S15 Preview: Round Three, Part One
The Rebels will become the last team to enter the 2014 Super Rugby race, when they host the Cheetahs in Week Three.
The Rebels will become the last team to enter the 2014 Super Rugby race, when they host the Cheetahs in Week Three.
If teams like the Stormers and Hurricanes thought they had it tough playing an opponent who already had a game under the belt, imagine what the Rebels are up against - the Cheetahs have two tough games behind them.
The action starts on Friday when the Blues host the Crusaders at Eden Park in New Zealand's big north-south derby.
Then follows the Rebels versus Cheetahs game, before we head to Newlands in Cape Town, South Africa, where the Stormers and Hurricanes will both look to bounce back from last week's disappointing defeats.
In Part One of our preview Jan de Koning looks at all Friday's matches!
Blues v Crusaders
(Eden Park, Auckland - Kick-off: 19,35; 06.35 GMT)
Both teams come of disappointing starts to the season - ironically both losing by eight points.
The Blues produced a strong second half, but still lost 21-29 to the Highlanders, who held a 24-0 lead at one stage.
The Crusaders were looking to score a late winner with the score at 10-11, before an intercept shattered their dreams in a 10-18 loss to the Chiefs.
Goal-kicking woes were the other features (or rather big negatives) to come out of those defeats.
And, of coarse, there is also the hype surrounding Rugby League recruit Benji Marshall, who will continue his conversion with second-half cameos off the bench.
Blues coach John Kirwan hopes that returning home will help his team get back on the winning track - given their poor pre-season form also did not inspire much confidence.
Winning is vital for the Blues, given that they head off on a two-match tour of South Africa at the weekend - where they will face the Bulls and Lions, before returning home to tackle the Cheetahs in Auckland.
"It's important we get on the plane to South Africa with some points," Kirwan said.
"The Crusaders are going to want to win, we're going to want to win and I think already it's a huge match, so I'm looking for a very vocal Blues crowd that can help get us over the line."
The Crusaders - who host the Stormers, travel to Melbourne to play the Rebels and then tackle the Hurricanes at home - will hope their attacking woes improve this week.
Despite the Crusaders' inability to crack the Chiefs' defensive line last week, assistant coach Tabai Matson suggested they are not too far off the pace.
"When you play the best teams, especially the really good defensive teams, you might get two opportunities," he said.
"Probably we took one of them, but if we had taken another one we wouldn't be feeling the way we are feeling," Matson said of the late match-winning interception.
2013: Crusaders won 23-3, Christchurch
2013: Blues won 34-15, Auckland
2012: Crusaders won 59-12, Christchurch
2012: Crusaders won 19-18, Auckland
2011: Crusaders won 23-16, Timaru
2011: Blues won 24-22, Auckland
Prediction: The game may be played in Auckland, which will be of some assistance to the Blues, but the Crusaders have made a couple of key selections that could swing it their way - Kieran Read at No.8 and Colin Slade at fullback. The Blues' decision to go with rookie Simon Hickey at flyhalf is a risk, but also one that could pay huge dividends. We still feel the Crusaders will take it - by five to 10 points.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 George Moala, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid (captain)/Brendon O'Connor, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Sam Prattley.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Tony Woodcock, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Liaki Moli, 20 Brendan O'Connor/Jordan Manihera, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Benji Marshall, 23 Pita Ahki.
Crusaders: 15 Colin Slade, 14 Rob Thompson, 13 Reynold Lee-Lo, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nafi Tuitavake, 10 Tom Taylor, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Richie McCaw, 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 Adam Whitelock, 23 Israel Dagg.
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Rebels v Cheetahs
(AAMI Park, Melbourne - Kick-off: 19.40; 08.40 GMT)
The Cheetahs may already have two tough games behind them - a defeat and a win - but with the Rebels having had a bye in Round Two, the men from Melbourne are an unknown quantity to the visitors.
Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské also admitted that a substantial turnover in player corps, plus a new coach, means they can't focus too much on the men from Melbourne.
This will be the first opportunity for Tony McGahan and his men to showcase their skills and what they have worked on in pre-season.
"They had a bye last week and they have a new coach," Drotské told this website in an interview from the team's base in Melbourne.
"Many players have moved on," he added - in reference to the departure of Nic Henderson (retired), Ged Robinson (to Hawke's Bay in New Zealand ), Jarrod Saffy (to Bressane in France), Gareth Delve (to Japan), Nick Phipps (to Waratahs), James O'Connor (to London Irish in England), Richard Kingi (to Stade Français in France), Cooper Vuna (to Japan) and Kurtley Beale (to Waratahs).
Their new recruits are scant - Toby Smith (from the Chiefs), Tom Sexton (from Leinster in Ireland), Colby Fainga'a (from the Brumbies), Tamati Ellison (from the Highlanders) and Tony McGahan (from the Australian national Sevens team).
"Their captain of last year has also moved on," Drotské told this website, adding: "We have managed to get some video footage of their pre-season game against the Hurricanes and based some of our defence on that.
"However, it is more important that we focus on our own game we have to ensure our systems are in place and the game plan is executed.
"It is dangerous to focus on the opposition of you don't have enough video footage of them."
The Cheetahs, who reached the play-offs for the first time in 2013, will hope to repeat or improve on last year's impressive form on tour - when they won three in a row in Australasia.
The Rebels have ambitions of their own, least of all to attempt a first-ever win over the Cheetahs. The closest they came was a seven-point loss (26-33) in Melbourne two years ago.
The Cheetahs were surprised by the newly-promoted Lions in their Round One game and the Rebels are planning a similar ambush.
With a new coach, McGahan, and eight new faces in the 23-man squad, the Melbourne outfit will bank on their impressive pre-season form - where they won three from three.
New captain Scott Higginbotham feels his team is in a good space.
"All the boys are champing at the bit to get out there," he said.
"I wouldn't say we've kept anything up our sleeves, but we've had two weeks to prepare for this game so we've had a bit of stuff to work on."
2013: Cheetahs won 34-16, Bloemfontein
2012: Cheetahs won 33-26, Melbourne
2011: Cheetahs won 41-21, Bloemfontein
Prediction: This is probably one of the toughest games to call, as there is no form for the Rebels to go on. Pre-season matches are not always a good indicator, as teams try out tactics and combinations, which might have an influence on the scoreline. The Cheetahs will go into the game as slight favourites and we feel they might edge this one, by about five points.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Lachlan Mitchell, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Scott Higginbotham (captain), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Pat Leafa, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Steve Fualau, 17 Max Lahiff, 18 Paul Alo-Emile, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Colby Fainga'a, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Angus Roberts, 23 Tom Kingston.
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.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Matt O'Brien (Australia), Michael Hogan (Australia)
TMO: Steve Leszczynski (Australia)
Stormers v Hurricanes
(Newlands, Cape Town - Kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT; 06.10, Saturday, March 1 NZ time)
It is another game that features two 'losers' from the first round - with the Hurricanes looking to score their first win at Newlands in almost a decade.
Not since the four-point squeaker (23-19) in March 2006 have Hurricanes left Cape Town victorious.
Despite being put under pressure in their set-pieces against the Sharks last week, there were plenty of encouraging signs for the Hurricanes in their first-up 9-2 loss in Durban.
The Hurricanes defended well at times and created several opportunities that could have turned the contest prior to the Sharks' match-clinching intercept try with 15 minutes to play.
Similarly, the Stormers will be eager to bounce back from their 10-34 loss away to the Lions at Ellis Park - a game that turned into a horror show for the to the men from Cape Town.
The Stormers dominated the Lions in the territory and possession statistics, but the Lions took their chances - 29 points from the educated boot of Lions flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff (including three drop-goals) the undoing of the Stormers.
The Stormers, the best defensive team in the competition in recent seasons, conceded an early 0-19 deficit and failed to recover.
The Hurricanes have won at least one of their two matches on their South African tour for each of the last three years, and they bounced back to win their second match after losing their first in both their last two trips.
Last year in the Republic they lost to the Bulls (14-48) and then beat the Cheetahs (39-34). In 2012 they lost to the Stormers (26-39) and defeated the Lions (30-28).
The key areas in this match will be the set-pieces and the breakdowns.
An obvious work-on for the Hurricanes from the Sharks match will be at scrum time, where they were undone by an-all Springbok front row, and which the big Stormers pack will also target.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee admitted they can't afford a repeat of last week's disastrous start.
"One has to make sure we start well in every game," Coetzee told a media briefing this week.
"Hopefully we are over the first-game jitters now, settle down, get stuck into our [game] plan and force our [game] plan onto the opposition."
Coetzee hinted that the Lions blitzkrieg forced his team into unfamiliar tactics - playing more with the ball in hand that kicking for goal and building pressure.
"The situation would have been different if we had started better, then we could have kicked penalties at posts instead of chasing the game," Coetzee said.
He added that hopefully they have learnt their lesson this past weekend.
"We nailed it in [set the bar] very low and we have to improve by 40 to 50 percent in all departments," the Stormers coach said.
"There are no excuses, we know now what it takes to be ready for Super Rugby.
"I was pretty happy with out set pieces, we just couldn't hold onto the ball when we were attacking."
The battle of the breakdown could also hold sway.
Hurricanes openside flank Jack Lam and No.8 Blade Thomson both stood out against the Sharks, while the Stormers loose forward trio of flanks Siya Kolisi (10 Tests) and Schalk Burger (68 internationals), along with No.8 Duane Vermeulen (16) are experienced campaigners.
It will also be the clash of the captains in midfield between Hurricanes centre Conrad Smith and Stormers midfield maestro Jean de Villiers.
2013: Stormers won 18-16, Palmerston North
2012: Stormers won 39-26, Cape Town
2010: Stormers won 37-13, Cape Town
2009: Hurricanes won 34-11, Wellington
2008: Stormers won 20-12, Cape Town
2007: Stormers won 30-17, Palmerston North
Prediction: Both the Hurricanes and Stormers are playing for their first wins of 2014 after losses last week, while the Hurricanes are out to reverse recent defeats to the Stormers, including a 16-18 loss last year in Palmerston North and 26-39 loss on their last visit to Cape Town in 2012. Head-to-head, this will be the 17th Super Rugby clash between the Hurricanes and the Stormers (including when they were known as Western Province in 1996). The Hurricanes have won six and the Stormers 10. Given that the Hurricanes have won only three times in their nine visits to Cape Town, you have to install the Stormers as favourites. We feel they will edge in by between five and 10 points.
Stormers: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Jean de Villiers (captain), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Gio Aplon, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Manuel Carizza, 4 Rynhardt Elstadt, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Oliver Kebble, 18 Pat Cilliers, 19 Michael Rhodes, 20 Nizaam Carr, 21 Nic Groom, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Ryno Eksteen.
Hurricanes: 15 Marty Banks, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (captain), 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 John Schwalger, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 James Broadhurst, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Alapati Leiua, 23 James Marshall.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Andrew Lees (Australia), Marc van Zyl (South Africa)
TMO: Deon van Blommenstein (South Africa)