Forgetting the Chiefs (and we might as well!), this weekend is a huge one for the Kiwi Super12 teams. The defending champions Canterbury take on Otago at the 'Brook, and Eden Park will become a battleground when the Hurricanes meet the Blues head on.
Blues vs Hurricanes
I'll start with the battle of the Northern boys before getting onto the good stuff. Both games are pretty difficult to call, but the Blues vs Hurricanes is the most difficult of all. Mainly because both squads have been so inconsistent. I think the game will be very interesting because both sides strengths are in the same areas. In the outside backs we have the likes of Umaga, Cullen and Telea taking Vidiri Cashmore and Howlett. These six guys can win or lose games, sometimes by themselves. They will need good fast ball out wide and that's where the performance of Blues First Five, Carlos Spencer is the key. At his best he is a brilliant playmaker and will take control of a game. Lately he has been stunningly average.... Halfback for the Hurricanes is Ofisa Tonu'u and he will no doubt have plenty to prove as he takes on his old teammates. Though he isn't marking Spencer, there will no doubt be fierce competition between them for the most ridiculous hair colour on the park.
Up front the packs will be pretty even. Neither have asserted any kind of dominance in their games thus far, preferring to secure ball and feed it to the backs, letting them work their magic, or not! As always these days, securing the loose ball and creating those turnovers will be critical... Look out for a big game from Hurricanes' loosie Andrew Blowers.
Crusaders vs Highlanders
The defending Champs playing top of the table favourites the Highlanders. What a match up.
The key for Canterbury will be the battle up front. If they can retain the ball and have some dominance at scrum time, the backs will have a chance. That is a huge call as they are up against an All Black front row, the complete brilliance of Kronfeld and the sheer power of Maka. If ever there was a game when the Crusaders forwards have to pull out a stunner, this is it. Anything less than excellent won't be good enough to beat Otago up front. Going on recent form, the Highlanders will be quicker to the loose ball and the tackle ball. But Canterbury have the ability to match them on their night.
Assuming there is good ball provision for the Canterbury backs, Mehrtens will be the lynchpin. He will have to pass and kick like the genius he is. Just like Spencer, he has the ability to take a game by the scruff, control and direct it. No doubt the Highlanders loosies will look to shut him down. The Crusaders will sorely miss Gibson, (my pick for All Black 2nd Five) who is out injured. He has far and away looked the most dangerous of the Canterbury backs so far. Given he's gone, look out for a big performance from Mayerhofler at Centre to compensate...
The Highlanders have a fantastic back line and will look to move the ball out wide often and fast. Wilson will be dangerous as ever, and the Cantabs will need to shut down movements before the ball reaches him. Tony Brown is having a great season... Only one off-game that I can think of. If the Highlanders are on fire, Laney and Kelliher will be dangerous. If the Crusaders can get them going backwards I think they'll struggle. It's a situation they aren't used to!
And finally.... my predictions??
Well, I'm not even game to guess scores, but l will go this far...
The 'Canes will beat the Blues. They are fired up after a great win in South Africa.
The Crusaders will edge out the Highlanders... But by less than 5 points! (and yes.... I've got my ever optimistic one-eyed Cantab hat on!!)