Sharks should be dominant.
Greg Growden's verdict: The Sharks, against the Bulls, showed they will be a tournament title threat, as long as they restrict the amount of possession they kick away. And the Hurricanes remain the great unknowns.
Tips - Greg Growden: Tip: Sharks by 10 Brittany Mitchell: Sharks by 12
19:10 local, 17:10 GMT, 04:10 EDT +1d, 03:40 CDT +1d, 01:10 WST +1d
Head to head: Played 18; Lions 4, Stormers 14
In Johannesburg: Played 9; Lions 2, Stormers 7
Last clash: Round 16, 2012 - Stormers 27-17 Lions, at Newlands, Cape Town
Preview: The Lions produced the shock of the season in defeating the Cheetahs last week through Super Rugby debutant Marnitz Boshoff's boot, but they face a tougher task against the Stormers. They may have the home-ground advantage, but it's hard to see how they can front up to a sharp opposition. They struggled in attack last weekend, and the strong Stormers defence is a different task again.
The Stormers will be confident in their side even though they were disappointed that reserve-grade players failed to press their claims in losing their final pre-season trial to Boland. Known for their strength in defence, the Stormers will look to smother the Lions; but they should also be formidable in attack with Jean de Villiers in the backline. They scored six tries against Southern Kings in a trial match, when they turned loose ball into points, and they could be big improvers this season.
Greg Growden's verdict: Reality will return to the Lions this weekend, after their shock win over the Cheetahs, even if they are playing at home.
Tips - Greg Growden: Tip: Stormers by 10 Brittany Mitchell: Stormers by 15
Sunday, February 23
16:05 local, 05:05 GMT, 16:05 EDT, 15:35 CDT, 13:05 WST
Head to head: Played 9; Waratahs 7, Force 2
In Sydney: Played 5; Waratahs 2, Force 2, Drawn 1
Last clash: Round 17, 2013 - Force 13-28 Waratahs, at Perth Oval, Perth
Preview: Coming off the back of very successful trial games, scoring tries against Samoa A and Argentina's Pampas XV while keeping their own stripe intact, the Force head into the match with lots of confidence. The Force boast only three international players, but they have spoken confidently about exploiting any chink in the Waratahs' armour and they will not die wondering.
But this match is all about the Waratahs, who are laden once again with high expectations. The Tahs are overloaded with Wallabies, and they have one of Super Rugby's sharpest backlines featuring Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper. They scored plenty of tries last season, and they may be even harder to shut down this time as Michael Cheika has instilled a new confidence in the side.
Greg Growden's verdict: Let's just see what the new-look Waratahs backline can cook up. The Force will be doing a lot of defending. Nothing new there ...
Tips - Greg Growden: Waratahs by 14 Brittany Mitchell: Waratahs by 14
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