It is hardly believable that we are entering the fifth round of the Super XV this weekend, but already a few patterns have emerged in this season’s competition. Most prominent of all, perhaps, is that no real pattern has emerged; at least not one which doesn’t account for the unpredictability of this season’s competition. With so many erratic performances and even more baffling results, it has not been easy to predict results, but these early weeks have served to confirm a few things: the Chiefs were no fluke winners of the competition last season; Jake White is moulding a promising side in Canberra; and the South African conference is very much up for grabs this season.
With the Chiefs winning in Hamilton on Friday, we look at the weekend fixtures of the Super XV.
Crusaders vs Kings (Saturday, 23 March)
Every game that the Kings (20/1; +26 points) have played this season has come with the prediction that they would be run off the park; and yet, in every game up to now, they have risen to the challenge and given a fair account of themselves in their debut season. However, all their games so far have come at their Port Elizabeth home base, where the enthusiastic home support has clearly given them a boost, and all indications are that their first tour game, against the mighty Crusaders (1/66), will bring with it a reality check for the Eastern Cape side. The Crusaders started the competition on a low note with a couple of losses, but got into it with a big win against the Bulls last week, and you get the feeling that nothing more than a competent performance will see them run away with this game.
Reds vs Bulls (Saturday, 23 March)
The Reds (3/4) welcome back Wallaby captain James Horwill from a 10 month layoff, and with Will Genia having come back into the side last week, on paper at least they begin to look like the same side that won the competition two years ago. The defeat against a rather weak Force last week at home would have come as a surprise, and with the Brumbies going so well, you feel that the Reds need to start winning to challenge for the Australian conference. The Bulls (21/20; +5 points), on the other hand, who currently lead their conference, were brought back down to earth after a strong start to the competition with a heavy defeat in Christchurch last week. That defeat has brought about nine changes, either through injury or turnover, with Morne Steyn starting this one from the bench, Louis Fouche replacing him.
Force vs Cheetahs (Saturday, 23 March)
The Cheetahs (6/5; +2 points) have enjoyed their most profitable tour in their history, and are looking to record their third successive away victory this Saturday. They will be without their leading playmaker, after Johan Goosen suffered a torn cruciate ligament last week, but coach Naka Drotske has otherwise kept the core of the side that has done so well intact. This will be a deciding game in the Cheetahs’ season, as a strong performance will give them the belief that they can win without their talisman. The Force (4/6) will be buoyed by their win in Brisbane last week, and will want to continue that form going into this game. They will need to exploit the fact that the Cheetahs are in the fourth week of their tour, a stage which has historically caused problems for South African teams.
Sharks vs Rebels (Saturday, 23 March)
The Sharks (1/8) were terrible in their defeat against the Brumbies last week. The humid conditions in the early parts of the season have always been a problem for the Durban side, but it could not have solely accounted for their ineffectual performance against an admittedly firing Brumbies outfit. They will go into this game as clear favourites, and coach John Plumtree has used this game as a means to bring some fresh faces in, making eight changes to his side from last week’s debacle. One aspect that will please Plumtree is that, despite their unconvincing and, at times toothless, attacking display in the competition so far, they have recorded three wins in four starts, and an expected win against a weaker Rebels side (11/2, +14 points) will have them in good stead on the log as they prepare to embark on their tour a few weeks from now, which is usually when the Sharks begin shifting into a higher gear.
Stormers vs Brumbies (Saturday, 23 March)
The surprise package of the competition so far, the Brumbies (6/5; +2 points) already sit ten points clear in the Australian conference, and a win on Saturday could already see them put one hand on the conference title and book their place in the knock-out rounds. But Jake White will not be getting ahead of himself so early in the competition, especially as his side face a Stormers side (4/6) that needs a victory to kick start their campaign after a disappointing start to the competition. The Brumbies, now the only unbeaten side left in the competition, walked all over the Sharks last week with an impressively strong forward display, and will expect to put in another display of that kind at Newlands on Saturday, where teams are seldom allowed to get the better of the home side up front. The Stormers’ bye week came after an important victory against the Chiefs, where their pack did well to secure a lead early in the game, and if the Stormers are to bring up their second victory in the competition and keep themselves afloat, their forwards will have to front up again, especially with the Crusaders coming a-knocking at Newlands next week.
Waratahs vs Blues (Sunday, 24 March)
The Waratahs (6/5; +2 points) have had what can now be considered their customary poor start to the competition in these early weeks, but what will worry the team management is that they thoroughly deserve to be sitting at the bottom of the Australian conference at this stage. They will undoubtedly improve as the season progresses, but they will want to do so sooner rather than later if they hold out any hopes of making the playoffs. The Blues (4/6) are probably the side that they would have least wanted to face at this difficult stage of the season. When the Blues are in full flow the competition gains something extra that is missing when they’re not firing, and this season the Blues have had a promising start, sitting just six points behind the Chiefs in the New Zealand conference, but importantly with two extra games to play. On average they are second on points per game behind the Chiefs at this stage, and against a leaky Waratahs defence they will want to fill their boots.
Check out the official Super XV website to keep up with the latest on the competition.