And so to round 15 of this Super Rugby season and it’s crunch-time for some teams, show-who’s-boss-time for others, and enjoy-the-last-few-games-of-the-season-time for the rest.
And (apart from Force versus Highlanders) it means good times for the rest of us.
Chiefs v Crusaders, Waikato Stadium, 5:30pm (EDT) Friday FS1HD
Match-of-the-round? Match-of-the-season? You could make a case. The two top provinces in the world’s greatest rugby nation, head-to-head in Hamilton, they’ll fill it like popcorn bubbling out popcorn maker.
Admittedly it will be quite cold popcorn. But they know a cold game of night footy in NZ, and will attend regardless. Because these two teams can party.
That being said, the Chiefs have missed the hot-footed action of Tim Nanai-Williams, out until the June Tests with a stomach ulcer. Another centre Richard Kahui is out for the season. But their replacements have been good because New Zealand is full of good replacements.
For instance, the Crusaders haven’t had Richie McCaw all season. But they are coming. Dan Carter is fit and enjoying his rugby, there are four giants called Whitelock who thunder about like bikies in a museum of antique tea sets, and their back three run like goats afire.
The Crusaders flogged the Blues last week; Chiefs dusted the Canes. And you’d assume the winner of this sterling Super Rugby competition plays this night.
Tip: Crusaders buy 3.
Rebels v Waratahs, AAMI Park, 7:20pm (EDT) Friday FS1HD
Well, given these Waratahs have 11 of the 25-man Wallabies squad (which would have been 12 had Tatafu Polota-Nau not broken his arm) while the Rebels have two (2), you could assume this to be no contest.
But the Rebs have some fine Kiwis, a fired-up Welshman, and Scott Higginbotham, the Australian No.8-with-the-mostest in this Super season thus far.
But without the dancing hands and hot feet of James O’Connor, the visitors should have ascendancy here.
Israel Folau has been big and strong and steppy, and leaps through the air like Nick Reiwoldt (sort of).
Bernard Foley has been arguably their best back, his Sevens-learned hands and feet bouncing through many lines of “D”, while Berrick Barnes has outed his undoubted class with a succession of classy outings.
There are Wallabies throughout the pack, they’ll start with Matt Lucas at halfback, and should get the biscuit in Melbourne, in what will hopefully be a crackerjack fixture.
Tip: Waratahs by 8.
Blues v Brumbies, Eden Park, 5:30pm (EDT) Saturday FS2HD
Must-win for both teams? Mathematically, not. But my, you don’t want to lose two on the trot this time of the season, not no how.
This will be willing. And this will be rough. And like in that movie There Will Be Blood, there will be blood.
But it should also be fine and fast, if the weather in Auckland doesn’t empty a mighty rain-filled space bladder upon Eden Park.
Blues man Frank Halai is a weapon on the wing, centre Rene Ranger a fast-stepping action man, and Piri Weepu winning games for his province on desire and nous and the game of a 69-cap All Blacks star.
Luke Braid gives the Blues top scavenging on the ground, Ali Williams gives them ball in the lineout and scariness at the breakdown, and the rest of the forwards burrow and fight like cornered weevils. (Weevils? I’m goin’ with it.)
Brumbies? Slumpies. And now that super-scavenger George Smith has joined David Pocock on the Bugger bench, will do it tough in Auckland.
But they still have plenty of game. Jesse Mogg will want to play his way into the 31-man Wallabies squad despite his coach saying he’s not ready. Joe Tomane and Henry Speight on the flanks are capable of fine derring-do.
Inside backs Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua have been their best, along with halfback Nic White, who should have Wallabies squad training kit some time this winter.
Their forwards have been hard on the ground and competitive in the air.
But one fancies the home-boys here.
Tip: Blues by 6.
Force v Highlanders, Nib Stadium, 7:20pm (EDT) Saturday FS2HD
Care factor? It isn’t high, sports fans. It isn’t high.
But still, these two battlers should throw up a fairly enjoyable game of rugby.
The Highlanders? Hosea Gear is All Blacks quality, as is Andrew Hore, Ma’a Nonu and crazy giant Brad Thorn.
But as a collective, they’ve been really quite poor. One win all season, and that on the death. And one would suggest coach Jamie Joseph could be back in Japan fairly soon where they will take any Kiwi whose cousin once met a bloke in a pub who played rugby at school.
The Force? Rugged and competitive, and have some fine and fit rugby players. But they don’t, oh, you know, “win” very many. And it’s hard to pin-point why. Halfback Alby Mathewson’s a beauty, No.12 Kyle Godwin could sneak into Wallabies gold this season, and their back three run like startled horse.
And with sufficient ball from giant forwards you’d think they would go a lot better. But they don’t. Should win here though. Because the Highlanders are a bad man’s pants.
Tip: Force by 10.
Kings v Cheetahs, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, 11pm (EDT) Saturday FS2HD
Look at the local time: Three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, on a dry and fast track in Port Elizabeth by the sparkling banks of Nelson Mandela Bay … this could be a try-a-thon.
Bar the obliteration by the Waratahs, the Kings have been resolute in their inaugural Super Rugby season. They defend and compete, and go okay for a team of nuff-nuffs and no-names.
Names? Look no further than Lizo Gqoboka. Have six beers and try to pronounce Mpho Mbiyozo. There’s a Greek fellow at five-eighth – Demetri Catrakilis – and Wesley Dunlop (no relation of Weary, one assumes) who hasn’t actually played a game for the Kings but gets a gig here on account of his interesting name.
The Cheetahs? Second on the African conference and will be looking to scorch the dry white earth of Port Elizabeth. They have the cats to do it. Tape it, could be good.
Tip: Cheetahs by 20.
Stormers v Reds, Newlands, 1:05am (EDT) Sunday FS2HD
Both teams coming off a loss but the Stormers are heading home where their heart is, and will be eager to knock off these talented Reds men. Could be a good one.
The Reds are full of top backs, and athletic forwards, and props that get no acclaim because props don’t, and that’s just how it is.
Quade Cooper was the controversial non-selection in the 25-man Wallabies squad that will be increased to 31 later on, I don’t know why, but there it is.
Hard to see how Robbie Deans justifies the omission given Cooper’s good form, and James O’Connor’s injury and utility. But there you go – the man watches more games than me or I would wager you.
The Reds backrow – Jake Schatz, Liam Gill and Ed Quirk – have been brilliant this season, each bringing different algorithms to the dark arts of the breakdown. Gill, in particular, is super-fine at inveigling himself into dark places and coming up with pill. Schatz was the Reds’ best player last season and Quirk thunders about like an Irish viking. Like ‘em.
The Stormers? They are a fine outfit and contain several fine players. And if Schalk Burger had played this season they’d be further up the ladder than 11th.
But the likes of lock Eben Etzebeth, captain and centre Jean de Villiers, and hot-footed outside backs Gio Aplon and Bryan Habana should ensure a fine contest here.
Won’t be up watching it. But certainly keen to catch the replay.
Tip: Reds by 7.