Jan de Koning brings you his predictions
It is fitting that the weekend's action concludes at Newlands, as the spotlight has been firmly on the Stormers this week.
Of course it is too early to expect new Director of Rugby Gert Smal to have any tangible influence on the Cape Town franchise, but his arrival has ensured the world will be watching a lot closer than when the Stormers stumbled their way through Australasia.
Another team hoping for some better fortune on home soil is the Cheetahs - who also plodded through Australia and New Zealand without getting a win.
Saturday's action, however, starts with a far more delectable encounter - when the high-flying Hurricanes host the Bulls in the small seaport town of Napier on the eastern coast of New Zealand's North Island.
Hurricanes coach Marl Hammett didn't exactly lay out the 'welcome' mat when he accused the Bulls of using illegal tactics at the maul. So it will be a spicy affair at McLean Park.
We then take a quick hop over the Tasman Sea for the only derby match of the day, the Reds hosting the Western Force in Brisbane. These games have their own brand of intrigue, even though they may not always have the same expansive flair of some other fixtures.
From Brisbane we take the long trek across the Indian Ocean for three back-to-back matches in South Africa.
The Cheetahs versus Chiefs are first up in Bloemfontein, with the local team desperate to turn around a four-match losing streak and hopefully move off the bottom of the table.
After that we head to Johannesburg where the resurgent Lions host the struggling Crusaders in the hope of a second win over the seven-time champions - their only previous triumph a 9-3 arm-wrestle in 2007.
The weekend's drama concludes at Newlands, where the Stormers will be without regular captain Jean de Villiers, but with the new Director of Rugby, Smal, looking on. The Waratahs have had their own troubles, with maverick coach Michael Cheika constantly in the spotlight as a result of his outlandish public statements.
Jan de Koning looks at all Saturday's matches!
Saturday, April 5
Hurricanes v Bulls
(McLean Park, Napier - Kick-off: 19.35; 06.35 GMT; 08.35 SA time)
Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett rolled the dice this week with his suggestion that the Bulls make use of illegal tactics at the maul - no doubt trying to get Australian-cum-New Zealand referee Steve Walsh distracted from whatever weakness might pop up.
It is an old ploy many coach before him used and no doubt many after him will attempt to use.
The Hurricanes, determined to keep the momentum going that they created in their bonus point 29-26 win over the Crusaders last week, were boosted by the return of star loose forwards Victor Vito and Brad Shield (the latter sitting on the bench).
Now third in the New Zealand conference, and 10th overall, victory for the Hurricanes over the Bulls will propel them back into the top half of the draw ahead of their bye next week.
The Bulls, currently third in the South African standings, on 16 points, and seventh equal overall, will look to continue a recent trend against the Hurricane - four back-to-back wins, including their last visit to Napier in 2011.
The Bulls are still smarting from their draw last week - when the Chiefs came from 16 points down to deny the Bulls not only a win, but also two invaluable points on the standings.
This match against the Hurricanes is the first of four on the trot in New Zealand and Australia. After the Hurricanes, the Bulls meet the Highlanders, the Waratahs and the Western Force.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke pointed to last week's win over the Crusaders as the reason why his team will have to raise the bar considerably if they are to have any chance of a winning start on their month-long road trip.
"It was an impressive performance, beating them [the Crusaders] down there in Christchurch," the Bulls mentor said in a teleconference call from Napier.
"The way they went about it was from set pieces and very good defence," he said of the Hurricanes' successful tactics.
"They also created a lot of broken field play for themselves and scored some brilliant tries."
Ludeke admitted his team can't afford the same lapse in concentration that cost them so dearly in the last 10 minutes against the Chiefs last week - given that the Hurricanes is another team capable an 80-minute performance and never stop playing.
"We had a long, hard look at last week's game [against the Chiefs]," the Bulls mentor said, adding: "We never stopped playing, but we made mistakes that let them back into the game [after leading by more than two converted tries].
"There were areas, at the breakdown at times, where we needed to step up.
"We created a lot of opportunities in those last 10 minutes, but we were just not accurate enough.
"We took a lot from that game and we know we need to be accurate right to the end."
2013: Bulls won 48-14, Pretoria
2011: Bulls won 26-14, Napier
2010: Bulls won 19-18, Pretoria
2009: Bulls won 19-14, Wellington
2008: Hurricanes won 50-22, Pretoria
2007: Hurricanes won 17-9, Wellington
Prediction: The Hurricanes have averaged more defenders beaten (24.3) than any other side this term, while the Bulls have come up with fewer per game (11.3) than any of their peers. The Canes also make more passes than any other side. The Bulls top the line-out success rate chart (94 percent) whilst the Hurricanes have the best ball retention rate at the breakdown (96 percent). The Canes, the joint top try-scorers in Super Rugby with 20 touch downs, have scored more tries in the last quarter of matches than any other side (eight). The Bulls are renowned for their tough forward play and will bring strong set-pieces. It will be a game of two contrasting styles - the Hurricanes' all-out attack against the Bulls' structured game. However, with rain predicted it might play into the hands of the visitors and we feel the Bulls will sneak a win - by seven points or less.
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (captain), 12 Alapati Leiua, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen/John Schwalger, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Chris Eves, 18 John Schwalger/Reggie Goodes, 19 Blade Thomson, 20 Brad Shields, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Hadleigh Parkes, 23 Marty Banks.
Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Jacques Engelbrecht, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Flip van der Merwe (captain), 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Marcel van der Merwe, 18 Morné Mellett, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Jacques du Plessis, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Ulrich Beyers.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Reds v Western Force
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - Kick-off: 19.40; 08.40 GMT; 17.40 AWST)
The step-child of Australian rugby, the Western Force, will head to Brisbane coming of a bye and determined to record an unprecedented fourth consecutive victory.
And then there is the return of in-form No.8 Ben McCalman to boost a team high in confidence after knocking over the defending champion Chiefs last time out.
The Reds returned from their two-match tour of South Africa last week to account for the Stormers, 22-17, and showed they are a major threat in Brisbane.
The Western Force recorded its first win in Brisbane (19-12) when they last met the Reds at Suncorp Stadium last year, while nothing could separate them in Perth in 2013, with the two sides playing out an 11-all draw.
Western Force coach Michael Foley said his side is "rested and refocused" after the bye.
"On the back of a lot of hard work by the boys, there's a growing belief in each other and how we're playing," Foley said.
"Importantly, we're demonstrating greater composure and resilience when things aren't going to plan, which is a key characteristic of successful teams."
The Reds are banking on one of their star playmakers, scrumhalf Will Genia to continue the upwards curve his form has showed in recent weeks -e especially since he will be up against the Force's equally impressive No.9 Alby Mathewson.
Genia and Mathewson hold the key to the attack with their fringe runs and ability to find wide-running forwards that punch over the advantage line.
Reds coach Richard Graham warned that Mathewson could again be a major threat, as he was when the Force knocked the Reds over in 2013.
"Mathewson is a key to everything the Force do, because he cleverly manages the speed of the game and knows when to bring his backs and forwards into play," Graham said.
Genia had one of his best games of the 2014 season last Saturday against the Stormers and will be looking to build on a performance that helped drag his team over the line and secure four points.
2013: Reds and Force drew 11-all, Perth
2013: Force won 19-12, Brisbane
2012: Force won 45-19, Perth
2012: Reds won 35-20, Brisbane
2011: Reds won 24-21, Perth
2011: Reds won 21-20, Brisbane
Prediction: The Force have averaged 23.2 points per game this season, slightly more than the Reds (22.8). Matt Hodgson (12) has won the most turnovers in the competition so far. The Force have scored half of their tries from possessions that originated from a line-out. The bookmakers suggest the Reds could be seven points better than the Force, although that could be based on home ground advantage. We feel the Reds may still win, but by a smaller margin - probably less than five points, perhaps even a last-minute sneaker.
Reds: 15 Ben Lucas, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Eddie Quirk, 5 James Horwill (captain), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 James Hanson, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 Albert Anae , 17 Pettowa Paraka, 18 Jono Owen, 19 Ed O'Donoghue, 20 Curtis Browning, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Anthony Fainga'a, 23 Jonah Placid.
Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Solomoni 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: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: James Leckie (Australia), Ian Smith (Australia)
TMO: Steve Leszczynski (Australia)
Cheetahs v Chiefs
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein - Kick-off: 15.00; 13.00 GMT; 02.00 AM Sunday NZ time)
The Cheetahs are desperately trying to find the mojo that got them to the play-offs last year.
Gone are the rock-solid defence. Gone are the cohesive forward rushes. Gone are a smooth backline moves.
Pundits have speculated wildly, while the coaching staff have offered an array of explanations why things are not going according to plan.
What is for certain is that if the Cheetahs don't present a united and committed force on Saturday, they are going to be on the wrong end of a brutal hiding.
The Chiefs showed, in a 10-minute blitz that produced 19 points, just how severe they can be when teams are just slightly off their game.
The Bulls will tell you it was errors that saw the Chiefs produce the comeback of the season and the Cheetahs are already sitting at the bottom of the standings because they have not nearly been clinical enough.
Coming off a four-match losing streak, they are desperate to put the disastrous Australasian tour behind them.
"The Chiefs are a strong attacking team, so we have to ensure that we do not concede turnovers and that we play a constructive brand of rugby against them," Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss said.
The Chiefs have not been flawless. In fact forwards coach Tom Coventry admitted set pieces - especially the line-outs - remain a major headache.
Last year the Chiefs were able to win the competition with the worst line-out success rate in the competition, and this season they sit atop the New Zealand conference despite their continuing struggles.
"If I was coaching a team to play the Chiefs I'd certainly be having a crack at that area of the game," Coventry told the Waikato Times when asked about his team's malfunctioning set pieces.
The Cheetahs can learn a lot from what the Bulls did last week, when they scored two tries from rolling mauls.
The Cheetahs have a powerful maul of their own.
"It's a big part of their game," Coventry said.
"They grow up with it [in South Africa]. We were lucky enough to have a university team train against us leading up to the Bulls match and even a university team showed their prowess at mauling against us.
"There are technical issues that we need to look at that are going to make us better at stopping it. A lot of it's attitude but it's a difficult thing to stop once it gets going."
2013: Chiefs won 45-3, Hamilton
2012: Chiefs won 39-33, Bloemfontein
2010: Cheetahs and Chiefs drew 25-all, Hamilton
2009: Chiefs won 28-10, Kimberley
2008: Chiefs won 22-20, Hamilton
2007: Cheetahs and Chiefs drew 22-all, Bloemfontein
Prediction: Willie Le Roux is the first player to gain more than 500 (507) metres in the competition. He also tops the carry charts (73) after seven rounds. However, the Cheetahs have shipped the most points this season, on average they have conceded 34.7 per game as well as 3.8 tries. The Cheetahs have lost more rucks per game (5.7) than any other side. The Chiefs' line-out success rate (70 percent) is the worst amongst all 15 teams. The Cheetahs have averaged 10 turnovers won per game this season, more than any other team. The statistics tell us the Cheetahs are neglecting the fundamentals of the game and against the competition's most brutal counter-attacking team, the Chiefs, that could be costly - we feel the visitors will win by 15 points or more.
Cheetahs: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Ryno Benjamin, 11 Hennie Daniller, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Jean Cook, 7 Pieter Labuschagné, 6 Johannes Prinsloo, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lodewyk de Jager, 3 Nicolaas van Dyk, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Caylib Oosthuizen, 18 Rossouw de Klerk, 19 Andries Ferreira, 20 Teboho Mohoje, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Elgar Watts, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Chiefs: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Andrew Horrell, 12 Tom Marshall, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden (captain), 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Michael Fitzgerald, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Jamie Mackintosh, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Liam Squire, 20 Tanerau Latimer, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 Mils Muliaina.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Stuart Berry, Francois de Bruin (South Africa)
TMO: Deon van Blommenstein (South Africa)
Lions v Crusaders
(Ellis Park, Johannesburg - Kick-off: 17.05; 15.05 GMT; 03.05, Sunday April 6 NZ time)
The doomsday prophets could not have been more wrong about the Lions if they tried.
If the Johannesburg team succeeds in toppling the Crusaders they will secure their third successive win against Australasian opposition this season.
In fact it will be their fifth win - the first time since 2007 and only the second time since their entered Super Rugby in 2006 (after the ugly divorce with the Cheetahs from the Cats mishap) that they would have won five matches in a season.
There is a long way to go yet, but sitting in fourth place with the season approaching the halfway mark is significantly better than the winless season the naysayers predicted.
Despite their a superior position on the Super Rugby table, coach Johan Ackermann has persistently called on his team to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground.
In fact Ackermann believes the Lions must be considered underdogs in their match against the Crusaders.
The seven-time champion Crusaders have just two wins from five starts and in 13th place on the standings.
However, the ever-cautious Ackermann feels they remain a major threat.
"A few things haven't gone their way and perhaps they are going through a process where they have young players in key positions," Ackermann told a media briefing in Johannesburg.
"There is too much talent to write them off and you can't always put your finger on it... why they aren't winning those matches."
The Lions are the only team in the top half of the table that have not scored a four-try bonus point. In fact they don't have a bonus point of any description.
However, Ackermann is happy to collect four-point wins and stay in the play-off race.
"If you give me a 23-20 win, I will take it, it doesn't matter how it comes, a win is a win, it keeps the momentum going forward," he said.
"The Crusaders are a great attacking side and we like to attack, although things haven't gone our way with the tries this season.
"We missed a lot of opportunities but we are still a team that want to play exciting rugby and if the weather plays along, we might see a good game on the weekend."
The visitors have headaches of their own.
Since arriving in South Africa the Crusaders have analysed the defensive lapses that proved so costly in their loss against the Hurricanes last week.
"The defensive effort let us down in the end - a couple of one-on-ones which pretty much decided the game," assistant coach Aaron Mauger told Fairfax NZ News.
"So that part was a little bit concerning.
"It was a system thing, really, and a couple of poor reads on either side. They have both come in when there is no need to and let their man get on the outside of him."
2012: Crusaders won 23-13, Johannesburg
2010: Crusaders won 46-19, Christchurch
2009: Crusaders won 32-20, Johannesburg
2008: Crusaders won 31-6, Christchurch
2007: Lions won 9-3, Johannesburg
2006: Crusaders won 43-15, Christchurch
Prediction: The Lions’ goal-kicking success rate (94 percent) is the best in Super Rugby, while the Crusaders (61 percent) have the worst. Marnitz Boshoff has kicked 33/35 goals this season, while Tom Taylor has landed 20/28 and Tyler Bleyendaal 0/5. The Crusaders (9) are one of just two sides, along with the Stormers, to score fewer tries than the Lions (10) so far this season. Despite what the statistics tell you, the Lions remain an exciting and entertaining team, who play with energy and always give the appearance they enjoy themselves. So while Boshoff keeps landing those kicks, you have to back the Lions to sneak another win - by less than 10 points.
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Deon van Rensburg, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Stefan Watermeyer, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Francois de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Willie Britz, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Martin Muller, 4 Franco Mostert, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Willie Wepener, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Luvuyiso Lusaseni, 20 Warwick Tecklenburg, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 JW Jonker.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Nemani Nadolo, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty (captain), 11 Johnny McNicholl, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tyler Bleyendaal, 23 Tom Taylor.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa), Jaco van Heerden (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
Stormers v Waratahs
(Newlands, Cape Town - Kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT; 03.10, Sunday, April 6 AEST)
The knifes are out, the critics want blood. But Stormers coach Allister Coetzee is far from ready to throw the towel in.
Even with the additional spotlight of the appointment of Gert Smal as Director of Rugby and motormouth Waratahs coach Michael Cheika in the other corner, Coetzee has stood his ground.
"One has got to be realistic and if you look at the number of games left there are still 10 games for us to play," Coetzee told a media briefing this week.
"We have lost all of our away games, but a lot of teams must still tour and we are still positive about the season.
"We are going almost into a full Currie Cup now, we are playing seven of our local derbies and the Waratahs, Highlanders and the Western Force back home - so there is still a lot to play for.
"I think what matters is winning your conference, irrespective of where you are now there are still seven games to play so the season is far from over."
Coetzee pointed to his team's proud record at home - they have lost just twice at Newlands in the last two years - as a reason to be optimistic about the remainder of the season.
"The players are looking forward to it, they are back at home with their families so hopefully we can put a good performance together and get this all-important win under the belt," Coetzee said.
"The biggest challenge for us against this Waratahs side is their physicality, and that is a priority for us too.
"It is how you get dominance in this game of rugby, by imposing yourself physically.
"This is a Waratahs side that will be psyched up by their coach and like any team would like to come away with a win on tour.
"For us we have got a different motivation altogether, so yes we are expecting a hard, physical game."
While the new Stormers boss, Smal, has only hovered in the background this week, he has a few of his own ideas about what went wrong.
"There is a burning issue about the attack," Smal told a media briefing earlier this week - when asked about a Stormers team sitting bottom of the try-scoring stakes.
"That is a thing we have to address at some stage," he said, adding: "It is just important that you don't confuse players now.
"If you make a lot of changes now you will confuse the players completely and the competition will be a disaster.
"Anything you want to bring in must be done gradually.
"It is important that they re-energize themselves, prepare well and get the momentum that they need."
2013: Waratahs won 21-15, Sydney
2012: Stormers won 19-13, Cape Town
2010: Stormers won 25-6, Cape Town (semifinal)
2010: Stormers won 27-6, Cape Town
2009: Waratahs won 12-6, Sydney
2008: Stormers and Waratahs drew 13-all, Cape Town
Prediction: Whilst the Waratahs have averaged more tries (3.4) and clean breaks (8.8) than any other side this season, they also boast the best tackling success rate (89 percent). However their discipline is the worst in the competition, on average they have conceded 14.2 penalties and free-kicks per game; more than any other side. Not that the Stormers are much better. Deon Fourie, moved from flank to hooker, has conceded more penalties (11) than any other player in the competition. The Stormers have scored the same number of tries (nine) as the Waratahs have conceded so far. The temptation would be to say the Stormers will slump even further, but they are likely to be swept up by the emotion of the past week's events and knock over the Waratahs - Stormers to win by eight points.
Stormers: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Duane Vermeulen (captain), 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Michael Rhodes, 4 Ruan Botha, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Deon Fourie, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Stephan Coetzee, 17 Oliver Kebble, 18 Brok Harris, 19 Mthetheleli Fuzani, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Nic Groom, 22 Demetri Catrakilis, 23 Michael van der Spuy.
Waratahs: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Alofa Alofa, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Jono Lance, 11 Peter Betham, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Dave Dennis (captain), 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Jacques Potgieter, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Will Skelton, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: To be confirmed.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Quinton Immelman (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)