S15 Preview: Round 14, Part One
The race is heating up for places Super Rugby's play-offs and every week the situation is getting more desperate for some teams.
The race is heating up for places Super Rugby's play-offs and with every passing week the situation is getting more desperate for some teams.
Our Week 14 action starts when the Hurricanes host the Highlanders in Wellington on Friday, the first of five consecutive matches in New Zealand against local opposition.
Given the competitive nature of the New Zealand conference, this game is will go a long way towards determining the destiny of both franchises.
Heading into this weekend the Chiefs are the New Zealand conference leaders on 35 points, ahead of the Crusaders (31), Hurricanes and the Highlanders (both 30) and the Blues (25).
It gets even better with Saturday's opening encounter - when the Crusaders host the table-topping Sharks in Christchurch.
The Crusaders, five points behind the South African outfit, are on a hot streak of five consecutive wins. The Sharks have lost two of their last three matches.
We then head across the Tasman Sea and while it is a match that features teams in positions 12 (the Rebels) and 13 (Reds) on the standings, it could be equally as intriguing as the top of the table clashes.
Jan de Koning looks at the first half of the weekend's action!
Friday, May 16
Hurricanes v Highlanders
(Westpac Stadium, Wellington - Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT)
There is no doubt the only Friday match in Round 14 is going to be being a real ripper.
There is nothing that separates the two sides. They both have 30 points, both have just one defeat, four wins and a bye in the last six weeks.
The history books also show the two teams have met 22 times during Super Rugby, winning 11 games each.
If there is a difference it is that the Highlanders can boast a bonus-point win over the table-topping Sharks in Durban.
Both are also coming off fortunate wins.
While the Hurricanes can thank the boot of Beauden Barrett for their victory, the Highlanders can thank their lucky stars the referee lost the plot when he ignored (forgot if you wish) a basic law that should have seen him offer Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies a second shot at a match-winning conversion (after he missed his first attempt in the wake of an illegal charge by Highlanders players).
So, there will be no shortage of drama at the Cake Tin.
Throw in a host of players named in the All Black training squad this week and the stage is set for a thriller.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph had to scratch around this week, with nearly a dozen players unavailable - including three players suspended.
Joseph admitted the injuries were not welcome as the season starts to climax.
''This part of the season is where your team is measured by, and for us, we have not been helped by all of the injuries," Joseph told the Otago Daily Times.
There are other factors that could influence the outcome - such as the looming winter and the often unpredictable Wellington weather.
Even tough predictions are for a 'mostly clear' Friday, Joseph is hopeful of a dry day.
''We are a team that needs to play," the Highlanders coach told the ODT.
"The point of difference we have in our team is our attack and our backs. So a wet-weather game will not really help us. But if it is wet and comes down to an arm wrestle then it comes down to the forwards and the No.9 and No.10. If they can perform then we are in with a show.''
The Hurricanes have injury concerns of their own, most notably the loss of All Black hooker Dane Coles to a back injury.
2014: Highlanders won 35-31, Dunedin
2013: Highlanders won 49-44, Wellington
2013: Hurricanes won 23-19, Dunedin
2012: Hurricanes won 26-20, Dunedin
2012: Highlanders won 19-17, Wellington
2011: Highlanders won 13-6, Invercargill
2011: Highlanders won 14-9, Wellington
Prediction: The Hurricanes top the try-scoring stakes (35 in 11 matches), the Highlanders only slightly worse (27 in 10 outings). However, the Hurricanes' defence is one of the worst (85.7 percent success rate), while the Highlanders are near the top with a more acceptable 87.3 percent. Set pieces are not exactly either side's strong suite - both hovering near mid-table in the line-outs, but the Hurricanes at least fourth on the scrum stats. Hurricanes versus Highlanders rivalry is one of the closest derbies in Super Rugby. The Highlanders beat the Hurricanes 35-31 when they met in Dunedin earlier this season. Each of the past 11 Super Rugby encounters between the Hurricanes and the Highlanders have been decided by within seven points. Overall, the Hurricanes and the Highlanders have met 22 times in Super Rugby. Their head-to-head record stands at 11 wins to the Hurricanes and 11 to the Highlanders. Last year's encounter in Wellington was a high scoring thriller, the Highlanders winning 49-44. This is a tough call to make, so we fall back on the safety of home ground advantage and say the Hurricanes by less than 10 points.
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (captain), 12 Tim Bateman, 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 Motu Matu'u, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Reggie Goodes, 19 Blade Thomson, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Brad Shields, 22 Chris Smylie, 23 Alapati Leiua.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Jason Emery, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (co-captain), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Aki Seuli, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Peterson (New Zealand)
Saturday, May 17
Crusaders v Sharks
(AMI Stadium, Christchurch - Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT; 09.35 SA time)
The Sharks may feel they are still in control of their own destiny, a statement uttered by Director of Rugby Jake White this week, but the hill looks rather steep at present.
Given that the seven-time champion Crusaders are on a hot streak - they haven't lost a match since March 28 - the visitors will have their work cut out against a team that traditionally hits their straps in the latter stages of the competition.
And while the Sharks are sitting pretty at the top of the table, it is a fact that they have lost momentum - two defeats in their last three matches.
Last week's loss to the Brumbies may just be the wake-up call they needed, given that the Sharks have never beaten the Crusaders on New Zealand soil and will need something very special from their senior players.
The Sharks boss, White, is never one to see the glass half empty.
"Despite all the [injury] disruptions and losing last week, we're still top of the log and we're still comfortably ahead in our conference," White said.
"So there's a lot to be said for where we are at this stage."
The Crusaders have climbed to fourth on the table on the back of a five-game winning streak, putting the seven-time champions in line for another play-off appearance.
It has put to bed all of the speculation in the early stages of the competition that they can't cope without star players like Dan Carter and Kieran Read.
This run was achieved mostly without Read, who hasn't played for three weeks as a result of concussion. And, of course, Carter is still on his sabbatical.
Even more significant is that they have found their try-scoring touch - 18 five-pointers in the last five matches, including six tries in last week's rout of the Reds in Brisbane and another six tries against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein (when they also went past the 50-point mark).
2013: Sharks won 21-17, Durban
2011: Crusaders won 36-8, Nelson (preliminary play-offs)
2011: Crusaders won 44-28, Twickenham
2010: Crusaders won 35-6, Christchurch
2009: Crusaders won 13-10, Durban
2008: Crusaders won 18-10, Christchurch
Prediction: After a slow start the Crusaders have gone on a scoring spree - 18 tries i their last five matches, which gives them a total on 27 from 10 outings. In contrast the Sharks have scored just 18 tries in 11 matches. On defence things look a lot more rosy for the Sharks - who have conceded just 15 tries (the least in the competition) to the Crusaders' 24. Despite keeping the opposition away from their tryline, the Sharks'; tackle success rate is a shocking 84.2 percent (the worst in the competition). It probably means they scramble well and cover each other. The Crusaders are not much better, hovering in mid-table with 86.3 percent tackle success rate. The Sharks' line-out functions well (90-5 percent) in comparison with the Crusaders (87.3). Despite their all-Springbok front row, the Sharks' scrums are shoddy (just an 85 percent success rate), while the Crusaders sit second (89 percent) in this set piece department. The Crusaders' discipline is an issue - five yellow cards putting them second on the list for bad boys. The Sharks have the qualities to cause and upset, but you struggle to see them get past a Crusaders team in such good form. We'll go for another home win - the Crusaders by 12 points.
Crusaders: 15 Tom Taylor, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Ryan Crotty (captain), 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Willie Heinz, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 George Whitelock, 21 Andy Ellis, 22 Tyler Bleyendaal, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 S'bura Sithole, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Francois Steyn, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Willem Alberts, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Lubabalo Mtembu, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (captain), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Ryan Kankowski, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Tim Swiel, 23 Heimar Williams.
Reds v Rebels
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - Kick-off: 19.40; 09.40 GMT)
It is stating the obvious to suggest the Reds have gone to rabble this season.
They are on their worst run (five defeats) in recent memory and haven't won a match since March.
Their disciplinary track record is one of the worst in the competition - sitting joint second on the list of most yellow cards.
The result is they are 13th on the table, a position they last occupied in 2009.
In contrast, the Rebels are erratic, rather than rubbish.
The Rebels may still be seeking their first win on the road this year - in fact their only away wins have all been against the Western Force in Perth - but at least they present a semblance of a team that want to and can win.
After visits from the Sharks and the Hurricanes to Melbourne, the Rebels are relishing an all-Aussie derby - their first since beating the Force on Good Friday.
However, since that win the results haven't gone the way the Force would have liked.
Now, with the Reds on their radar, they will be determined to stay off the foot of the Australian Conference table.
In order to do that they have to beat a Reds team unfamiliar with carrying the tag as being the worst of the franchises Down Under.
For whatever reason, the team from Brisbane haven't quite fired. They remain packed to the rafters with quality and the Rebels will have to be at their best to secure their first away win for 2014.
Reds coach Richard Graham said the team was looking forward to a spirited clash with the Rebels on Saturday.
"I thought the team played some very good rugby in the first half last weekend against the Crusaders," Graham said.
"We continue to work hard and there is an incredibly strong desire to correct our path and get back to winning games.
"We know what to expect when it comes to the Rebels. I know Tony [McGahan] well and it's obvious to anyone who has watched Super Rugby this year that he has turned the Rebels into a very physical and strong defensive side."
2013: Reds won 33-20, Brisbane
2013: Reds won 23-13, Melbourne
2012: Reds won 32-17, Melbourne
2012: Reds won 11-6, Brisbane
2011: Reds won 33-18, Melbourne
2011: Reds won 53-3, Brisbane
Prediction: Despite the presence of Will Genia and Quade Copper the Reds have not found their try-scoring form - just 26 tries in 11 matches. The Rebels are even worse - 18 tries in 10 matches. The Rebels' defence is solid, their 88.5 percent tackle success rate the best in the competition, while the Reds - who have leaked an astonishing 35 tries - complete less than 86 percent of their tackles. Maybe their problems stem from their set-piece woes - the Reds winning just 86.5 percent of their line-outs and 87 percent of their scrums. The Rebels' scrum success rate sits at a paltry 85 percent, but their line-outs at a healthy 90.6 percent. The Reds are one of those teams you expect to come out of their shell at some stage and there is no better time than this weekend - with the pressure off. Of course the Rebels will give them a good run for their money, but we'll go with the Reds breaking their losing streak and beating the Rebels by less than 10 points.
Reds: 15 Mike Harris, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Anthony Fainga'a, 11 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Curtis Browning, 5 James Horwill (captain), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 James Hanson, 1 Ben Daley.
Replacements: 16 Saia Fainga'a, 17 Albert Anae, 18 Jono Owen, 19 Ed O'Donoghue, 20 Dave McDuling, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Ben Lucas, 23 Rod Davies.
Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Tom Kingston, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Scott Higginbotham (captain), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Colby Fainga'a, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Cadeyrn Neville, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Pat Leafa, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Steve Fualau, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Paul Alo-Emilie, 19 Hugh Pyle, 20 Sean McMahon, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Jack Debreczeni, 23 Telusa Veainu.