Alarm bells are ringing
The allure of two veterans and concern about dwindling crowds headline Friday's matches in Super Rugby's Round Nine.
While the spectators in Dunedin will be treated by two legends of the game in the weekend's opening match, across the Tasman Sea the Australians will have to rely on the quality of their performances to entertain the paying spectators.
Record-breaking internationals Brad Thorn, at 39 the oldest player in the competition, and Victor Matfield (36) will do more than just turn back the clock when the Highlanders host the Bulls.
These two giants of the game, both World Cup winners, will play important roles in their respective teams' desire to stay in the play-off hunt.
And just two points separate the Bulls in sixth place from the Highlanders in 10th - adding spice to an already mouthwatering encounter.
However, dwindling stadium crowds in Australia have cast the spotlight on Brisbane for a very different reason.
Brumbies Director of Rugby Laurie Fisher earlier this week expressed his concerns after his franchise produced its lowest attendance figures in 15 years - just over 7,000 fans paying to watch the encounter with the Blues.
The alarm bells were ringing since the early rounds - when derby games like the Waratahs versus Western Force (15,785), Brumbies versus Reds (13,670) and Force versus Brumbies (10,589) showed a dramatic decline in people walking through the turnstiles.
In fact one of the 'biggest' crowds was the 17,500 spectators that watched the Waratahs take on the Reds.
Maybe spectators have reached saturation levels, or the quality of the games are no longer value for money.
Either way, Round Nine will be important for reasons other than just the points on offer.
Jan de Koning looks at Friday's matches!
Friday, April 11
Highlanders v Bulls
(Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin - Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT; 09.35 SA time)
The Highlanders will be desperate to change their recent trend of lose-win-lose-win when the Bulls arrive in town.
Not that the visitors from Pretoria have been much better - with their two most recent matches producing a heart-breaking draw and a bitterly disappointing defeat.
Friday is also the last home game for the Highlanders before they head to South Africa - to play the Sharks and the Stormers.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said it being his team's second week on their Australasian tour they are a lot more settled and in a positive frame of mind.
However, he admitted his team will have to improve significantly on last week's performance as the Highlanders will not just match his charges in terms of physicality, like any New Zealand team they keep the ball in hand, string phases together and wear you down.
"We did well [against the Hurricanes] last week, with a massive defensive effort - which included almost 200 tackles - and kept them down to just one try," Ludeke said in a teleconference call from New Zealand.
"We need the same [defensive] effort, but hopefully balance the ball in hand [statistics] out a bit more.
"We do need to keep the ball a bit more and build pressure."
His Highlanders counterpart, Jamie Joseph, spoke of the need to match the Bulls physically if his team was to string back-to-back wins together for the first time this season.
"They haven't changed their game in years, so what we are going to get is a driving maul, we're going to get big men running at us hard and we're going to get a team that is very accurate and astute," Joseph told the Otago Daily Times.
Joseph was said he was "encouraged" the resolve and commitment his team showed in last week's win over the Rebels.
Both Ludeke and captain Flip van der Merwe spoke of the need to be accurate in the set pieces.
"They do apply a lot of pressure on the set pieces and make it a big contest," Ludeke said, adding: "They are also a very good mauling side."
However, there is a new trend among New Zealand teams, to make use of chip-kicks and grubbers to get in behind the opposition's defensive line, that is causing concern.
The Bulls, after leaking five tries against the Chiefs in Week Seven, certainly tightened up last week and will need to be even more accurate this week.
2013: Bulls won 35-18, Pretoria
2012: Highlanders won 16-11, Dunedin
2011: Highlanders won 35-28, Pretoria
2010: Bulls won 50-35, Pretoria
2009: Highlanders won 36-12, Palmerston North
2008: Bulls won 47-17, Pretoria
Prediction: The Highlanders and Bulls have both scored just 13 tries this season, well down the list, while the Bulls conceded 14 and the Highlanders 19. However, it is in the set pieces - where Victor Matfield's return will improve the Bulls' line-outs - that the visitors will look to get a clear edge. The Bulls have a 93 percent success rate in the line-outs, second best in the competition. The Highlanders sit at a lowly 84 percent. The trend is reversed in the scrums - the Highlanders second with 92 percent success rate and the Bulls at just 81 percent. It is going to be an intriguing arm-wrestle in which the flyhalves - Lima Sopoaga and Jacques-Louis Potgieter will play crucial roles. The Bulls will most likely sneak a win, by less than five points.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (captain), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Jarrad Hoeata, 20 John Hardie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Nasi Manu.
Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Bjorn Basson, 13 Johannes Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 9 Pieter van Zyl, 8 Grant Hattingh, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Phillip van der Merwe (captain), 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 17 Marcel van der Merwe, 18 Paul Willemse, 19 Morné Mellet, 20 Jacques Engelbrecht, 21 Handré Pollard, 22 William Small-Smith, 23 Ulrich Beyers.
Referee: Rohan Hoffman (Australia)
Assistant referees: Kane McBride (New Zealand),Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
Reds v Brumbies
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - Kick-off: 19.40; 09.40 GMT)
Poor crowd attendances aside, the Australian conference has been a lot more competitive this year.
Not always the most aesthetically pleasing games, but still good entertainment value.
The Reds and Brumbies will also contest the Macqueen Cup and with the Queensland franchise having won the first clash between the two earlier this season, a win on Friday would secure the trophy.
"This is an important match for the team," Reds coach Richard Graham said.
"The Brumbies are fierce rivals and we currently sit just two points outside the top six on the standings - going into a bye.
"A strong performance on Friday and a positive result will mean a lot to the squad."
However, his biggest concern is his team's inability to close out games when they were in strong positions.
"We have lost two of our last three matches by three points, so controlling the back end of the game will be important," Graham said.
The Brumbies have earmarked playmaker Quade Cooper as a potential weak spot on defence, with Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham admitting the team has kept a close eye on Cooper's defensive frailties.
Pat McCabe, who was outstanding against the Blues last week, has caused some concern among the Reds.
Cooper, who previously defended at fullback to take him out of the frontline, has stayed in the flyhalf channel on defence this season and the Brumbies mentor, Larkham, has made no secret of the fat that they are keen to have a go at the No.10 channel.
"Pat did a tremendous job in a small window last week," Larkham told the Canberra Times.
"Quade is not a renowned defender and it's a certain area we've looked at," he added.
"I think the year-end tour is where [his game] evolved and improved last year. He's had some pretty good games this year, but he is prone to still making a few mistakes but he's a very dangerous attacker."
Whether the Brumbies are deliberately advertising their tactics or playing a double bluff remains to be seen.
However, it is an interesting approach to tell the opposition you see one of their stars as a weak link.
2014: Reds won 27-17, Canberra
2013: Reds and Brumbies drew 19-all, Brisbane
2013: Brumbies won 24-6, Canberra
2012: Reds won 13-12, Canberra
2012: Reds won 20-13, Brisbane
2011: Brumbies 22-14, Brisbane
2011: Reds won 31-25, Canberra
Prediction: Despite the perception that Quade Cooper is a defensive liability, the Reds are still well up on the tackle stats - an 88 percent success rate. The Brumbies are the worst defenders in the competition, at 84 percent. The Brumbies are third in terms of their number of carries and clean breaks - while the Reds are sixth with carries, but third from bottom with clean breaks. It is a tough game to call, with not even home ground much of an advantage. The Brumbies may just have the edge in a game that could be a low-scoring affair. The Brumbies to sneak a win, by 10 points or less.
Reds: 15 Ben Lucas, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Anthony Fainga'a, 11 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 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 Saia Fainga'a, 17 Albert Anae, 18 Jono Owen, 19 Ed O'Donoghue, 20 Curtis Browning, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Mike Harris/Dave McDuling, 23 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi.
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 Tom Staniforth, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Silva, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 JP Smith, 19 Jack Whetton, 20 Lachlan McCaffrey, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 Andrew Smith, 23 Christian Lealiifano.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: James Leckie (Australia), Will Houston (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)