S15 Preview: Round Eight, Part One
Super Rugby's regular season is nearing the halfway stage, with Round Eight next, and for some teams the level of desperation is becoming alarming.
Super Rugby's regular season is nearing the halfway stage, Round Eight, and for some teams the level of desperation is becoming alarming.
The 11th-placed Highlanders, who open the weekend's fixtures when they host the rebels in Dunedin, certainly counts among those in dire need of a win - as do the visitors, who sit one position and one below their hosts on the tournament table..
Our second game on Friday, when the Australian conference leaders, the Brumbies, host the Blues, is on the other end of the scale.
Both are currently in the play-off positions - the Brumbies third overall and the Blues sixth, making this one of the games of the weekend.
Jan de Koning looks at Friday's matches!
Friday, April 4
Highlanders v Rebels
(Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin - Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT; 17.35 AEST)
The Rebels may have pulled off a big victory over the Brumbies in Melbourne last week, but they are still chasing their first win on foreign soil.
In fact, their only wins away from home remains the three victories over the Western Force in Perth.
Having dispatched the Aussie conference leaders, the boys in blue now head to New Zealand looking to prove that they can do it away from Melbourne as well.
While the Rebels acclaimed last Friday's win over the Brumbies as significant, their doubters keep pointing to their inability to win regularly and on foreign soil - a 12-match losing streak stretching back to their formation in 2011.
The victory over the Brumbies will be meaningless if the Rebels are unable to back it up against the Highlanders this week.
The two teams have a near identical record - their two wins and three losses separated only by an extra bonus point for the Highlanders - and sit next to each other towards the foot of the table, a situation both will be looking to remedy with immediate effect.
A win would certainly do that but, like the Rebels before Friday, the Highlanders have found such results hard to come by.
The Highlanders are probably more erratic than the Rebels and also a 'home ground team' - given that their impressive 29-21 win in Dunedin in Round One became an embarrassing 12-30 loss to the same Blues team in the return match last week.
They will be rather more keen to produce a repeat of their Week Six performance - when they weathered a major second-half comeback from the Hurricanes to win a thrilling encounter 35-31.
Highlanders lock Joe Wheeler admitted the team has not been as consistent as he should be.
"We faced a Blues outfit that was fired up," Wheeler told the Otago Daily Times when asked about last week's loss.
"We're not making excuses," the second row forward told the newspaper, adding: "We played a lot of rugby, but couldn't get over the line."
He admitted being back in Dunedin will benefit the team.
"We're now at home, at the Lunchbox [Forsyth Bar Stadium] and we are fired up to get another W [win]."
He admitted the Rebels will be on "a bit of a high" after beating the Brumbies.
"The game [this coming Friday] will be decided up front.
"The set pieces need to be solid, both scrums and line-outs.
"If our forward can get parity and give good ball to the back I reckon we should do it."
2013: Rebels won 38-37, Melbourne
2012: Highlanders won 43-12, Dunedin
2011: Highlanders won 40-18, Melbourne
Prediction: Plenty of 'ifs' in this game. The Rebels' fortunes may hinge on how they handle the Highlanders' diminutive scrumhalf Aaron Smith. However, the Rebels have some quality of their own in the No.9 jersey and 'if' Luke Burgess is on song he could cause some serious damage of his own. However, we feel home ground advantage will be more decisive - the Highlanders to win a nail biter - by five to 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 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Chris King.
Reserves: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Matias Diaz, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata 23 TJ Ioane.
Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Male Sau, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nic Stirzaker, 8 Scott Higginbotham (captain), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Paul Alo-Emilie, 18 Cruze Ah-Nau, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Jordy Reid, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 Angus Roberts, 23 Alex Rokobaro.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Blues
(Canberra Stadium, Canberra - Kick-Off: 19.40; 09.40 GMT)
Just eight away wins in 42 matches this season - that's a home record of just over 80 percent.
Two of those eight away wins belong to the Brumbies, who are fresh from an away loss to the Rebels last week.
Even though the Brumbies' home record this season is not flawless - there is that Round Two loss to the Reds - Blues coach still felt that the Brumbies posed a huge challenge on Friday.
"They're top of the Aussie conference, they beat the Waratahs a couple of weeks ago so they're going to be a very hard team to beat," Kirwan said.
"They're very organised, very structured, very physical and finalists last year so we'll have to be right on our game to beat them."
He also said it was time to start winning away from home if the Blues were to be considered serious title contenders.
The Blues' last away win was in February last year, although they did beat the Brumbies in Canberra in July 2012.
"This year all the teams seem to be losing away from home, but I think if you want to be around at the end of the season then you need to start winning away," the Blues mentor said.
"There's no harder place to go and win [than Canberra] but I think that's quite exciting. We're 0-3 away from home [in 2014] and we need to get that straight."
The Brumbies till remember the Blues' last trip to Canberra, but for all the wrong reasons.
It is almost two years since the Blues torpedoed the Brumbies' play-off hopes with a last-round upset at Canberra Stadium.
And they fear another ambush could be on the cards.
"They touched us up two years ago and knocked us out of the finals," Brumbies prop Ben Alexander told the Canberra Times.
"They've got some of the same big blokes that touched us up that day. It's going to be incredibly, incredibly tough against them again, but it should be an entertaining game.
"Any side can beat anyone in this comp and if you're not on your game you'll get beaten every time.
"The Blues have unbelievable attacking players. I think they have one of the highest points scored in the comp; they've got [former All Blacks coach] Sir Graham Henry and [coach] John Kirwan; they're dangerous."
Brumbies Director of Rugby Laurie Fisher echoed smiliar sentiments and said the Blues presented a significant challenge to the Brumbies.
"Like all New Zealand teams the Blues like to play, they've got tremendous attacking potential. They like to throw it around a bit and they can certainly score points," Fisher said.
"But you look at their side this year they've introduced a bit more structure there too which is a point of difference for them.
"They've got some tidy pick and drive, a little bit of mauling so they're a different team to what they've been in the past."
2013: Brumbies won 20-13, Auckland
2012: Blues won 30-16, Canberra
2010: Blues won 39-34, Auckland
2009: Brumbies won 37-15, Canberra
2008: Brumbies won 16-11, Auckland
2007: Blues won 17-15, Canberra
Prediction: There is star quality in both teams, with enough unpredictability to make this a thriller. It is tough to find definitive difference that doesn't have ifs and buts attached to it. It is only in the home ground advantage that you could find some reasoning to bet on. You will get some decent odds on a Blues win, but we feel the smart money is on the Brumbies to edge a thriller by five points.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Joe Tomane, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 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 Siliva Siliva, 1 JP Smith.
Replacements: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Ruaidhri Murphy, 19 Jack Whetton, 20 Lachlan McCaffrey, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 Andrew Smith, 23 Christian Lealiifano.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 George Moala, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Jerome Kaino (captain), 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Jordan Manihera, 20 Luke Braid, 21 Sonatane Takulua, 22 Francis Saili, 23 Benji Marshall.
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
Assistant referee: Angus Gardner (Australia), Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)