Friday 16 March
Chiefs v Brumbies
5:35 PM AEDT, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
After falling to a second half defeat against the Highlanders in week 1, the Chiefs have been fantastic since, beating the highly rated Blues and Crusaders. The Chiefs forward pack got the better of the Crusaders and their all-All Black front row last week, which – coupled with their menacing backline – bodes ominously for other teams. Prop Alisona Taumalolo in particular is looking great this season. The Brumbies boast an undefeated record with wins over the Force and Cheetahs to go with their bye in week 2. Despite the Brumbies’ strong start, I don’t expect them to be competitive against the Chiefs. The Force and Cheetahs are two of the weakest sides in the competition, while the Chiefs look like a top four team at the moment with an abudance of attacking talent. Furthermore, the Brumbies have been poor in their recent visits to New Zealand, losing their last six games there.
Tip: Chiefs to win by 13+
Stormers v Blues
4:10 AM AEDT, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
I wrote last week that the problem with the Blues is they are so predictable. This proved to be correct as they bounced back from a 0-2 season start with victory over the previously undefeated Bulls in Pretoria. They did this despite losing two of their best players in Rudi Wolf and Jerome Kaino (NZ’s 2011 player of the year) before the game. The Stormers, meanwhile, remain the only undefeated side in South Africa, having beaten the Sharks and Cheetahs before having a bye last round. This game is intruiging. If the Blues play to the best of their ability then they can nick this one, but I’m going to bank on their hot-cold history and predict they’ll fall short this week. The Stormers will have to up their offensive efforts from two weeks ago if they are to have a chance, however.
Tip: Stormers to win by 1-12
Saturday 17 March
Hurricanes v Highlanders
5:35 PM AEDT, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
This is arguably the best game of the week. The Hurricanes were slight underdogs against the Force last week, with most pundits expecting them to fade as a result of their harsh travel schedule. The Wellington based side then went out and pumelled the Force 46-19, which has forced pundits to reevaluate how good the Hurricanes are this season. For a team that was supposed to be in a year of rebuilding, the Hurricanes are looking very good at the moment, especially in attack. Rookie halfback TJ Perenara in particular looks promising, having scored three tries last week. The Highlanders have made a fantastic start to the season, beating the Chiefs, Crusaders and Waratahs. They started well last year too but faded as the season wore on, so it will be interesting to see if they can keep up the momentum. On paper, the Hurricanes are the Highlander’s easiest opponent so far, but I reckon this game could go either way. The one factor in the Highlander’s favour is the fact that the Hurricanes may tire (I know, I wrote this last week too) after their tour of South Africa and Perth, and the Highlanders have been finishing games strongly this season.
Tip: Highlanders to win by 1-12
Waratahs v Force
7:40 PM AEDT, Sydney Football Stadium, Sydney
The Waratahs lost Pat McCutcheon for the season as a result of his injury in the 17-18 loss to the Highlanders last week, but you’d imagine the Force will be hurting more after being thumped 19-46 at home by the Hurricanes. The Kiwi teams are looking good at this stage of the season, so I don’t think the Waratahs should be feel too bad by not picking up the win in Dunedin. The Force are definitely a step down from the Highlanders in quality, and the Waratahs should be too strong at home.
Tip: Waratahs to win by 13+
Sharks v Reds
2:05 AM AEDT, Kings Park, Durban
This fixture will provide a good insight into how well the South African and Australian sides are faring at the moment. After losing to the Bulls and Stormers the Sharks got their season back on track last week with a 32-20 win over the Lions. The Reds continue to pick up wins, narrowly beating the Rebels 11-6 last week, however they didn’t look convincing. Also, the Reds have yet to face a foreign opponent this season. This fixture could go either way. Both sides boast quality squads and will back themselves to win. I’m leaning slightly towards the Sharks, however, because they have a good record of late against the Reds, particularly in Durban.
Tip: Sharks to win by 1-12
Sunday 18 March
Rebels v Cheetahs
4:10 PM AEDT, AAMI Park, Melbourne
Both the Rebels and Cheetahs are winless in 2012, and both sides will eye this fixture as a chance to pick up their first win. The Rebels may feel a bit better about life, however, given their losses were at the hands of the highly rated Waratahs and Reds. Their defensive effort last week in Queensland were arguably the best in the franchise’s history. The Cheetahs have lost to weaker sides like the Lions and Brumbies, so the wooden spoon may beckon this year if they can’t get a win here. Given the Cheetahs’ terrible record in Australia, I give the slight edge to the Rebels.
Tip: Rebels to win by 1-12