We head into the second half of the competition this weekend and start the return legs from the opening round all those weeks ago. Revenge will be firmly on the cards for some and the two round one home victors now hit the road. The Hurricanes get a run of two at home when this time the Blues hit town and then on Sunday the Chiefs will look to avenge that drop goal loss to the Highlanders. The Crusaders get a week off on the bye.
HURRICANES vs BLUES – Sky Stadium
Can you say Beauden Barrett is back … home? After a whole career at the Hurricanes in the Cake Tin hes back again this, time as a Blue. That’s the media headline for this game but looking at the bigger picture, there’s much more to this game. The Blues won the opening clash between these two 30-20 at Eden Park back in round one and have since gone on winning all but that one game against the Crusaders last weekend. The Hurricanes have picked up their season after an average start to beat both the Chiefs and the Highlanders in consecutive weeks. The heavy rotation continues on for both sides this round. The Hurricanes have made a number of changes, Dane Coles returns at hooker, Reed Prinsep returns from injury, Jackson Garden-Bachop is back at ten, continuing his see-saw with Fletcher Smith and there’s no room for Vince Aso again as Peter Umaga-Jensen joins Laumape in midfield. The backline changes continue to be baffling when the side battled hard for that win over the Highlanders last weekend. The Hurricanes have shown a good ability to finish chances and grind their way to results recently but the levels will rise for the Blues. Ardie Savea is in a different state now than the early rounds of the competition and will be more up to the task of the Blues backrow. Considering what the Blues have gone with in their lineup, the Hurricanes should feel fairly confident they can match them better this time. Combat the kicking game which will again be pushing the Hurricanes back and don’t let the penalties get out of control. Letting any side cruise their way up the field is dangerous as we see each and every week, discipline is so key. The ‘Canes cant afford to go to far behind early in this game, if they want to buck the Blues, they need to strike early and set the pace, putting the pressure firmly on the visitors.
So its easy to look at the home side and think with all the changes, it must hurt their chances. While I’d agree, have a look at what the Blues are doing this week. They are missing James Parsons to concussion, the big blow of Hoskins Sotutu who is out with injury this week and Caleb Clarke who has taken person leave. That brings in Kurt Eklund, Aaron Carroll and Emoni Narawa in their places. Those ones are understandable, but keeping TJ Faiane on the bench and starting Harry Plummer again at twelve, especially after last week, is still a mystery. Not much has looked even close to broken this season in the Blues camp, but yet we see new things being tried as if they are looking for some way to break trends. We will get to see if the Blues have another talented young second/back row option, with the 26 year old Carroll from Bay Of Plenty in the starting lineup. This Blues backline is going to struggle to contain Laumape which surprises me even more that Aso is not there, they could have had a thunderous time together, but battles like Akira Ioane against Savea and Kififi against Papalii is what I’m excited to see. Such a shame we could have seen Sotutu taking on the now match fit Savea but maybe next time…. Injuries has forced this side into a different team to what we saw in round one and if anything, I give the Hurricanes a better chance than back in that opening weekend.
RESULT: Blues by 8
CHIEFS vs HIGHLANDERS – Waikato Stadium
No chance of a loss last weekend for the Chiefs who had their much needed bye. Hopefully for their sake this will mean some bodies from the long list of injured players will be healed and ready to go back into battle for the Chiefs once again. This is a massive game for the Chiefs. They have struggled to get a foothold on their season and it was the opening game that has still been their best shot at victory. They are still sitting at the foot of the table but even now, their opponents have just that one victory to their name. We have known all season this Chiefs side is never going to bully teams into submission with the pack but they need to get better, or any, reward from their set piece. Make easy fast front lineout plays and in out at the scrum, lets not complicate things and put the rest of the team under pressure. I feel the Chiefs try to overplay their roles this season so far and because of that have not got the best out of their star players this season. Damian McKenzie is best running off guys through midfield getting the offload and manipulating that space on the outside channels. When hes running sideways its never a good sign. Brad Weber has suffered by not having good breakdown support. He thrives on space around those channels and the new ruck rulings have closed that down. I still feel they need to adjust that style to get the best out of those game breakers.
A week is a long time in Super Rugby Aotearoa! The Highlanders have been boosted by a lot of good news over the last couple of days. Following the eye injury suffered against the Hurricanes last weekend, Dillon Hunt has been cleared to play this weekend and is a vital piece of the Highlanders lineup. In what is more unexpected new, Josh Ioane has also been deemed fit to now play after aggravating his injury a couple of weeks ago when he was touted to return. His return leaves the Highlanders with a very good headache to have after the fine form of Mitch Hunt in the number ten jumper there is potential that this could go a small way to solving the issue at fullback if Ioane comes back into ten and moves Hunt to fifteen. Hunt has been in great touch this season and his running game form has come along at scorching rates over the last two rounds. Although there is still one man we are waiting with baited breath to see and that is still Josh McKay who has had whispers of a return to the bench this weekend, we will soon see if his great club form will be rewarded. A small piece of bad news for the Highlanders will see Kayne Hammington with a season ending injury suffered at the end of last weekends game. The flip side good news is that a man we have been pushing for a place in the Highlanders, should now get his chance. Folau Fakatava should be the reserve scrum half on the bench for the Highlanders for the remainder of the season now. This kid is electric and a real surprise to see him pushed out week after week. He could add a real spark late in the match for the Highlanders with his very strong attacking game and snappy plays around the ruck, an excitement machine I cant wait to see again. Expect another thriller like at Forsyth Barr a few weeks ago in an encounter that could go either way at the end of eighty minutes. The Highlanders pack has been a little under its best the last two weeks which they need to pick back up against the Chiefs and hopefully get some more fluid moments in that exciting backline yet again off that forward dominance. Hold on to your hats, Sunday will be a cracker!
RESULT: Highlanders by 2
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