It is that time of the week again when 'Orrible Punt arrives in the Planet Rugby prediction hot-seat to give his Super Rugby calls. Let's get to it.
Round 13 will kick-off in Wellington where the Brumbies return after a bye week before Saturday sees games between the Highlanders and Bulls, Crusaders and Blues, Reds and Lions, Cheetahs and Sharks and finally Stormers and Waratahs. Sunday's game sees the Force face the Rebels.
Remember you can contact Russ with all your comments and questions on Twitter - @rpetty80. Also make sure to check out his in-depth Blog.
The Brumbies hold an 8 point lead in their conference and as 4 of their 6 remaining games are against division rivals, they stand a good chance of reaching the latter stages of the competition. The key factor will be how they deal with the loss of Christian Lealiifano, as he's joined Matt Toomua on the injury list. Peter Hewat has been drafted in as cover, but in a surprise they have gone with a half-back pairing of Ian Prior and Zack Holmes. If the Brumbies (who come off a bye) struggle to click in attack without Lealiifano then they may alter their style of play and look to their pack to test what must be a tired Hurricanes unit. That being said, the Brumbies half-back selection suggests their focus is going to be on upcoming conference games and with a few disgruntled 'Canes (Andre Taylor!) wanting to send a message to the NZ selectors, I am expecting a home win here. Hurricanes by 6.
The Highlanders go into this off 2 defeats where they made the opposition make over 150 tackles. Having made a habit of winning by a small margin (6 of their 7 wins have come by 4 points or less), they are finding that plenty of possession does not guarantee victory. It might be that the slide started after the home loss to the Stormers in Round 7, with close wins over the Blues and Cheetahs masking the problems. The Highlanders lost 6 of their 7 last games in the 2011 season and this year's crop find themselves out of the top 6 for the first time this season. The Bulls have won their last 5, however the last 2 on Australian soil could gone the other way. The Bulls have seen their opposition reach 10 points before them in the last 6 games and have outscored rivals in 9 of 10 second halves. I can't see the Bulls going on with this trend of conceding early points without losing. Highlanders to sneak it by 2.
With the season being so gruelling, maintaining that balance between consistency, squad rotation and handling injuries is an essential skill. The Rebels match would have jumped out of the fixture list for the Crusaders as the best time to rest a couple of All Blacks, especially with 4 inter-conference games following it. Being kept scoreless in the second-half and suffering a defeat was clearly not have been part of the plan. There have been similar away defeats in previous seasons at roughly this stage - Cheetahs in 2009 & 2011 and Force in 2010, so the Canterbury side will not panic and they now have 3 home games in a row and Dan Carter back at 10. Their opponents the Blues won their wooden spoon clash against fellow strugglers the Lions, but still managed 4 line-out failures (an area of strength for the Crusaders). Their work at the breakdown was an improvement on previous efforts and both Braid brothers put in great shifts but the Blues have lost 5 of their last 7 against the Crusaders and the run looks likely to continue. Crusaders to take matters by 9.
The Reds were trailing 8-22 at home to the Chiefs after 37 minutes and a 6th defeat in 11 games looked likely. Instead within a frantic 15 minute spell period, they had scored 28 unanswered points and finished off the shell-shocked visitors. With Will Genia, looking back to his best, Liam Gill superb at the breakdown, and Quade Cooper back from injury - the Queenslanders' season has possibly sparked at just the right time. To exert real pressure on the Brumbies, they need to follow up that performance with a bonus-point win. The fixture computer has been kind on that front by providing a home match against the Lions, a team that has lost 9 games on the bounce, 34 of their last 39 Super matches, conceded 32 tries in 10 games and most heinous allowed Piri Weepu to break their line. In an impressive statistic, the Reds have scored tries in the first 3 minutes of their last 3 games and against a struggling team that has trailed by at least 7 points in every away match at half-time, this one could be over very early at Suncorp Stadium. Reds to cruise to an easy victory by 24!
The Cheetahs picked up 7 losing bonus-points last year and have already gained 6 this. A team that lacks nothing in spirit but more often than not find themselves on the wrong end of the result - with the second-half rally against the Stormers epitomising their character. The loss of Johan Goosen - not just the 145 points but also the direction he provided - has seen the once free-scoring Cheetahs tighten up, with just 31 points scored in their 2 last games combined, when it was 29 points a game with him playing. Unlike the Cheetahs, the Sharks had little trouble against the Force, but will have to work much harder than last week as the hosts have only lost by more than 6 points in 2 of their last 8 home defeats. Sharks by 7.
The 'Tahs have lost 5 games by 4 points or less this season, with the loss to the Bulls putting them in 11th place in the table. Each of those games saw them score the first points and the opening try in all but one but then go on to lose the game by conceding the last points in the fixture. They won an impressive 14 scrums and made the Bulls tackle over 170 times, yet in keeping with an underachieving season - ended up losing. The 'Tahs start a mini-tour of SA against the Stormers who have won 9 of their 10 games but have slipped to 2nd in their conference due to a tally of 1 bonus-point compared to the Bulls' 6. Tries are at a premium in Stormers matches, with 17 scored and only 11 conceded. The Stormers have averaged an 8 point winning margin at half-time but their second-half margin is -1. I am expecting a forward battle with the hosts doing just enough to get the win. Stormers by 6.
Western Force have lost all 5 games since their defeat of an injury-ridden and out of sorts Reds team in Round 6, and have scored an average of just 11 points per match in this run while conceding 26. Even if you remove that heavy Sharks defeat of last Saturday, it is an average losing margin of 8 points. 35 penalties conceded in the last 2 Super Rugby matches point to more than just minor indiscipline and they face a Rebels team that are coming off 2 good performances and are full of confidence. Playing Kurltey Beale at 10, seeing Stirling Mortlock return and losing Danny Cipriani may all be factors but whatever the reasons, they are the clearly the team with all the momentum going into this match. I see them increasing their winning record against the Force. Melbourne Rebels to win by 4!