Ton up for captain Conrad
Five fabulous games on a Super Saturday - starting in Wellington, New Zealand, and finishing in Durban South Africa.
Heading into Round Five only three teams - the Chiefs, Waratahs and Sharks - remain unbeaten, while the Hurricanes are the only franchise yet to win.
Five matches have been decided by inside the margin of a converted try; while there have been two one-point thrillers.
Saturday's action starts when two struggling teams, the Hurricane and Cheetahs, engage in a desperate battle to get their campaigns back on track.
That is followed when the Highlanders tackle the Western Force in Dunedin's indoor stadium - both teams, with one win each, also in need of victory.
The much-anticipated Australia derby between the high-flying Waratahs and the Brumbies are sandwiched between the two matches on New Zealand soil and two games in South Africa.
The Lions, in their first game back in Super Rugby after a year on the sidelines, host the Blues at Ellis Park, before the table-topping Sharks take on the Reds in a crucial match in Durban.
Jan de Koning previews Saturday's matches!
Saturday, March 15
Hurricanes v Cheetahs
(Westpac Stadium, Wellington - Kick-off: 16.35; 03.35 GMT; 05.35 SA Time)
The Hurricanes play their second match of the season on home soil - with the Cheetahs the third South African side that the men from Wellington are facing.
The Cheetahs have been well below par tyhis year, after making the play-offs for the first time in 2013, and are coming off a disappointing 33-43 to the Reds last Friday - their third defeat of the season.
The Hurricanes are coming off a tough opening stretch of games - with defeats to the Sharks and the Stormers in South Africa, as well as the Brumbies in Wellington last Friday.
With captain and talisman centre Conrad Smith playing his 100th Super Rugby game, the Hurricanes are confident of kick-starting their season against the Cheetahs.
The Cheetahs still play a fast-paced game, but their defence has let them down - prompting coach Naka Drotské to suggest they need to 'attack better' in order to defend better.
He feels they need to retain possession more effectively, because turnovers is what has resulted in 10 tries (second only to the Blues' 11) being scored against them.
The battle of the flyhalves and goal kickers could be key, with Beauden Barrett up against Johan Goosen.
The platform has to be laid up front though, and like against all South African teams the scrum and the close quarter contact areas will be key areas for the Hurricanes in this game.
Drotské was adamant that possession is key.
"It will be important that we improve our ball retention, keep it through more than four or five phases," the Cheetahs mentor told this website.
"We have been working hard on improving our attack and hopefully we can fix that."
Despite losing both tour matches so far - to the Rebels and Reds - the spirit in the Cheetahs camp remain "100 percent".
"Everybody knows we turned it around in the past and they realise we can do it again this year," Drotské said, adding: "There is no panic and the players are very positive."
2013: Hurricanes won 39-34, Bloemfontein
2012: Cheetahs won 47-38, Wellington
2011: Hurricanes won 50-47, Bloemfontein
2010: Cheetahs won 28-12, Bloemfontein
2009: Hurricanes won 29-12, New Plymouth
2008: Hurricanes won 38-10, Bloemfontein
Prediction: Encounters between the Hurricanes and Cheetahs are always high-scoring affairs - 255 points have been scored in the last three meetings between these sides, with the aggregate score at 128-127 in favour of the Cheetahs. The Cheetahs spend the lowest amount of time in possession this season, they average just 13 minutes and six seconds in occupancy of the ball. They've conceded on average 10 turnovers per game, which is the highest in the competition in 2014. Unless they do improve their ball-retention, the Cheetahs are in for another tough day at the office. The Hurricanes to sneak a win, by five points.
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Conrad Smith (captain), 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Chris Smylie, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 John Schwalger, 19 James Broadhurst, 20 Jack Lam, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Matt Proctor, 23 Marty Banks.
Cheetahs: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Pieter Labuschagné, 6 Johannes Prinsloo, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lodewyk de Jager, 3 Nicolaas van Dyk, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), Caylib Oosthuizen.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Rossouw de Klerk, 19 Andries Ferreira, 20 Jean Cook, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Elgar Watts, 23 Hennie Daniller.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Watt (New Zealand)
Highlanders v Western Force
(Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin - Kick-off: 19.35; 06.35 GMT; 14.35 AWST)
The Western Force's in-form No.8 Ben McCalman feels his team needs to repeat last week's fast start if they want to stay on the winning track.
After going down to the Waratahs and Brumbies, because of slow starts, they blitzed the Rebels in the first half last week and walked away with a 32-7 triumph that saw them move off the foot of the table.
The Force scored four tries in the opening 27 minutes to beat the visitors from Melbourne.
McCalman said his side's goal to dominate from the outset had not changed.
"The focus is on the first 20 minutes; really starting well, playing as a 15, knowing your role and how they help out the rest of the team on the field," he said in an interview on the Force website.
"While it's 15 who start, the value we got from our bench last week is something that was also very important in the win and it will be this week as well."
The Highlanders are coming off their bye and have an even ledger at one win and a loss this season.
Both their games have been against New Zealand franchises - with their win coming against the Blues and their loss in a tight affair with reigning back-to-back champions, the Chiefs.
McCalman, who has been one of the stand out players for the Force in their first three matches, says they will need to be prepared for the physical Highlanders outfit.
"They are a team that are looking to take it to us early on in the game - we are trying to do the same so it should be a great battle," he said.
"After losing our first two games and winning the third, we can go two from the first four and that is certainly a big step in setting up our season.
"We were not happy with our first two games but we were happy with our last game."
2013: Force won 19-18, Perth
2011: Force won 21-14, Dunedin
2010: Force won 41-27, Queenstown
2009: Force won 33-28, Perth
2008: Force won 36-28, Queenstown
2007: Highlanders won 8-7, Perth
Prediction: The Highlanders have lost their last five games against the Force, having won their first two meetings in 2006 and 2007. The Highlanders average the most tackles made (146) and tackles missed (22.5 per game). However, the Highlanders average fewer penalties conceded (nine) per game than any other side this season, but the Force have averaged just 10 infringements per game themselves. This could be an intriguing arm-wrestle, with the smart money on a Highlanders win - by 10 points.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Kurt Baker, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (co-captain), 7 Shane Christie, 6 John Hardie, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Craig Millar, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Junior Rasolea, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (captain), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Ollie Hoskins, 19 Adam Coleman ,20 Brynard Stander, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Marcel Brache.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Ben O'Keefe (New Zealand)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Waratahs
(Canberra Stadium, Canberra - Kick-off: 19.40; 08.40 GMT)
Brumbies Director of Rugby Laurie Fisher put it in a nutshell when he said: "There's a lot at stake, both teams need a win here against an Australian rival."
Waratahs coach Michael Cheika also shared some wise words with the media this week when he suggested the game could be so close that it will be a case of "who blinks first".
The Tahs, one of three unbeaten teams, have scored 10 tries in their two outings - suggesting they have again found their attacking mojo.
And while the Brumbies may not yet be the smooth outfit that played in the Final last year, they have improved steadily since their loss to the Reds in their opening match.
"We've picked ourselves up after a disappointing loss first up and we've played some good rugby over the last two weeks," Fisher said of the Brumbies' victories over the Force and Hurricanes.
"To win on Saturday we are going to need an 80 minute effort.
"They [Waratahs] are a side with a lot of forward power who can supply plenty of opportunities for their backs.
"It's important for us to have our own plan and detail right so we are prepared to counter that and win the game."
Saturday's match will be the 23rd time the Brumbies have faced off against the Waratahs, with NSW holding an advantage over the Canberra-based side 12 wins to 10 with no draws.
The Waratahs have not won in Canberra since 2011 and the last time the two teams met in Canberra the Brumbies walked away 35-6 winners.
The Waratahs coach, Cheika, said the Brumbies - Australia's best-performing franchise last season - will be a real challenge at home.
"I'm not trying to take the underdog tag, it's there by right," said Cheika.
"The Brumbies have got a lot of experience, they were described in the commentary last week as very efficient and they certainly are that.
"They are best team in Australia, they were 15 minutes away from winning the Super Rugby competition last year and it's up to us to take on the best and try and compete with them away from home."
With the Waratahs' ball in hand style and the Brumbies' kick and containment, it will be a clash of two styles and a bit of a stand-off says Cheika.
"It's a case of who blinks first," Cheika said.
"I think they know we counterattack they will try kick it long and pin us down there and wait for us to make a mistake.
"The question for us is do we try and not make a mistake or do we counter attack hard and play our best footy....I think you know what we are going to choose, so we'll see how good we are."
2013: Waratahs won 28-22, Sydney
2013: Brumbies won 35-6, Canberra
2012: Brumbies won 19-15, Sydney
2012: Brumbies won 23-6, Canberra
2011: Waratahs won 41-7, Sydney
2011: Waratahs won 29-22, Canberra
Prediction: A win in their most recent meeting ended a run of three straight defeats against the Brumbies for the Sydney side. Four of the last seven meetings between these sides have seen a losing bonus point awarded. The Waratahs have averaged more points (37.5) and tries (five) per game than any other side this season. They also make more offloads (16) and clean breaks (11.5) than any other side, but concede more penalties (14.5) than their peers. The Brumbies' tackling success rate (80 percent) is the worst heading into round five. We think Michael Cheika is right and the Brumbies will blink first, allowing the Waratahs to sneak a win - by seven points.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (captain), 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Leon Power, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Jean-Pierre Smith, 19 Jordan Smiler, 20 Locky McCaffrey, 21 Andrew Smith, 22 Michael Dowsett, 23 Lionel Cronje.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alofa Alofa, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Peter Betham, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis (captain), 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Jacques Potgieter, 3 Paddy Ryan, 2 Tatafu Polota Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements - from: 16 Tola Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Stephen Hoiles, 21 Pat McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Rob Horne, 24 Matt Carraro, 25 Jonno Lance.
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant referees: Rohan Hoffman, Graham Cooper
TMO: Peter Marshall
Lions v Blues
(Ellis Park, Johannesburg - Kick-off: 15.00; 13.00 GMT; 02.00, Sunday, March 16 NZ time)
If it is true, as the adage states, that it starts up front, then the Lions have a big advantage.
Their set pieces and kicking game have been among the most effective in the competition.
The Blues, in contrast, are among the worst.
The Blues' scrum success rate (57 percent) is certainly the worst in Super Rugby this season. Conversely, the Lions have a scrum success rate of 89 percent.
However, the Lions have scored just five tries and let eight in, in four matches.
They have relied heavily on the super boot of flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff, who has displaced Springbok Elton Jantjies for this week's outing.
Boshoff has a goal-kicking strike rate of 95 percent, a Super Rugby high.
After beating the Cheetahs and Stormers in the first two weeks, the Lions have come unstuck badly against the Bulls and Sharks.
That, according to coach Johan Ackermann, is because they gave the opposition a head-start.
"We had a very poor first half, but we were still in the game, down by just seven points, late in the match," Ackermann told this website when asked about the reason by his team's slump in form in the past fortnight.
"The positive is the fact that the guys never stopped playing.
"However, we can't afford to play that poorly in the first half and think we will win games - we have to make sure we have better starts.
"The players have to realise that in Super Rugby, if you gift a team chances, like we did, they will punish you.
"We will have to be a lot more accurate in everything we do.
"The guys learnt a tough lesson, but hopefully it will improve in the next few weeks."
The Blues, who solitary win against the Crusaders is sandwiched between two defeats, do have the ability to punish teams that are even just slightly off their game.
They scored four scintillating tries in a 20-minute blitz on the way to a 35-24 win over the Crusaders.
And the Lions' tackle success rate of 87 percent is pretty average by Super Rugby standards - which means the visitors could punish them if they are not on top of their fame.
Blues coach John Kirwan said the focus this week had been on keeping it simple, and he was expecting a similar game to what the Bulls produced last week against the Lions.
"The Lions play a similar type of game to the Bulls," Kirwan said.
"We have to match their enthusiasm, we have to be patient with the ball, cut down our errors and take our points when they're there. We can't let them get away to a good start."
Kirwan said it was important to head home to New Zealand with points from South Africa.
"It's not desperation time but if you want to be around at the end of the tournament then you've got to keep in touch with the leaderboard," he said.
"If we do that this week we're totally in touch with the leaderboard and we've played four games with a 50 percent winning record heading home and South Africa out of the way with what would be seen as a pretty difficult start to the season so if we can come home from South Africa with some points we'll be in pretty good shape."
2012: Blues won 25-3, Auckland
2011: Blues won 41-32, Johannesburg
2010: Blues won 56-14, Johannesburg
2009: Blues won 36-12, Auckland
2008: Blues won 55-10, Johannesburg
2007: Blues won 41-14, Auckland
Prediction: The South African outfit has lost all six of their Super Rugby matches against the Blues. In those six defeats, the Lions have averaged 42 points conceded and have scored more than 14 themselves on just one occasion. And the men from Johannesburg make fewer carries (76) and clean breaks (two) per game than any other team, also beating fewer defenders (10.5) than their rivals. However, the Lions have succeeded with 95 percent of their attempts at goal this season. The Blues are dangerous, as they showed against the Crusaders. But they are also vulnerable, as they display in their loss to the Bulls last week. If the Lions can get their defence on par, they should back their this win of the season - but by less than 10 points.
Lions: 15 Coenie van Wyk, 14 JW Jonker, 13 Deon van Rensburg, 12 Stefan Watermeyer, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Francois de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Willie Britz, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Franco Mostert, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Luvuyiso Lusaseni, 20 Warwick Tecklenburg, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Ruan Combrinck.
Blues: 15 Benji Marshall, 14 Frank Halai, 13 George Moala, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu , 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Luke Braid (captain), 6 Brendon O'Connor, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Sam Prattley, 18, Angus Ta'avao, 19 Liaki Moli, 20 Jordan Manihera, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Jackson Willison.
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Christie du Preez (South Africa), Francois de Bruin (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
Sharks v Reds
(Kings Park, Durban - Kick-off: 17.05; 15.05 GMT; 01.05, Sunday March 16 AEST)
The Sharks have won six of eight Super Rugby clashes against the Reds. They won the first three before losing the fourth clash and this pattern has been repeated in their last four meetings.
However, that trend could change, as the reds' two key playmakers - Will Genia and Quade Cooper appear to have regained their best form.
Sharks Director of Rugby Jake White knows all about what makes winning teams and he felt the key to beating the Reds is to minimise the contribution of the Wallaby duo.
"There is no doubt, teams that have won this competition, the consistent theme [to winning this competition] is having good No.9s and No.10s," White told a media briefing.
"When the Reds won this competition, these two were on fire, but they were young and now much more experienced.
"The challenges are there, we have to make sure we step up to the plate.
"We know that the only way to put pressure on No.9 and No.10 is to make sure you do your job in the forwards."
The Sharks feel they have the firepower to do the job up front.
"We're lucky enough to have a good pack of forwards," White said, adding: "[Captain] Bismarck [du Plessis] has 100 games, Jannie [du Plessis] and Beast [Tendai Mtawarira] have 90-odd, Ryan [Kankowski] and Willem [Alberts] have 80-odd each.
"So we have an experienced pack of forwards.
"There is a lot we have in our favour, but we need to make it count. It's simple: pressure gets applied by the forwards and we have to make sure we don't give them time and space to play because if you do, they can carve you to pieces."
The Sharks skipper, Bismarck du Plessis, spoke to the value an experienced campaigner like Wallaby lock James Horwill - with 90-odd Super Rugby caps - will bring to the game.
"They won the competition [in 2011] and he has been a really influential leader for them, he really plays well," Du Plessis said, echoing his coach's views.
"We want to put them under pressure in the set phases."
Du Plessis admitted playing an Australian team - after a few rounds against South African teams - mean you face very different challenges.
"South African sides, like the Bulls and Lions we've faced so far, like to drive the ball.
"The Australian players like to play it off the top, although they do drive as well. They want to get the ball into their play-makers' hands."
2013: Reds won 32-17, Brisbane
2012: Sharks won 30-17, Brisbane (preliminary play-off)
2012: Sharks 27-22, Durban
2010: Sharks won 30-28, Durban
2009: Reds won 25-13, Brisbane
2008: Sharks won 22-10, Durban
Prediction: A losing bonus point has been won in just two of their eight clashes between the sides. The Reds have a tackling success rate of 91 percent this season; a Super Rugby high. However, they have shipped an average of 27.3 points per game so far, only one side has averaged more points conceded per game (Blues - 30.3). No side concede fewer clean breaks (3) per game than the Sharks. Defence is likely to decide this game and the Sharks seem to have the edge there. We see the Sharks winning by 10 points or more.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Sibusiso Sithole, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (captain), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 TBC, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Heimar Williams, 23 Jaco van Tonder.
Reds: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Lachie Turner, 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 Ben Tapuai, 23 Dom Shipperley.
Referee: Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa), Stefan Breytenbach (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)