Finally the time has come for us punters to be treated to a full weekend of top notch rugby as Round 2 kicks off on Friday. In all honesty these seven matches can barely be more closely matched, which will make for serious prediction headaches.
This is quite the humdinger to preview for the first full weekend of Super Rugby and my mind is changing as much as the weather in England. On the one hand we know that the Crusaders are notorious slow starters, building a head of steam as their domination grows, yet history will show that they’ve only lost one opening game as hosts, a decade ago when the Waratahs pummelled them.
Statistics aside, they’re the better team on paper and convinced with good wins in the warm-up against the Highlanders and Hurricanes. Must be said that I don’t believe either of their opponents will feature much this year, so the value of those games will surely be put to the test now that the pressure is on.
There’s no telling what the absence of Dan Carter and Kieran Read will have on the match, but their replacements aren’t in the same league as their direct opponents. Richie McCaw will lead the team and a lot is expected of young Johnny McNicholl whose impressive pre-season try tally got him the nod ahead of Zac Guildford who’ll be playing water boy. Through in a handful of debutants in key positions and again my calculating brain does a backflip.
From the Chiefs’ point of view things couldn’t be better, bar of course a couple of niggles that will prevent them from fielding a full strength side. Hard-working Sam Cane will sorely be missed, as will their play-maker at the back, Gareth Anscombe. It is yet to be seen what influence the experienced Mils Muliaina will have now that he’s back from Japan and they could have a card up their sleeves through acquiring the services of Robbie Fruean, who’ll know a thing or two about the Canterbury camp.
I suppose this is just about as close to the All Blacks playing the All Blacks as you’ll get and you can expect nothing less than a fierce battle up front combined with some scintillating running and polished skills.
The time has come to make my bed and sleep in it, however difficult that may be. I’ll put my foot in it and back the Chiefs for this one. I just think that they faced tougher opposition coming into this match and having been shown up by the Reds, they clearly made an effort to get back on track for a resounding victory over the Blues.
Crusaders: Israel Dagg, Johnny McNicholl, Rey Lee-Lo, Ryan Crotty, Nafi Tuitavake, Tyler Bleyendaal, Andy Ellis, Luke Whitelock, Richie McCaw (captain), George Whitelock, Dominic Bird, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Tim Perry. Reserves: Rob Thompson, Tom Taylor, Willi Heinz, Luke Romano, Nepo Laulala, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Funnell.
Chiefs: Mils Muliaina, Tim Nanai-Williams, Robbie Fruean, Charlie Ngatai, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Augustine Pulu, Kane Thompson, Tevita Koloamatangi, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Michael Fitzgerald, Ben Tameifuna, Rhys Marshall, Jamie Mackintosh. Reserves: Nathan Harris, Pauliasi Manu, Ben Afeaki, Matt Symons/Liam Squire, Nick Crosswell, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Andrew Horrell/Anton Lienert-Brown, James Lowe.
by Jackie Smit