S15 Preview: Round 16, Part Two
Will the Cheetahs be able to halt the Bulls’ surge towards the South African Conference title when they square off at the Free State Stadium on Saturday?
Will the Cheetahs be able to halt the Bulls’ surge towards the South African Conference title when they square off at the Free State Stadium on Saturday?
This is one of several questions that will be answered this weekend, with the Bloemfontein blockbuster fittingly set to bring the final full round of Super Rugby before the June Test window to a close.
A victory for the visitors will all but assure them top spot in the South African Conference and a home play-off, while the Cheetahs could close the gap between the teams with a win at home.
The action will kick-off in Dunedin where the Blues will be feeling the pressure to keep their play-off hopes alive. Across the Tasman, the Reds play host to the Melbourne Rebels before the action moves to Cape Town where the Stormers lie in wait for the Southern Kings.
Quintin van Jaarsveld looks at Saturday's action.
Highlanders v Blues
(Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin - kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT)
After dropping off the pace in recent weeks, the Blues will have an opportunity to get their campaign back on track when they take on the hapless Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
No team’s stock have dropped quite as substantially in recent weeks as that of John Kirwan’s Blues. Not only have they dropped back-to-back games, they have done so against fellow play-off contenders in the Crusaders (3-23) and Brumbies (13-20).
Prior to that, they eked past the Melbourne Rebels (36-32) and Stormers (18-17) and succumbed to the Reds (11-12). As is akin to a franchise in a rebuilding phase, they are struggling at the back end of the marathon season due to a lack of depth.
They have subsequently plummeted out of the top six to seventh place and face a must-win scenario on Saturday to keep their season alive. Fortunately for them, they have drawn an encounter against the Highlanders to help them back onto the play-off path.
The hosts’ solitary win - a shock victory over the Sharks - proved to be a flash in the pan as they have slumped to three straight defeats since.
They lost out to the Western Force last week due to a last-minute penalty, and while a win would have provided some degree of comfort, it would have done little for their stuttering offence.
They were kept tryless in the Perth scrap and will have to rediscover their attacking edge if they are to unnerve the Blues.
Prediction: The Gordon Hunter Memorial trophy that will be up for grabs is sure to extra spice to the contest and will serve as incentive for the last-placed Highlanders. They will come out firing in front of their home crowd and keep it close, but the Blues have too much to lose and will lift their game to pull off the win. Blues by six.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Trent Renata, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 John Hardie, 6 Jarrad Hoeata, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Andrew Hore (captain), 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Elliot Dixon, 19 TJ Ioane, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Hayden Parker, 22 Ma'a Nonu.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Francis Saili, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Baden Kerr, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (captain), 4 Anthony Boric, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Culum Retallick, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Marty McKenzie, 22 Jackson Willison.
Referee: Jonathon White (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Richard Kelly (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Keith Brown (New Zealand)
Reds v Melbourne Rebels
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - kick-off: 19.40; 09.40 GMT)
The Reds head into a potential banana skin match against the much-improved Melbourne Rebels at Suncorp Stadium.
The 7-64 loss to the Sharks in Durban back in March lit a fire under the Rebels. They weren’t humbled, they were humiliated and they made a conscious decision never to experience such a low again.
They have been a different team ever since, ultra competitive, pushing New Zealand sides the Crusaders (26-30), Chiefs (33-39) and Blues (32-36) close and banking historic wins over the Stormers (30-21) and the Waratahs (24-22) over the past fortnight.
They are a proud bunch and they are playing as such, and with nothing to lose, they are a dangerous match-up for the fancied Reds.
The history books will show that the Melbourne side have lost all five of their matches against the Reds, including the match at AAMI Park (13-23) earlier this year, but the Rebels won’t care. They are high on confidence and will feel that they are 80 minutes away from achieving another first.
Scott Higginbotham has been integral to the Rebels’ uprising. Appointing him as captain was a masterstroke by Damien Hill; they needed a fresh face with a fresh set of leadership skills and star Wallaby recruit Higginbotham fit the bill perfectly, leading from the front with his uncompromising, smash mouth style.
A significant boost for the Rebels this week is the return of fit-again playmaker James O'Connor, who has been handpicked by Wallaby coach Robbie Deans as the man to conduct the Wallabies in the No.10 jersey against the British and Irish Lions.
The 22-year-old will want to prove himself worthy of such responsibility and leave no doubt as to whether he’s the man for the job as he goes head-to-head with Quade Cooper.
The Reds pivot was omitted from the initial Wallaby squad but can still earn a place in the squad, with Deans challenging him to step up to the plate. He won’t get a better opportunity to do just that than on Saturday.
Prediction: As a virtual Wallaby trial, this will be anything but a dull Australian derby. The players will want to send a message to Deans and stake a late claim for a place in the Wallaby squad, so expect fireworks in Brisbane. Since the Sharks massacre, the Rebels have consistently shown they are no pushovers and they pose a legitimate threat to the Reds. The Reds are notoriously difficult to beat at home, though, and with them being just five points adrift of the Australian Conference-leading Brumbies, they will bring their A-game and extend their unbeaten run against the Rebels. Reds by seven.
Reds: 15 Ben Lucas, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Anthony Faingaa, 11 Luke Morahan, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Eddie Quirk, 5 James Horwill (captain), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper, 2 James Hanson, 1 Greg Holmes.
Replacements: 16 Saia Faingaa, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Ed O'Donoghue, 19 Radike Samo, 20 Liam Gill, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Mike Harris.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Tom English, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Lachlan Mitchell, 10 James O'Connor, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Scott Higginbotham (captain), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Jarrod Saffy, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Cadeyrn Neville, 19 Gareth Delve, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 Bryce Hegarty, 22 Kimami Sitauti.
Referee: James Leckie (Australia)
Assistant referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
TMO: Steve Leszczynski (Australia)
Stormers v Southern Kings
(Newlands, Cape Town - kick-off: 17.05; 15.05 GMT)
There will be no lack of motivation for either side when the Stormers and Southern Kings face off for the first time in Super Rugby competition at Newlands.
It’s the basement battle in the South African Conference. The Kings, for all their promising endeavour against Australasian opposition, are still aiming for their first ever win in a local derby.
Another derby defeat on Saturday would seal the Kings’ fate and consign them to a dreaded two-match promotion-relegation series against the Lions at the conclusion of the Super Rugby season.
It’s do-or-die for the newcomers, and with wet weather set to hit Cape Town this weekend, Kings Director of Rugby Alan Solomons is expecting a tough forward battle.
"I have lived in Cape Town and when you get a series of fronts it can get really bad, so I think the Stormers will be concentrating on a solid kicking game and play for territory."
Solomons felt the tactical kicking duel would be a major factor in the match and to this end, the availability of Demetri Catrakilis, who was doubtful for the clash due to a knee concern, is a major boost for the Kings.
Catrakilis will play against his former teammates and will be determined to impress Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer following his call-up to the national training squad.
"We have worked hard on our kicking game and up front it will be critical for our pack to front up. I have no doubt they will," said Solomons.
"Most of them have played together in many games this season and we have every confidence they will be up for the challenge."
Stormers forwards coach Matthew Proudfoot was in agreement that it would be a colossal clash up front and spoke of the value of having Springbok hooker Tiaan Liebenberg anchoring the tight five.
“Tiaan is an experienced campaigner and he brings a lot of leadership. If you look at that pack they are all workers and there's great leadership from Tiaan and that’s what every forwards coach wants,” he said.
“You don’t want too many voices, you want workers, and that’s what we had [against the Reds] on Saturday. The pack worked and the workrate on defence was superb.
“I think the Kings’ pack is in the same position. They have a great work ethic and they are robust, we found that out in the pre-season game. They don’t take a step back for anybody.”
Stormers skipper Jean de Villiers said given how the season has gone, they would not underestimate the Kings.
"I think what we have seen throughout this competition this year is that any team can beat any other team, and that has made it really interesting.
"Even if you just look at our results - we have managed to beat the top teams and you still lose to teams that you are sort of expected to beat.
"We are still not happy with the position we are in on the log, and the only way you can improve that is by getting more points on the log and winning games,” said De Villiers.
"We spoke a lot last week about the pride of the jersey, and that is not totally restored yet so that is a process that we need to proceed with and we are definitely not going to underestimate the Kings.
"I would rather see the glass as half-full, we have had a challenging year and obviously there will be injuries going forward but we can't predict that, it will always be part of rugby, all we can do is select the strongest team possible every week and then perform.
"This game is vitally important for us, no matter what is happening at the end of the competition it is about winning this one and keeping the boat on track and that is all we are focusing on for now,” he added.
Prediction: While home ground advantage will once again be comforting, it will be the Stormers’ knowledge of the Cape conditions that will be of most benefit to the hosts on Saturday. Had the match been played in dry conditions, the Kings would have had an opportunity to stretch the Stormers’ resolute defence. They won’t have that luxury this weekend and will subsequently be suffocated by the hosts. Stormers by nine.
Stormers: 15 Joe Pietersen, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Jean de Villiers (captain), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Deon Fourie, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Martin Bezuidenhout, 17 Chris Heiberg, 18 Gerbrandt Grobler, 19 Don Armand, 20 Dewaldt Duvenage, 21 Gary van Aswegen, 22 Gerhard van den Heever.
Southern Kings: 15 SP Marais, 14 Siviwe Soyizwapi, 13 Ronnie Cooke, 12 Andries Strauss (captain), 11 Marcello Sampson, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Nicolas Vergallo, 8 Jacques Engelbrecht, 7 Wimpie van der Walt, 6 Cornell du Preez, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Darron Nell, 3 Kevin Buys, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Replacements: 16 Hannes Franklin, 17 Grant Kemp, 18 Rynier Bernado, 19 Devin Oosthuizen, 20 Shaun Venter, 21 Shane Gates, 22 George Whitehead.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa), Linston Manuels (South Africa)
TMO: Deon van Blommestein (South Africa)
Cheetahs v Bulls
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein - kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
The Cheetahs’ evolution will be put to the test when they play host to a high-riding Bulls outfit at the Free State Stadium.
The Cheetahs’ improvement this year has been astounding. They have gone from also-rans who have gradually acclimatised and climbed the Super Rugby ladder in recent years to launching a sustained run at the play-offs this season.
Their surprising emerge as play-off contenders is a direct result of much-improved defence and greater tactical awareness. They have come to respect the importance of territory in a demanding competition such as Super Rugby and have plugged the holes in their perennially frail defence.
Significantly, though, they have done so without sacrificing any of the attacking flair that is synonymous with the Cheetahs' brand of rugby.
Naka Drotské hasn’t attempted to reinvent the wheel, he has simply identified the need for and proceeded to make the necessary tweaks to his gameplan in order to take his team to the next level.
The results speak for themselves, but just how far the Cheetahs have come as a tactically astute side will be revealed when they tackle the Bulls, a team traditionally schooled in playing the percentages.
How will the Cheetahs, who are still mastering their new total gameplan, measure up against the Morné Steyn-orchestrated Bulls? Will they have the faith and patience to stick to their gameplan?
Will they fall back to their old ways when the heat is on and commit tactical suicide by attempting to run out of their 22 or, will they ill-fatedly curb their creative offence and adopt a safety first approach?
Cheetahs assistant coach Hawies Fourie assures there will be no major changes in their approach.
“You have to stay with what works for you,” he said.
“We have found a formula this year, things that work for us, and it would be silly to deviate from that. You always have one or two things up your sleeve, but the bulk of our gameplan will remain unchanged.”
The Bulls’ gameplan is heavily reliant on set-piece accuracy. They were dominated by the Sharks at scrum time last weekend but Fourie is wary of a possible backlash as he acknowledges, “The set-pieces will be vital.”
“You can't play without quality possession or attack effectively. That is one area where our forwards have done well this year, in most games we got quality possession, solid scrums, in particular, which makes it easier for the backs to attack,” said Fourie.
“It is a fact that they struggled against the Sharks, conceding two penalties, a free kick and a scrum turnover. It is also a fact that if a team struggles in one aspect, the next week they will put extra effort into that [aspect of their game] and then suddenly that comes good. It is certainly not something that will come by itself, but they have been under pressure.
“There was the Brumbies game where Morné Mellett was yellow carded in the scrums. It [the scrum] is something that is not good, but that said, their line-outs are among the best in the competition - especially the way they compete on the other team's throw-in. That [the line-out] is something we will have paid lots of attention to this week,” added Fourie.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke believes the teams are so evenly matched that it will come down to who wants it most.
“The key will be our workrate,” he explains.
“Both teams are competitive in all aspects of the game. When it comes to the [quality of the] players, the facets of the game and the respective teams' strengths, it is on par, that is why for 80 minutes you have to concentrate, have discipline and keep your workrate up. You must be prepared to put in a huge effort.”
Ludeke said he is pleased with the growth of his team this year and feels they are equipped to rise to the occasion in Bloemfontein.
“We have a lot of players who have been in these situations before - this is a new game, another opportunity, but the younger players this season have been in some of these big derbies now and have come through the test,” he said.
“We see it as a great challenge. We know there will be no freebies, it will be tough, but we are ready to go out there and get the job done.”
The Cheetahs are still in search of their elusive first ever win over the Bulls heading into the 11th match between the two sides, but Bulls captain Pierre Spies says previous performances against the Cheetahs, including the 26-20 win at Loftus in April, mean nothing.
“The fact that we have beaten them earlier in the season counts for nothing,” said Spies.
“They play on their home turf and although we have done well there in the past, that is not worth any points on the scoreboard. We need to go out there, impose ourselves and play the right type of rugby we know we are capable of. It is a massive challenge, but this team thrive on those.”
Prediction: It will undoubtedly be the Cheetahs’ best chance yet to break their Bulls bogey. Adriaan Strauss has consistently led from the front, the back row have been outstanding and Willie le Roux has bamboozled defences all season. The Bulls’ strength lies in their well-drilled gameplan and the inform Steyn is central to its execution. Elgar Watts, like Burton Francis before him, has done a credible job filling in for the injured Johan Goosen, but against a team like the Bulls you need a flyhalf who can control the game with the boot. This is where the Cheetahs will struggle to match the Bulls and ultimately come undone - but it will be another close game. Bulls by five.
Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Robert Ebersohn, 11 Willie le Roux, 10 Elgar Watts, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lodewyk de Jager, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Coenie Oosthuizen.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Rynhardt Landman, 19 Johannes Prinsloo, 20 Sarel Pretorius, 21 Riaan Smit, 22 Rayno Benjamin.
Bulls: 15 Jürgen Visser, 14 Lionel Mapoe, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies (captain), 7 Arno Botha, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Grant Hattingh, 19 Dewald Potgieter, 20 Jano Vermaak, 21 Louis Fouché, 22 Zane Kirchner.
Referee: Jason Jaftha (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Francois de Bruin (South Africa)
TMO: Gerrie Coetzee (South Africa)