The top two teams in Super 14, the Crusaders and Sharks, have established a small lead over the chasing pack, but there's a real log jam developing with the Blues, Chiefs, Force, Waratahs and Hurricanes separated by just three points as they battle for two semi final spots. The clash between the Force and Waratahs could well decide those teams' fates, while the others will need points just to stay in touch.
Highlanders vs Sharks
After scraping home with a draw thanks to a refereeing blunder, the Sharks will be looking to re-establish their reputation as one of the Super 14 front runners. Still unbeaten in seven games, they will now be full adjusted to New Zealand time and conditions and ready to take on one of the competitions cellar dwellers. Racking up their first win of the season will have taken a great deal of pressure off the Highlanders, but that win over the Lions was far from convincing. Even without the services of Tongan impact player Epi Taione, who was suspended for six weeks, the Sharks will be too good for the Highlanders in Dunedin and should pick up a comfortable win.
Crusaders vs Lions
The bye has done the Crusaders a lot of favours, allowing their injured stars Dan Carter and Stephen Brett more time to heal. Although neither is healthy for this game against the bottom placed team, the quality of the opposition gives coach Robbie Deans some extra time to get these young stars right. Rookie Hamish Gard starts in the pivotal fly half role, while George Whitelock replaces captain Richie McCaw who is being rested. The Lions are a young side who are a little out of their depth this year and will prove little challenge to the unbeaten Crusaders.
Blues vs Brumbies
The Blues may be in third place on the table, but they are still a team under pressure, needing a last gasp penalty to beat the Stormers two weeks ago and were completely blown away by a rampant Waratahs team last week. The Brumbies are also under a great deal of pressure as they have fallen off the pace lately, their drubbing at the hands of the Chiefs last week was another in a long line of disappointing performances. Both of these sides play an attacking brand of rugby, and their encounters often produce some magic moments, but if they Blues can keep their discipline, something they failed to do against the Waratahs, they should be too good in this one.
Force vs Waratahs
Separated by a single point on the table, this game looks like a clash between a team on their way up and a team on their way down. The Force got their season off to a good start in South Africa, almost beat the Crusaders before they knocked off the Blues in Auckland in a stunning performance. Since then they have had a couple of scrappy wins and were convincingly beaten by the Stormers. The Waratahs blew hot and cold in the early part of the season, but since their board announced coach Ewan McKenzie would not return next year they have been on a tear, also tipping over the Blues in convincing fashion. With Wallabies' places on the line, both teams will have no trouble getting metally prepared for this, but momentum is on the Waratahs' side for this and they should just win this one.
Stormers vs Cheetahs
The Cheetahs finally opened their 2008 account with a win last week over the Reds, but now must take on an in form Stormers team fresh off the bye. The Stormers had a very successful tour of Australia and New Zealand, picking up three wins from four games but Cape Town has not been a happy hunting ground for them this year. Their last home outing was a 22-0 whitewash by the Crusaders, but it would seem their trip away has focussed the team and has them coming into this one riding a wave of momentum. The Cheetahs are another team who will struggle this year, and will pose little threat to the Stormers in this one, perhaps having to settle for a bonus point.
Bulls vs Hurricanes
For the defending champion Bulls, this game is do or die. Sitting 13th on the table, they must win their remaining five games, claim bonus points and have results go their way if they are to defend their title. None of that seems likely, but this is a team who needed an almost impossible winning margin in their last round robin game of 2007, and got it in a stunning display. But the memories of that 89 point win have faded and the reality of the 2008 Bulls is one of disappointment and broken dreams, something their opponents, the Hurricanes, know all too well. As one of the most talented teams in the tournament, boasting an All Black loose forward trio, the Hurricanes have long been underachievers and that seems unlikely to change in 2008. Picking up a draw against the Sharks in a game which was dead boring for 79 minutes, the Hurricanes carry little momentum into this one and, coupled with the travel, all signs point to a Bulls' win.