S15 Preview: Round Six, Part Two
Saturday's Super Rugby action can be split into two categories - the basement battle and the table toppers.
Saturday's Super Rugby action can be split into two categories - the basement battle and the table toppers.
The day starts with three of the teams outside the top 10 in action in the first two matches.
The Blues, in 11th place, host the Cheetahs (15th on the table) in Auckland. The Brumbies, who is on top of the Australian conference and third overall, host South Africa's other big disappointment, the Stormers (14th).
After that it gets a lot more interesting - the six teams in the three remaining matches of the day are all in the top eight on the table.
The Western Force (seventh) host the Chiefs (second), the tournament's surprise package the Lions (fourth) is at home to the Reds (eighth) and the Bulls (sixth) will welcome the table-topping and unbeaten Sharks in Pretoria.
The Sharks, who dismantled the Reds (35-20) in Durban last week, and the defending champion Chiefs (fresh from a 36-20 demolition of the Stormers) are not just the pace setters, but also give the appearance of being championship material in the opening weeks.
Jan de Koning looks at all Saturday's games!
Saturday, March 22
Blues v Cheetahs
(Eden Park, Auckland - Kick-off: 19.35; 06.35 GMT; 08.35 SA time)
The Super Rugby season may be just over a month old, but already the Blues and Cheetahs are entering must-win territory when they go head-to-head at Eden.
The Blues have been all about big-name recruitments in the off-season, none of whom has repaid their hefty sales tags.
Benji Marshall, after one start at fullback, is back on the bench - again producing a mixed bag in the loss to the Lions last week which suggested he is still struggling to inject his considerable skills into a game unfamiliar to him.
All Blacks stars Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino have both been named among the replacements as well - Nonu finally returning from injury after his high-profile move from the Highlanders (his fourth franchise in as many seasons), while loose forward Kaino returns to Super Rugby after two years in Japan.
Then there is the fact that the Blues, after two bruising encounter, with the Bulls and Lions, had to endure a 20-hour flight from South African and reduced training this week.
Cheetahs assistant coach Hawies Fourie admitted the extended travel and accompanying jet lag will play a role.
However, the Blues will be determined to make amends for their a disappointing tour of South Africa, where they collected just two bonus points.
"We are certainly not expecting any favours or an easy game," Fourie told this website from the Cheetahs' training base in Auckland.
"It is going to be very tough, given they are getting a few of their All Blacks back from injury - guys like Jerome Kaino and Ma'a Nonu, so that won't make the job any easier.
"However, I feel we play so far below the potential we have, that our main goal should be to perform to our true potential."
The Cheetahs, despite being on a three-match losing streak with just one win from five starts this season, believe they can win against any team on any given day.
The Blues are pretty much in the same boat.
The thrill and excitement of their last victory against the Crusaders last month has all but evaporated, following disappointing losses to both the Bulls and the Lions.
Currently sitting in 11th position on the Super Rugby ladder, a third consecutive loss, and one at home no less, would be a significant blow to the Blues' play-off chances even this early in the competition.
After conceding almost unassailable leads in all four of their matches before charging back into contention late in the game, Blues coach John Kirwan said he was looking for much more hunger, energy and work-rate from his side.
"We just need to play for each other this week," Kirwan said in an interview on the Blues' website.
"We need to make sure that we are excited off the football and running.
"I think if we are missing one thing it's a little effort so we're looking for more effort this week and making sure we're playing for each other.''
2013: Cheetahs won 34-13, Bloemfontein
2011: Blues won 29-22, Auckland
2010: Cheetahs won 36-32, Bloemfontein
2009: Blues won 46-12, North Harbour
2008: Blues won 50-26, Bloemfontein
2007: Blues won 26-8, Auckland
Prediction: The Blues, despite three defeats, have shown an ability to come back when behind. The Cheetahs have looked less interested in scrapping their way out of trouble. The Cheetahs have spent less time in possession (less than 14 minutes) per game than any other side this season. Subsequently they have attempted the most tackles per game, sitting top of the attempts and misses charts. The visitors may again keep it tight in the first half, but their defence continue to leak tries like a sieve and against the hard-running Blues that will result in more heartache. The Blues by at least 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, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Angus Ta'avao, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Jerome Kaino, 20 Hayden Triggs, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Ma'a Nonu, 23 Benji Marshall.
Cheetahs: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Ryno Benjamin, 11 Hennie Daniller, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean Cook, 6 Johannes Prinsloo, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lodewyk de Jager, 3 Nicolaas van Dyk, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Caylib Oosthuizen.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Rossouw de Klerk, 19 Andries Ferreira, 20 Pieter Labuschagne, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Elgar Watts, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Referee: Francisco Pastrana (Argentina)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Stormers
(Canberra Stadium, Canberra - Kick-off: 19.40; 08.40 GMT; 10.40 SA time)
The Brumbies, after a slowish start to the season, are beginning to find their true form.
A bruising win over the Waratahs last weekend has set the tone for the rest of the season, but it has come at a cost for the Brumbies.
Three key players - led by wing Henry Speight – picked up injuries in the match and won't take the field on Saturday against the Stormers.
In addition to Speight, prop Scott Sio and lock Leon Power, Wallaby centre Tevita Kuridrani is also unavailable after flying home to Fiji for a funeral.
Wallaby flyer Joe Tomane and centre Andrew Smith are handy replacements in the backs, while Cape Town-raised prop Jean-Pierre Smith and flank Jordan Smiler come into the pack, with Scott Fardy shifting from the side of the scrum to lock.
Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham admitted his team is in for another tough test, especially they have not defeated the Stormers since 2010 in Cape Town - with losses in Canberra (2011) and Newlands (2013).
"Traditionally we find them very difficult to beat," Larkham said.
"They've had a tough start to the season and will be desperate for a win in Canberra to get some pay from this tour."
The Stormers are on the back-end of a tough Australasian tour, falling to the Crusaders and Chiefs before facing the Brumbies and Reds on their way back to the Republic.
Stormers forwards coach Matt Proudfoot believes the hard work the players put in at training this week will put the team in good stead.
"We've been really critical of ourselves, isolating where we need to perform to get the result we want," Proudfoot said in an interview on the Stormers website.
"On that note, the players have responded well at training [this week].
"You know, there's not a lot of time to train when you're on tour. You need to be accurate when you do and the players have responded well on that level."
The Stormers have won just once in seven games in Canberra.
However, that win came in their previous encounter in Canberra (in 2011) and nine players - including captain Jean de Villiers and vice-captain Schalk Burger - are back for this fixture some three years later.
Proudfoot added: "We do take a good feeling out there [from last time out], but we know that this is probably Australia's best side and they are playing well at the moment. We know it will be a very tough game.
"We watched their game against the Waratahs, who they dominated, so it was a sobering experience to see that [having watched it together as a team]. We know what we have to do, the detail has been good this week and we hope to take our energy with us to Canberra."
2013: Stormers won 35-22, Cape Town
2011: Stormers won 16-3, Canberra
2010: Brumbies won 19-17, Cape Town
2009: Brumbies won 17-10, Canberra
2008: Stormers won 20-10, Cape Town
2007: Brumbies won 26-13, Canberra
Prediction: The Stormers have averaged just 15.5 points and 1.3 tries per game so far, the worst attacking output in the competition. The Brumbies boast the best line-out success rate (95 percent), but worst tackling success rate (82 percent) in Super Rugby so far. They have also conceded more turnovers (17.8) per game than any other side so far. The Stormers just haven't looked clinical enough to really threaten the Brumbies, although they have every chance of getting it right this week. However, the smart money is on the Brumbies to take it in an arm-wrestle - by less than 10 points.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Joe Tomane, 13 Andrew Smith, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (captain), 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Jordan Smiler, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 JP Smith.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Ruaidhri Murphy, 19 Jack Whetton, 20 Lachlan McCaffrey, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 Stephan van der Walt, 23 Lionel Cronje.
Stormers: 15 Gio Aplon, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Jean de Villiers (captain), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Deon Fourie, 5 Michael Rhodes, 4 Ruan Botha, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Stephan Coetzee, 17 Oliver Kebble, 18 Brok Harris, 19 Siya Kolisi, 20 Nizaam Carr, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Demetri Catrakilis, 23 Juan de Jongh.'
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: James Leckie (Australia), Andrew Lees (Australia)
TMO: Peter Marshall (Australia)
Western Force v Chiefs
(nib Stadium, Perth - Kick-off: 19.00; 11.00 GMT, 00:00 Sunday, March 23, NZ time)
The Western Force return home to take on the two-time defending champions, the Chiefs.
A big crowd is already building for Saturday's clash, following the Western Australians' consecutive bonus-point wins in their last two outings and the side is looking to continue that momentum against the unbeaten Chiefs.
What has emerged from the past fortnight is that the Force can actually play a bit - producing outstanding efforts for a team that has barely secured two four-try bonus points in the last three years.
The opposition is obviously a step up on last week and they'll suffer greatly with the loss of the competition's form No.8, Ben McCalman.
Just a solitary point separated them the last time the two sides met, with the Chiefs prevailing 22-21 in Pukekohe in Round 13 last year.
This week the Force welcomes Wallaby forward Hugh McMeniman back from injury, as he returns at blindside flank. Angus Cottrell shifts to the back of the scrum in place of Wallaby No.8 Ben McCalman, who will miss the match after being suspended for a dangerous tackle against the Highlanders.
The Chiefs have made a number of changes to the side that defeated the Stormers last weekend, with lock Mike Fitzgerald and flank Sam Cane named in the forward pack, while wing Asaeli Tikoirotuma, utility Tim Nanai-Williams and club legend Mils Muliaina helping to form a new-look backline.
Cane the sideline was the best place to assess progress. With his leg up, Cane was buoyed by his side's performance against the Stormers last week.
The Chiefs enjoyed a decent share of possession and, thus, displayed their lethal attacking abilities.
"We had two gutsy wins and, maybe, in other years we would have lost those," Cane told the Waikato Times.
"It's pleasing to get those type of wins,'' he said, adding: "We definitely enjoy scoring more tries, like we did against the Stormers."
Despite being unbeaten, assistant coach Wayne Smith made it clear the defending champions would not become complacent.
"This competition is all about keeping your feet on the ground. Past success doesn't guarantee anything," he said.
"You've got to keep working on the character, attitude and spirit and keep improving your skill and decision-making execution. There's a few more months of that yet."
2013: Chiefs won 22-21, Pukekohe
2012: Chiefs won 20-12, Perth
2010: Chiefs won 37-19, Perth
2009: Chiefs won 31-13, Hamilton
2008: Force won 22-21, Perth
2007: Chiefs won 64-36, Hamilton
Prediction: The Force have averaged 24.5 points per game so far, while the Chiefs have averaged 25. The Chiefs have the worst line-out success rate (70 percent) in the competition, but they have won 96 percent of their scrums so far; more than any other side. The Chiefs have made more metres (556), breaks (10.3) and offloads (14) than any other side this season. The Force may be on the rise, but the Chiefs still have too much class. The Chiefs to burst the Force's bubble and win by about 15.
Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Junior Rasolea, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Angus Cottrell, 7 Matt Hodgson (captain), 6 Hugh McMeniman, 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.
Chiefs: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Mils Muliaina, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Tom Marshall, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden (captain), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Michael Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Kane Thompson, 20 Tanerau Latimer, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.
Referee: Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Will Houston (Australia)
TMO: Steve Leszczynski (Australia)
Lions v Reds
(Ellis Park, Johannesburg - Kick-off: 17.05; 15.05 GMT, 01.05, Sunday, March 23, AEST)
The Reds are determined to bounce back from last week's disappointment, when they felt hard done by a few decision from the match officials.
They will encounter another South African referee, Stuart Berry, who has come under fire from SANZAR Game Manager Lyndon Bray for his handling of the Blues game against the Lions last week.
However, the Reds can't blame all their problems on the referee. There were three blown tries – and some ill-discipline – that robbed Richard Graham's men of a chance at upsetting the unbeaten Sharks.
They now have to turn their attention to another South African side on a roll.
The Lions have racked up three wins already in 2014 to be the surprise packets of the competition and will take some beating at Ellis Park.
As well as being on their game the Reds will want to be on their best behaviour, with Lions superboot Marnitz Boshoff - who has already booted 20 penalties among his 96 points so far in 2014 - sure to make them pay for any indiscretions.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann has repeatedly warned that his team, despite their impressive form, can't take anything for granted.
"They certainly bring a new challenge," he said of the Reds.
"We can't just look at their game against the Sharks this past Saturday," Ackermann said, adding: "We have to accept that they may have been a bit below par [in a 20-35 loss in Durban].
It was their first game on the road and we have to realise they will be a much bigger threat.
"We know how dangerous their backline can be and we will certainly have to improve our defence."
Graham said the team had prepared well despite a few injury setbacks and was looking forward to the contest.
"The Lions have been one of the form teams in the early rounds of Super Rugby. They are a young, energetic team who fight and scrap for everything," Graham said.
"We have spent a large part of the week focusing on our own game and wanting to improve certain aspects around the contact areas."
The Reds and Lions have met 17 times in Super Rugby, with Queensland winning 13 of the encounters and drawing one. The Reds' record in Johannesburg against the Lions is seven wins, one loss and one draw.
2012: Reds won 34-20, Brisbane
2011: Reds won 30-25, Johannesburg
2010: Reds won 41-26, Johannesburg
2009: Lions won 31-20, Brisbane
2008: Lions and Reds drew 24-24, Johannesburg
2007: Lions won 26-20, Brisbane
Prediction: The Lions have the best goal-kicking success rate (93 percent) so far this season and they have also popped over the most drop-goals (six). So far, the South African outfit have made fewer breaks (2.4) and carries (75.4) than any other side, whilst also beating the fewest defenders (10.2). The Reds have the best tackling success rate in the competition (90 percent), but have conceded the most penalties/free-kicks per match (14.5). If the Lions can put together 80 minutes of what they produced in the first half against the Blues last week, the Reds will go home with no points. We feel it will be close, but the Lions should edge it - 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 Willie Wepener, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Mark Pretorius, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Luvuyiso Lusaseni, 20 Stephan de Wit, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Lionel Mapoe, 23 Ruan Combrinck.
Reds: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Ben Tapuai, 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 Albert Anae, 18 Jono Owen, 19 Ed O'Donoghue, 20 Beau Robinson, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Anthony Fainga'a/Ben Lucas, 23 Dom Shipperley.
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Francois de Bruin (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
Bulls v Sharks
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria - Kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
The big questions is: Can anyone beat the Sharks?
The Bulls believe they can, if they play to their true potential - more like their performance against the Blues a fortnight ago.
However, they are up against a team blessed with having two genuine playmakers in their backline in Pat Lambie and Francois Steyn.
The Sharks have shown they can play both an expansive game and handle a gruelling forward battle up front.
A trip up to Pretoria looks to be their toughest test to date, although they did record a comprehensive 15-point victory over the three-time champions in Round One this year.
Back on track after two straight victories in the opening weeks, the Bulls have shown they might not be a spent force in Super Rugby after all.
Sharks Director of Rugby Jake White admitted they are looking forward to finally playing on a dry field on the Highveld - after some testing and humid conditions in all four their home games.
"I don't think anybody can say we are conservative, given that we have scored the second most tries in the competition," White told this website in an interview.
The Sharks have scored 12 tries in their four games, and conceded five - with only the Blues, in 11th place and Hurricanes in 12th place who have more, both scored 13 in the same number of games.
"Our outside backs have scored 80 percent of our tries," the Sharks boss said.
"To get up there on the Highveld, with a nice hard field, and be able to move the ball around is something we are looking forward to."
The Bulls are determined to kick on from their two recent wins.
"For us every game is important," coach Frans Ludeke told this website.
"We are up against a team in good form, playing good rugby and unbeaten," he said, adding: "That makes the challenge so much more interesting.
"However, we have to put the past [last four games] behind us and come up with an 80-minute effort.
"We are at home and must win if we want to have a say in the competition."
While a lot has happened since the Sharks beat the Bulls in Durban in Week One, Ludeke admitted some tough lessons were learnt from that outing.
"Our reaction at the breakdown was slow and our ball carriers turned over too much possession at the breakdown - that put us under pressure," he said.
"We created opportunities, but were disappointed that we didn't convert those into points.
"That [converting opportunities into points] will be critical this weekend.
"Discipline is another factor.
"We need to ensure we are on the right side of the calls in all aspects - set pieces, breakdown, etc."
Both teams have the ability to put the opposition under pressure on the scoreboard with penalties, which means dominating up front will be crucial.
Both teams have lost Springbok locks to injury - Pieter-Steph du Toit out for the rest of the year with a knee injury and Flip van der Merwe for a couple of weeks with a hamstring strain.
2014: Sharks won 31-16, Durban
2013: Bulls won 20-19, Pretoria
2013: Bulls won 18-16, Durban
2012: Sharks won 32-10, Durban
2012: Bulls won 18-13, Pretoria
2011: Sharks won 26-23, Pretoria
2011: Bulls won 32-23, Durban
Prediction: The Bulls average the fewest metres (302) gained per game this season. However, on average their opponents gain just 303 metres per game, no other side restrict their opponents to such a small gain. The Sharks have averaged 4.5 successful penalty goals per game this term, a Super Rugby high. The Sharks have conceded fewer breaks (3.3) and missed fewer tackles (12) per game than any other side. Four of the last six fixtures between these sides have been settled by a margin of seven points or fewer, with each side picking up three wins apiece in those six games. No doubt the Sharks are the form team, with Jake White having installed self belief to go with the enormous pool of talent. It will be much closer than in Durban earlier this season, but the Sharks will sneak the arm-wrestle - by five points or less.
Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Sampie Mastriet, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Dewald Potgieter, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (captain), 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Morné Mellett, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Jono Ross, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Ulrich Beyers.
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 Etienne Oosthuizen, 20 Lubabalo Mtembu, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Tim Swiel, 23 Andre Esterhuizen.
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Jaco van Heerden (South Africa)
TMO: Deon van Blommenstein (South Africa)