S15 preview: Round Two, Part One
Hold onto your seats, Super Rugby is about to go into overdrive. Following last week's all-SA opening, this week produces the first full round of action.
Hold onto your seats, Super Rugby is about to go into overdrive.
Following last week's all-South African opening, with the excitement of the Lions marking their return with an upset win, this week produces the first full round of action.
And it all kicks off in Christchurch when the seven-time champion Crusaders host the two-time defending champion Chiefs.
It just doesn't get much better than that!
Later in the day we head to South Africa, where the two losing teams from last week - the Cheetahs and Bulls - will look to put their disappointing starts behind them and get back in the race.
The other two matches we will look at in Part One of our preview are both in Australasia on Saturday.
Two of the biggest disappointments of 2013, the Highlanders and Blues, going head to head in Dunedin.
Then the two most fancied Australian sides, the Brumbies and the Reds, meet in Canberra.
Jan de Koning looks at the first half of the weekend's Super Rugby action!
Friday, February 21
Crusaders v Chiefs
(AMI Stadium, Christchurch - Kick-off: 19.35; 06.35 GMT)
The defending champion Chiefs will start their campaign without the services of a number of key players and a huge target on their backs.
They won't be able to call on Sam Cane (knee injury), Robbie Robinson (hip pointer), Gareth Anscombe (both shoulders), Tom Marshall (thumb surgery) and Tanerau Latimer (bruised and battered).
Yet the back-to-back champions are still the bookmakers' favourites to claim a third successive title.
That makes them a prized scalp.
"We know that we're going to be a hunted team, but our minds have been reshaped over the last two years," Chiefs assistant coach Wayne Smith told the Waikato Times.
"We know if whoever is on the field plays bloody well then we've got a show of winning and that's what we've done in the last couple of years - nothing will change this year.
"And once you've reshaped your mind you can't bring it back."
Crusaders mentor Todd Blackadder has made some interesting selections in the hope of ending his duck as a Super Rugby coach - having watched his team fall at the semifinal stage three times and finish runners-up once since he took over.
In his first selection he axed a number of seasoned All Blacks - including wing Zac Guildford, lock Luke Romano and loosehead prop Wyatt Crockett. He is also without the services of another All Black, No.8 Kieran Read, who has had his return delayed to manage his workload.
He has sent a clear warning: 'Reputation counts for nothing.'
2013: Chiefs won 20-19, Hamilton (semifinal)
2013: Crusaders won 43-15, Christchurch
2013: Chiefs won 28-19, Hamilton
2012: Chiefs won 20-17, Hamilton (semifinal)
2012: Crusaders won 28-21, Hamilton
2012: Chiefs won 24-19, Napier
Prediction: The Chiefs are notoriously slow starters, but you would be silly to ignore their credentials. The Crusaders will give any team a run on their day and this will be close, but we feel the Chiefs will edge the game by less than 10 points.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Reynold Lee-Lo, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nafi Tuitavake, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 George Whitelock, 5 Dominic Bird, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Rob Thompson.
Chiefs: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden (captain), 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Kane Thompson, 7 Tevita Koloamatangi, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Michael Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Ben Afeaki, 19 Matt Symons/Liam Squire, 20 Nick Crosswell, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Andrew Horrell/Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 James Lowe.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Watt (New Zealand)
Cheetahs v Bulls
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein - Kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
It is Willie the wizard against the brassbound Bulls.
While the Cheetahs are continuing to give Springbok Willie le Roux all the freedom he needs to weave his magic, Bulls coach Frans Ludeke made it clear his team will continue to rely in their rigid approach to get them across the line.
Both teams are desperate to get back in the Super Rugby race, after opening round defeats.
However, the Cheetahs appear to have a more solid base at this early stage of the season.
While their magician, Le Roux, produced a mixed bag in the one-point loss against the Lions last week, Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské saw enough to allow him the same freedom.
"In the past the decision-making and execution of Willie [le Roux] was always spot on," Drotské said about his star fullback.
"To now, after just one game, tell him he is not allowed to play off-the-cuff would be stupid."
The Cheetahs coach said execution cost his team, who failed to hold onto the ball long enough well enough to capitalise on the opportunities they created.
The Bulls, who suffered a setback when regular captain Pierre Spies withdrew as a result of an elbow injury, also feel there is nothing wrong with their approach.
Coach Frans Ludeke said their downfall (a 16-31 loss to the Sharks in Durban) was the result of poor execution of the game plan, not the much-talked about kicking.
"We all admitted that it was a poor show [in Durban]," Ludeke said.
"We have already put that behind us and will be in a positive frame of mind as we head into the encounter with the Cheetahs," Ludeke said.
"We still have complete confidence in each other and the type of game we want to play.
"We know that it [the game plan] can only work if it is executed with enthusiasm."
2013: Bulls won 30-25, Bloemfontein
2013: Bulls won 26-20, Pretoria
2012: Bulls won 40-24, Pretoria
2012: Bulls won 51-19, Bloemfontein
2011: Bulls won 32-21, Pretoria
2011: Bulls won 25-23, Bloemfontein
Prediction: The Cheetahs have never beaten the Bulls in Super Rugby - an 11-match winning streak by the men from Pretoria stretching back to the Cheetahs' inception in 2006. They probably will not get a better chance than Friday - with the Bulls very vulnerable. The Cheetahs could sneak a win by less than 10 points.
Cheetahs: 15 Willem le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Johannes Prinsloo, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lodewyk de Jager, 3 Coenraad Oosthuizen, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Caylib Oosthuizen.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Nicolaas van Dyk, 19 Rynhardt Landman, 20 Jean Cook, 21 Sarel Pretorius, 22 Elgar Watts, 23 Hennie Daniller.
Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Louis Fouché, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Jacques Engelbrecht, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Flip van der Merwe (captain), 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Victor Matfield, 20 Wiaan Liebenberg, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Ulrich Beyers.
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa), Francois de Bruin (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
Saturday, February 22
Highlanders v Blues
(Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin - - Kick-off: 19.35; 06.35 GMT)
Both teams have had troubled pre-seasons - the Highlanders showing some promise and then producing an abject performance; while the Blues bought into the Benji Marshall hype and he too flattered to deceive.
The Highlanders know they have plenty work to do after a disappointing (16-19) loss to the Waratahs last week.
It seems the same old disease of recent years is plaguing them - too much reliance being placed on a few high-profile players to spark the team
All Blacks Ben Smith and Aaron Smith are two of the class in the Highlanders outfit, while 39-year-old Brad Thorn's tiring body may not be able to keep up with his fast-racing mind.
Despite the two Smiths, the Highlanders appeared unable to make an impact on attack in their pre-season outings.
It is even tougher on the North Island, where a frustrated Blues coach John Kirwan lamented his team's poor individual skills in pre-season outings.
The Blues were too often guilty of turning over possession.
"We just need to hang onto the ball a wee bit more," Kirwan said, adding that when they hang onto the ball they can get through the phases and look good.
"When you hold onto the ball for two phases then turn it over, you're just putting yourselves under the pump.
"We need to have a bit more personal pride around our individual skill."
2013: Highlanders won 38-28, Dunedin
2013: Blues won 29-18, Auckland
2012: Highlanders won 27-20, Auckland
2012: Highlanders won 30-27, Dunedin
2011: Blues won 33-16, Auckland
2011: Blues won 15-10, Dunedin
Prediction: Neither team looked like championship material in the pre-season, although the Blues do appear to have the better personnel. It might not be pretty, but the Blues should win - by about 10 points.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (co-captain), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames,
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Craig Millar, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Brendon O'Connor, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Benji Marshall, 23 Tevita Li.
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Reds
(Canberra Stadium, Canberra - Kick-off: 19.40; 08.40 GMT)
The Brumbies - sans Jake White - are preparing for a massive test to open their 2014 campaign with the Reds.
They will be under pressure to prove they can cope with the departure of White, who took them from no-hopers to finalists in just two seasons.
In 2013 the Brumbies managed to get the wood over the Reds with a win and a bye, but the new year presents new opportunities and the Reds will be hungry to take a step towards reclaiming the Rod Macqueen Cup on Saturday.
The corresponding fixture last year gave the Brumbies an edge heading into the rest of the campaign, but new coach Stephen Larkham said the coming fixture would be a tougher encounter than what the team had encountered in 2013.
"It's a big step up for us, first up to be facing the Reds," Larkham said.
"Against the Highlanders in that first [pre-season] trial we were probably caught out and taught a bit of a lesson with our intensity and that's something we'll need to improve on," the coach added.
"It's important to start the season well - we aren't resting on results from last year we realise this is a totally new opportunity, but winning games first up is important for confidence and rhythm, that's why teams concentrate so hard on the first round.
"We did have a successful year last year, we know the formula that worked for us last year and we won't be going too far away from that this year, but in saying that we can certainly look at improving how we play out of our own half."
The Reds received a timely boost with the news that ace flyhalf Quade Cooper is available for selection, after being cleared of any concussion related symptoms.
Cooper along with many other Reds players have marked the first match against the Brumbies as one the team is keen to win, after they went down to the ACT outfit 6-24 in the corresponding match in 2013.
"You remember every victory, but you also remember every loss and want to make amends for that," Cooper said.
"We're not going to look back and use that as our sole motivation, our motivation is about being better as a team and doing things in 2014 that we haven't done since 2011.
"We want to win another title and work as hard as we can to rectify that and make sure we're winning each game and that starts with the Brumbies."
2013: Brumbies and Reds drew 19-19, Brisbane
2013: Brumbies won 24-6, Canberra
2012: Reds won 13-12, Canberra
2012: Reds won 20-13, Brisbane
2011: Brumbies won 22-14, Brisbane
2011: Reds won 31-25, Canberra
Prediction: Until 2011 the Brumbies held the wood firmly over the Reds, with just one loss since the competition began, back in 1999. But since their title winning year in 2011, the Reds have posted wins in 2011, 2012 (both home and away) and a 19-all draw in 2013. Saturday will be a good indication of whether the Brumbies can cope without the masterful guidance of Jake White. We feel they will struggle and the Reds will win by about 15 points.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Andrew Smith, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Jarrad Butler, 7 David Pocock, 6 Ben Mowen (c), 5 Scott Fardy, 4 Sam Carter, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Ruaridh Murphy, 19 Leon Power, 20 Lachlan McCaffrey, 21 Conrad Hoffman, 22 Lionel Cronjé, 23 Tevita Kuridrani.
Reds: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Lachie Turner, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Dom Shipperley, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Eddie Quirk, 5 James Horwill (captain), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Saia Fainga'a, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Jono Owen, 19 Ed O'Donoghue, 20 Beau Robinson, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Anthony Fainga'a, 23 Chris Feauai-Sautia.
Referee: James Leckie (Australia)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Ian Smith (Australia)
TMO: Steve Leszczynski (Australia)