S15 Preview: Round 10, Part One
Will it be a good Friday for the Western Force's fairytale run? Jan de Koning looks at Friday's Super Rugby matches.
Will it be a good Friday for the Western Force's fairytale run?
Yes, as we head into this long weekend - a round packed with derbies - the questions is how long will the Force's winning streak continue?
They are on unprecedented five-match run, travelling to Melbourne to face a Rebels that has lost five of its last six matches.
But this intriguing encounter is not the opening match of the weekend.
Fior that privilege we head to New Zealand's North Island, where the Hurricanes host the Blues - both hovering well into the bottom half of the standings after having each lost four of their seven outings.
The two Kiwi outfits have, again, flattered only to deceive.
Jan de Koning looks at Friday's matches!
Friday, April 18
Hurricanes v Blues
(Westpac Stadium, Wellington - Kick-off: 19:35; 07:35 GMT)
Both the Hurricanes and the Blues are coming of much-needed byes, after their erratic form saw them drift further and further down the standings in the first half of the season.
No doubt this Good Friday match is a key encounter for both sides.
It may be Round 10, but for most teams it mark the halfway point and the New Zealand Conference is delicately poised - with all five teams in the hunt.
Victory will not only put the victors' campaign back on track, it could prove to be vital in a conference where just eight points separate first from fifth.
Blues coach John Kirwan said he was not understating the significance of Friday's match in Wellington.
"I don't think it gets bigger than this from a season point of view," Kirwan said.
"I think if you spoke to Mark Hammett he'd say exactly the same - this is a pivotal game in a pivotal season and I think there are a couple of games this weekend that are really exciting and ours is one of them," Kirwan added.
The Hurricanes and the Blues have near-identical records after the opening half of the season.
Both are on 16 points, having played seven, won three and lost four. Both have scored 193 points, the Hurricanes having scored 21 tries and the Blues 20. Defensively, the Hurricanes have conceded 183 points and the Blues 198.
Like the Hurricanes, the Blues have already made their trip to South Africa and play the majority of their remaining regular season matches in New Zealand.
With so little separating the two long-established rivals, this match is likely to come down to composure under pressure and moments of individual brilliance from key players.
The Hurricanes are out to reverse a two-match losing streak against the Blues, who won both matches last year.
In all fixtures, the Hurricanes have aggregated 485 points against the Blues made up of 51 tries, 37 conversions and 51 penalties.
2013: Blues won 28-6, Auckland
2013: Blues won 34-20, Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 35-19, Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 26-25, Auckland
2011: Blues won 17-11, Wellington
2011: Blues won 41-17, Auckland
Prediction: The Blues won the last two contests between the sides and the Hurricanes the previous two. This run was preceded by an identical run of two Blues wins after two Hurricanes wins. The smallest full-time points difference between these teams in their last three meetings was 14 points. Both these sides have averaged exactly 27.6 points per game this season. In defence the Hurricanes have averaged 26.1 leaked, while the Blues have conceded an average of 28.3. The Hurricanes have averaged more time in possession (17 minutes 20 seconds) per game than any other side heading into the weekend. They have also managed more clean breaks and defenders beaten than anyone else. With so little to separate the sides, home ground advantage could be a telling factor. We feel the Hurricanes will sneak a high-scoring game by about seven points.
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, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 John Schwalger, 19 Blade Thomson, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Tim Bateman, 23 Matt Proctor.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 George Moala, 13 Francis Saili, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Lolagi Visinia, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Luke Braid (captain), 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Liaki Moli, 20 Brendon O'Connor, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Benji Marshall, 23 Frank Halai.
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Watt (New Zealand)
Rebels v Western Force
(AAMI Park, Melbourne - Kick-off: 19.40; 09.40 GMT)
The key question remains: How long can the Force's winning streak continue?
The Force are in the form of their lives, careers and existence - a five-match run that started with a 32-7 triumph over the Rebels in Perth back in Match.
The Force are indeed in uncharted territory - sitting in fourth place and given that the Brumbies have a bye, the men from Perth could find themselves topping the Aussie conference at the halfway stage of their campaign.
It would be a remarkable feat, given that they finished bottom of the Aussie conference for the last two seasons.
Last Saturday in Perth they had cult hero Nick Cummins to thank for their great win, but he deflected attention to his teammates - who he said performed with passion, drive and a good dose of skill.
"It's not always about what the names are, but [rather] the feeling and the attitude the culture has brought on," Cummins said.
"Sometimes it's just the mind - if you get that right, everyone performs together.
"There's been some dark times, some medieval times early on [at the Force]. But we've come good now.
"The culture has changed a little bit here, which has brought on belief and a feeling of belonging.
"Everyone's buying into it. That's what's helping us."
Since that defeat of the Rebels in Perth, they've picked off the Highlanders, Chiefs, Reds and the 'Tahs.
There certainly won't be any seasonal pleasantries on show this Good Friday - a battle royale awaits.
Some pundits even suggest the performances of the Force and the Rebels makes a strong case for why the Australian conference is the most competitive this year.
There are also a few interesting head-to head battles - no bigger than Scott Higginbotham versus Ben McCalman.
This one is set to be epic though, and there's a tasty sub-plot too with a Wallaby No.8 jumper up for grabs.
These two have plenty in common - they are statuesque talismen, they are approaching their prime and they're close to being the perfect back row all-rounders.
McCalman has been in blistering form this season and is the embodiment of the Force's emergence as play-off contenders.
Higginbotham has also been in fine form of late as the battle for the Wallabies' most hotly contested spot heats up.
2014: Force won 32-7, Perth
2013: Rebels won 30-23, Perth
2013: Rebels won 30-23, Melbourne
2012: Rebels won 32-31, Perth
2012: Rebels won 30-29, Melbourne
2011: Force won 27-24, Melbourne
2011: Rebels won 26-25, Perth
Prediction: The Rebels may have won four of their last five against the Force, but were defeated 32-7 by the Perth outfit earlier this season. The first four meetings between these sides were settled by three or fewer points, then the next two finished 30-23 to the Rebels. The most recent game was the only time the difference between the sides has been greater than seven. The Force have conceded fewer turnovers per game than any other side so far (12.7). They have also benefited from more turnovers conceded by the opposition than any other team (17.3 per game on average). The number of one-pointers between the sides down the years is a good indication of just how tight this will be. We feel the Force will sneak he win - by less than five points.
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 Colby Fainga'a, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Cadeyrn Neville, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Paul Alo-Emilie, 19 Hugh Pyle, 20 Sean McMahon, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 Tom Kingston, 23 Angus Roberts.
Western Force: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Patrick Dellit, 13 Marcel Brache, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (captain), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 4 Adam Coleman, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Ollie Hoskins, 19 Phoenix Battye, 20 Brynard Stander, 21 Justin Turner, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Chris Tuatara-Morrison.
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Assistant referees: Steve Walsh (Australia), Angus Gardner (Australia)
TMO: Steve Leszczynski (Australia)