1. Game of the week
Highlanders v Chiefs, Dunedin, tonight 7.35pm.
Referee: Garratt Williamson
TAB: Chiefs $1.50 Highlanders $2.24
It's local demolition derby time. No side has it tougher in the local derby stakes than the table- topping Chiefs, who get the Highlanders and Hurricanes away with a visit from the Crusaders in between to finish the regular season off. Dave Rennie has not only performed a touch of celebrity rehab on Sonny Bill Williams' footy career, but turned the whole Chiefs franchise around to the point that they require only two more points to guarantee a playoff spot. They'll want a lot more than that, and a loss here would put a nasty little fox into their chicken coop. All eyes will be on whether injury-hampered third test sensation Aaron Cruden lasts - he will be just one of many All Blacks fizzing after the Irish demolition. One to watch - the Cruden-SBW show.
2. Another game of the week
Crusaders v Hurricanes, Christchurch tomorrow 7.35pm.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence
TAB: Crusaders $1.30 Hurricanes $3.30
Another mate-against-mate crunch match, although by rugby standards there has been no love lost between these combatants over the years. Both sides have lost All Blacks to injuries but it's hard to see anything other than the desperate Crusaders tearing the young pretenders apart. To make matters worse for Hammett's Hopefuls, they have lost their brilliant young spark TJ Perenara.
3. John Mitchell - what's the world coming to?
The former All Black supremo has been suspended as coach of the Johannesburg-based Lions, pending a disciplinary hearing, for allegedly taking his unique version of straight talking a little too far. "Players have labour rights," screamed the Lions president Kevin de Klerk, sounding more like a union leader. Oh for the good old days at Fraser Tech, Mitch must be thinking, when men were men and adjectives could be @!#$?&^ forthright. And this, after coming to a sticky end with the All Blacks and Western Force. Apart from putting How to Win Friends and Influence People on his reading list, we don't know what else to suggest. The Stormers, who are chasing a top two finish, won't be shaking in their boots facing the Lions, now coached by Johann Ackermann and our very own and always polite Carlos Spencer, but the job got a little bit harder. Should player-power cause a late season burst from the Lions, the Auckland Blues will be in even greater danger of finishing dead last. Question of the week: where will Mitch pop up next?
4. Player to watch
Back to Christchurch. Andre Taylor. Remember him. Before the test matches rudely interrupted, he was the competition's bolt out of the blue. The Hurricanes' opportunist No 15 will have no better chance to continue pressing for an All Blacks fullback spot although the incumbent, Israel Dagg, is injured so will not provide a point of comparison. If the Hurricanes are to upset the Crusaders, this bloke will figure highly in proceedings. Taylor's task: to link as well as he runs.
5. Break enhancing or not
The Super 15 teams are in uncharted waters after the new, month-long test window. They took different approaches to the hiatus and in the Hurricanes' case, a keep-fit game against the Reds led to losing brilliant young halfback TJ Perenara for the season. But keeping the players ticking over was almost certainly worth such risks. Test men like the outstanding Wallaby halfback Will Genia and Chiefs megastar Sonny Bill Williams should return to the Super 15 action boosted by stellar test performances. The rising young test prospects should be fizzing mentally, even if they are a touch jaded and sporting knocks. Others may have lost an edge through their international exertions. Players may no longer be on the same page. Timing could be out. Coaches will want strong starts to remove nervousness and doubt and bank on experienced been-there-done-most- things outfits like the Crusaders handling the situation best.
Herald betting analyst Michael Guerin continues his search for weekly gems.
For years rugby league insiders have been touting how much rugby can learn from their great code - defence, off-loads, managers publicly floating dozens of offers just before contract negotiations. But this week punters looking to make a dollar off the return of Super rugby should consider the leaguies, who every year go through a similar rigmarole to the just-finished international rugby window.
They call it State of Origin and without fail it throws normal NRL form out the window as some teams struggle because of higher commitments (Melbourne Storm, Broncos) while minnows thrive with fresh players. Which makes this weekend a tricky one, with plenty of $1.30-1.50 favourites coming up against teams in better shape.
So while the Chiefs and Crusaders may still get over the line, punters should steer away from multi-bets, where even one upset can sink the ship.
With all that in mind and the epic Crusaders-Chiefs clash next week, you could do worse than take the Highlanders at home with a 6.5-points start against the Chiefs in what should be a close one.