BLUES v REDS in Apia, Friday 5.35pm AEST
The Storyline: This historic game is being played in Samoa which is great for the island nation. Reds coach Nick Stiles said he would swing the axe to his team, but essentially he has just given Stephen Moore a rest, added the Tongan Thor and given James Tuttle the number 9 jersey, which he deserves anyway. The Blues have named a different team also; Sonny Bill Williams, Augustine Pulu, Blake Gibson, Matt Duffie and George Moala are all being rested with “niggling injuries”.
Player to watch: Melani Nanai – The Blues fullback/wing has unfortunately been unable to crack the starting side for most of the year, but he is a real talent, and should showcase that tonight against an inferior Reds defence.
The Verdict: The Reds are still in with a chance to make playoffs if they win all their games with a bonus point and the Brumbies don’t get any points. I don’t think that will happen. The Blues are out of contention now, unable to chase down the Highlanders or Chiefs. In saying that both teams have nothing to lose really and hopefully they will throw the ball around. They both have exciting players and should put on an entertaining game for the Samoa crowd. I’d say the Blues will be too good though. Blues 12 and under
CRUSADERS v HIGHLANDERS in Christchurch, Saturday 12.35pm
The Storyline: The Crusaders are still undefeated but the Highlanders have won their last 9 games, with their last loss in Round 4 against the Hurricanes. This game will be the best of the season so far. Both teams are nearly injury-free (though there’s still no Kieran Read or Liam Squire) so there are no excuses for either team. Israel Dagg can’t get a start, which shows the quality of the Crusaders’ starting team. Marty Banks starts ahead of Lima Sopoaga.
Player to watch: David Havili – Keeping Israel Dagg out of the No.15 jersey, Havili has been a revelation this season and is a bolter for the end of year tour. His match-up against the All Blacks’ vice-captain, Ben Smith, will be one to savour.
The Verdict: Game of the year, played in Christchurch during the day. This will be a game for the ages: high-scoring, physical, and explosive! It’s really hard to pick a winner as my heart is with the Highlanders. But the Crusaders have just been all class, all season and have taken down the Chiefs and Hurricanes in close ones recently. Draw
CHIEFS v WARATAHS in Hamilton, Saturday 3.05pm AEST
The Storyline: The Waratahs continue to talk it up this week, suggesting if they take down Damian McKenzie, they will be able to win the game. Good luck with that; Mackenzie is so small you cant see him. Add his extreme pace to that and it is going to be one tough task. The ‘Tahs are still in the hunt for playoffs, while the Chiefs are already in, but will probably finish sixth.
Player to watch: Damian McKenzie – He’s got a target on his head now; let’s see how he reacts. I suggest he will have one of his better games.
The Verdict: I’m not sure why the Waratahs are talking it up while travelling to New Zealand. They should have been doing that back in Australia, then they might have won some games. This clash will show the gulf between New Zealand and Australia teams once again. Chiefs 13 plus
BRUMBIES v REBELS in Canberra, Saturday 7.45pm AEST
The Storyline: If the Brumbies win here, they have essentially cemented their spot in the playoffs. The Rebels have a heap of talent but let’s be honest, they have been awful this year. Ironically their only win this year was against the Brumbies.
Player to watch: Tom Banks – A bit of an unknown in the fullback position but he has been playing some good footy over the last month. It will be interesting to see what he can do against a poor Rebels defence.
The Verdict: All-Aussie derbies are generally close ones but the Brumbies will want to find some form going into the playoffs, which should start in this game. Brumbies 13 plus
FORCE v HURRICANES in Perth, Saturday 9.55pm AEST
The Storyline: The Force will close out their season with three home games, first against the red-hot Hurricanes. The ‘Canes are arguably the best attacking team in the tournament which has been showcased so many times this season. The Force have had four wins this season, including an away victory over the Reds last week.
Player to watch: Jordie Barrett – He is still a hope of making the All Blacks’ squad to take on the Lions. He has this game and a game against the Chiefs next week, where he will go head to head with Damian McKenzie, to prove he is worthy of the black jersey.
The Verdict: The Canes will be too good, superior in every department. Hurricanes 13 plus