CRUSADERS v BLUES in Christchurch, Friday 5.35pm AEDT
The Storyline: The Crusaders are renowned for starting the season slow but have kicked off 2017 with a 3-0 start. The Blues are having an identity crisis and have axed their flyhalf Ihaia West for Piers Francis for some more stability in the playmaker role.
The Stat: The Crusaders have won 8 of their last 10 against the Blues, including the last 5 in a row.
It’s a Big Game for: Piers Francis plays No.10 for his province North Harbour but has generally been used at inside centre for the Blues since he has been there. This is his opportunity to secure a fulltime starting spot in Super Rugby.
The Verdict: The Crusaders are at home and will be too strong and smart to be beaten by the Blues. The Blues will try and muscle their way into this match, but if they continue with the spate of handling errors they produce each game, the Crusaders will destroy then on turnover ball. Crusaders 13 plus
REBELS v CHIEFS in Melbourne, Friday 7.45pm AEDT
The Storyline: The Rebels thankfully had a bye last week after taking two hidings in the first two rounds. They will be thankful they are at home. The Chiefs are top of the pops in the standings at the moment and will look to take the bonus point win in Melbourne. Cruden is on the bench with Damien Mackenzie running the cutter for the Chiefs.
The Stat: Three of the teams’ last 4 meetings were decided by 6 points or less.
It’s a Big Game for: Any player with a Rebels jersey on. They have had a tough gig playing all NZ teams in their opening matches but they have to restore some pride and respect in their jersey.
The Verdict: The Rebels will not win this game but we can all only hope that they put in a respectable effort. Chiefs 13 plus
BULLS v SUNWOLVES in Pretoria, Saturday 4am AEDT
The Wolves did pretty good last week against the Cheetahs – I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an upset here. Bulls 12 and under
HURRICANES v HIGHLANDERS in Wellington, Saturday 5.35pm AEDT
The Storyline: The 2015 final rematch will be played in Wellington this weekend. The Canes have lost Nehe Milner-Skudder to a broken foot and replaced him with Jordie Barratt. The Landers are without arguably their two best players in Naholo and Sopoaga. Relief has came in the form of Ben Smith back from concussion.
The Stat: Seven of the last 10 games between the teams have been won by the away team.
It’s a Big Game for: Beaudan Barrett. Aside from playing the abysmal Rebels, he hasn’t had the best start to the season. He was outplayed last week by Aaron Cruden in the Waikato wet, but he is up against a rookie flyhalf back at home this week. We all want to see why he was named World Player of the Year in 2016.
The Verdict: The Highlanders have 12 frontline players out for this match, including their playmaker and best attacking weapon. It’s hard to imagine them winning this game but they do love the underdog tag and their defence is still one of the best in the league. The Hurricanes got a reality check last week after being bullied by the Chiefs in the forward pack. This should be a cracker. Hurricanes 12 and under
WARATAHS v BRUMBIES in Sydney, Saturday 7.45pm AEDT
The Storyline: The Tahs are back from South Africa after losing two from two and not gaining a bonus point (the first time ever). The Brumbies got out of jail last week against the Force but managed to register their first win. Both teams are 1-2.
The Stat: The Waratahs have won 13 of their 16 home games against the Brumbies.
It’s a Big Game for: Israel Folau. In South Africa he played extremely well in the back-end of both encounters – when the games were lost already. He needs to find that form at the start of the game and really lead by example from the get-go.
The Verdict: Tough one to pick and it doesn’t help that the Waratahs just came back from South Africa. Brumbies head coach Stephen Larkham is filthy that there are suggestions the Brumbies would move to Melbourne or be cut from the Super Rugby competition altogether for next year, so I suggest that anger will transfer onto the park, through his players. Brumbies 12 and under
LIONS v REDS in Johannesburg, Sunday 2.15am AEDT
Should be a free-flowing game – if the error rate stays low. Lions 12 and under
SHARKS v KINGS in Durban, Sunday 4.30am AEDT
Not a ballsy tip by any means, but I think the Sharks will take this one. Sharks by 13
JAGUARS v CHEETAHS in Buenos Aires, Sunday 6.40am AEDT
Another high-scoring game looms – and if the Jags can win their home games this year, they are a scary prospect in the finals. Jaguares 13 plus