The Super Rugby juggernaut rolls on this Saturday as Round Eight continues with four… ok, three intriguing encounters.
The Super Rugby juggernaut rolls on this Saturday as Round Eight continues with four intriguing encounters expected… ok, three intriguing encounters.
The pick of the bunch has to be the clash in Christchurch between the table-topping Stormers and Crusaders, who face their fourth straight match against South African opposition.
We then cross the Tasman to Canberra where the Brumbies will look to avoid a third straight defeat when they take on the Rebels.
Bloemfontein is the place to be when the high-flying Cheetahs go hunting for Chiefs, with the Kiwi outfit looking for their sixth consecutive win.
The lowly Lions then have a big task containing the Bulls in their South African derby encounter in Jo'burg for what could be the easiest result to pick this weekend.
Crusaders v Stormers
Christchurch Stadium, Christchurch
This is the one everyone's been waiting for! The Stormers will be out to make it seven wins on the trot and maintain their unbeaten run this season when they face the Crusaders in Christchurch.
The Stormers have been in super form this season and absolutely dominated the Highlanders last weekend, despite the travel factor and the tough match against the Bulls the previous week.
Their defence has once again been incredible, and while they don't pick up too many four-try bonus points, they tend to take most of their try-scoring opportunities and bagged a couple in Dunedin.
However, even if coach Allister Coetzee won't admit it, their eighth round clash will be their most daunting test yet.
If the table-topping Stormers thought last week's fixture against the high-flying Highlanders would be tough, Saturday's match against the seven-time Super Rugby champions will be even tougher.
No team in the history of Super Rugby is as formidable at home as the Crusaders. In their 40 home games against South African opposition, the Crusaders have won 36, lost two and drawn two.
The Stormers' record against the Crusaders home and away doesn't make for pretty reading either – they've lost 10 of the last 12 games against the men in red and black, including five of the last six and have never won in Christchurch.
Last year, the Crusaders managed to outmuscle the Stormers on two occasions – in the regular season and again in the semi-finals – but are under pressure to improve their moderate form this season which has fallen well below their usual standard.
They edged past the Cheetahs in their first match at their new home stadium and narrowly beat the Lions in Johannesburg, before losing last weekend to the Bulls in Pretoria where they became the target of eye-gouging allegations.
Fallout from the incident may be felt on Saturday come kick-off on Saturday. While the Stormers are in no way involved with the gouging claims, last week's incident may inflame often testy relationships between New Zealand and South Africa teams.
The Crusaders may have home ground advantage, but the big question is how well Todd Blackadders's troops will handle the travel back from South Africa.
Prediction: History favours the hosts, but form favours the visitors. This will be too close to call, and for that reason we're going for the most votes in our recent poll. Crusaders to edge it!
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Tom Taylor, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Tom Donnelly, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Luke Romano, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Ryan Crotty, 22 Tom Marshall.
Stormers: 15 Joe Pietersen, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Frans Malherbe, 18 De Kock Steenkamp, 19 Nizaam Carr, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Burton Francis, 22 Gio Aplon/ JP du Plessis.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Rebels
The Brumbies could open up a seven-point conference advantage over their Australian rivals if things go perfectly for them and elsewhere this weekend.
By the time they kick-off in Canberra, the surprise package of the tournament will have seen whether Western Force have got the number on the Waratahs while the Reds sit out on a desperately-needed bye week, something they hope will help repair the damage of the dismal defence of their title so far.
Granted the Queenslanders overcame the Brumbies 20-13 last weekend but with the absence of Quade Cooper and struggling form of Will Genia, the holders need to improve dramatically if they are to make the play-offs as top dogs in Australia. Their struggle means there is real hope for Jake White's side.
This week they meet the Rebels in what is a must-win in order to recover from that aforementioned defeat. One strong performer last week, Peter Kimlin, is dropped from the XV as Fotu Auelua and Michael Hooper join captain and now blinside flanker Ben Mowen in the back-row. The return of Scott Fardy is good for the side while they will hope that Jesse Mogg can continue his impressive recent form. Andrew Smith is dropped for Tevita Kuridrani at centre.
What has been interesting is White's lack of favourtism towards the so-called big names as this week Ben Alexander is given a week riding the pine. He has not been the only international to have to spend time on the bench as Stephen Moore has regularly been replaced for Anthony Hegarty. Great to see from the South African as it has instilled a sense of hunger for the jersey, something which has seen players like Sam Carter and Joe Tomane flourish.
Their opponents on Saturday are a side very much struggling to find top gear. While they have the star names they have yet to click and find themselves in twelfth position in the overall table after losing their three opening games before beating the Force, losing to the Highlanders and edging the Blues.
However that most recent positive result means they come into this one full of confidence and also consistency as an unchanged back-line is given the green light to cause the Brumbies problems. Let's face it, a fully firing Danny Cipriani, James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale can do damage to any defence.
Prediction: We fancy the visitors to pounce for a win here. Rebels by four!
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Joe Tomane, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Henry Speight, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Nic White, 8 Fotu Auelua, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Ben Mowen (capt), 5 Sam Carter, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Dan Palmer, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Ruaidri Murphy.