S18 Preview: ROUND 17, PART ONE
IN THE SPOTLIGHT. Jan de Koning looks at the Friday matches in Part One of Super Rugby's Round 17.
Friday's matches are important, but perhaps only the appetiser to what will be a Super Saturday of sudden-death shoot-outs.
However, there is plenty to enthuse about in Friday's three outings - starting the Waratahs desperate to get a bonus-point win and put some pressure on the Brumbies.
Then there is the chance that the Blues could entertain us again by claiming another Aussie scalp.
The all-Aussie derby - Reds versus Rebels - sandwiched in the middle might be a tad boring, but the day concludes with a game in which the Sharks will be looking for the win that could book them the Africa wildcard.
Or will the Sunwolves pull off a major upset?
Friday, July 15
The Blues may have missed out on the play-offs, but - as they showed last week - they have the ability to compete with and beat the best.
The Waratahs will have taken note and may not be caught unawares like the Brumbies were.
But can the Blues improve on last week's effort.
"Our focus from the start of the season has been to work hard and improve every match," Blues coach Tana Umaga said.
"This week is no different.
"In some ways it is more important, because we put things together well at times during last week's win over the Brumbies, but it won't count for much if we can't back it up with another good performance.
"It will be a fierce game because the Waratahs have so much to play for, so if we do not come with the right preparation and right attitude, we will be in trouble."
The Waratahs feel they need to shut the threat down at source - the set pieces.
Waratahs forwards coach Cam Blades said they need to be clinical in their execution or they could be upstaged by a Blues team every bit as dangerous as the Hurricanes which beat them last week.
"Our set piece got us a fair few penalties and a good amount of dominance last weekend," Blades said, adding: "But some of our accuracy from our line-out delivery wasn't where we wanted that to be.
"So moving in to this week, cleaning up our accuracy around ball delivery to the backs from the line-out will be a big focus and also just making sure that we make our tackles within our defensive structure."
He added that Kiwi sides play similar across the park, but there are obviously tactical differences that they will take into the game.
"However, this week, like it is most weeks, it's more about what we do well rather than what they do well.
"If we get the techniques and structures around our defence right that gives us the ability to play with the ball and put them under plenty of pressure.
"Some of our accuracy and finishing around our own set piece and attack is the area where obviously we'll be looking for some kind of difference over them.
"Tactically, it doesn't change a lot, it's more about getting little areas of our game right and they're areas we failed to get right last Saturday."
2015: Waratahs won 23-11, Sydney
2014: Blues won 21-13, Auckland
2013: Waratahs won 30-27, Sydney
2011: Blues won 26-13, Auckland (preliminary play-off match)
2011: Blues won 31-17, Auckland
2010: Waratahs won 39-32, Sydney
Prediction: The Waratahs have won five of their last seven regular season fixtures against the Blues, including a 23-11 victory in their last encounter. The Blues have won nine of their 10 home games against the Waratahs, the only time the NSW side travelled to Auckland and beat them was in 2009. The Auckland side are undefeated in their last four games against Australian opposition while they haven't lost a home game to an Australian team since May 2013. The Blues have led at half-time in each of their last four Super Rugby fixtures, their longest such streak since 2013, although they've gone on to lose two of those games. Only one of the Waratahs' last 12 Super Rugby fixtures has been won by a team trailing at the half-time break. The Waratahs will be desperate and might creep into their shell. Expect the Blues to come out at a 100-mile-an-hour and if they maintain their intensity another upset is on the card - by about 12 points.
Blues: 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Male Sa'u, 12 Piers Francis,11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis,4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Sam Prattley.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Sione Mafileo or Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt Vaega or George Moala, 23 Lolagi Visinia.
Waratahs: 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Israel Folau, 12 Rob Horne, 11 Matt Carraro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Dave Dennis, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Tom Robertson, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Paddy Ryan.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Wycliff Palu, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 David Horwitz, 23 Jim Stewart.
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill, Kane McBride
TMO: Ben Skeen
The expectation is for a dour end-of-season Aussie arm-wrestle, given that only pride is at stake.
However, if the talk in both caps are to be believed, there is no shortage of motivation and both sides will be having a crack.
Rebels captain Nic Stirzaker is predicting a fierce clash at the end of disappointing campaigns for both.
The Australian derby will see two sides wanting to right their respective wrongs in Brisbane on Friday to send off their respective departing players on a winning note.
"Both teams have players that have been there for a long time leaving and want to send them out well," Stirzaker said in an interview on the Rebels website.
"I'm predicting a pretty fiery clash."
Despite the growing injury toll - with fullback Mike Harris joining the ward with a fresh hamstring injury - Stirzaker said the Rebels will send a hungry team to Brisbane desperate to finish the season on a positive note.
"You review it as quick as you can to put it behind you after the game because we know it wasn't enough and the less said about that game the better," Stirzaker said.
"We're sending 23 blokes up this weekend who we reckon can get the job done."
Reds co-interim head coach Nick Stiles said it is an important match for everyone involved.
"It's the last time some of these guys will get to pull on the Queensland jersey and they're desperate to finish their time off with a performance we can all be proud of," Stiles said.
"It's been a tough season, but we've had great support from the Queensland faithful all year and it would mean a lot if we can see them leave the stadium with a smile on their face and some reward for their passion."
2016: Rebels won 25-23, Melbourne
2015: Reds won 46-29, Brisbane
2015: Rebels won 23-15, Melbourne
2014: Reds won 36-20, Melbourne
2014: Rebels won 30-27, Brisbane
2013: Reds won 33-20, Brisbane
Prediction: While the Reds have won eight of the 11 fixtures between these franchises it's the Rebels who've enjoyed the most recent success, winning three of the last five fixtures. The Reds have won three of their last four matches at home, though they have won only two of their last 10 home games against Australian opposition. The Rebels have lost their last three away games, conceding 157 points and scoring just 71 of their own. No side has won more penalties per game than either the Rebels or Reds this season, who have been awarded 11.4 per game on average. The Rebels have recorded the worst goal kicking success rate this season (63 percent), missing 2.1 shots at goal per game. Despite all the talk this will be a typical Australian arm-wrestle in which the Reds will score a late winner - by five points or less.
Reds: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Chris Kuridrani, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Henry Taefu, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Duncan Paia'aua, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Curtis Browning, 7 Liam Gill (captain), 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Cadeyrn Neville, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Andrew Ready, 1 Sef Fa'agase.
Replacements: 16 Saia Fainga'a, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Lukhan Tui, 20 Michael Gunn, 21 James Tuttle, 22 Alex Gibbon, 23 Campbell Magnay.
Rebels: 15 Paul Asquith, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Tom English, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker (captain), 8 Colby Fainga'a, 7 Jordy Reid, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Culum Retallick, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Rob Leota, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Sione Tuipulotu, 23. Jack Maddocks.
Referee: Will Houston
Assistant referees: Andrew Lees, Amy Perrett
TMO: George Ayoub
The equation for the Sharks is simple: Win and they're in the play-offs.
However, there is a lot more at stake.
Even when they have won - and they have done that eight times in 14 starts - the Sharks have not always been convincing.
That is why Director of Rugby Gary Gold has called on his team to make a statement of intent.
Gold is expecting the Japanese outfit to thrown everything into this match, their last of their inaugural season.
That would give his team the ideal preparation for the play-offs.
"They're physical guys," Gold said, adding: "Up front they're pretty tough and they've never really given up in any game this year.
"So for them to finish on a high, there's no question that they will give their all."
But Sharks boss won't be happy with just a win.
"We have to win convincingly, so that we can feel good about ourselves moving on to the play-offs," he said.
Then there is the Patrick Lambie poser.
he has been bracketed on the bench, with a late fitness test planned.
The Sharks will need him in the play-offs, but if the ongoing concussion symptoms don't completely disappear, he won't get the much-needed game time he requires.
These teams have not met before.
Prediction: This will be the first meeting between these teams, though the Sharks have won six of their last nine games against teams from outside of South Africa. The South African side have also won their last three home games, outscoring their opposition by a combined 111-25. The Sunwolves have lost each of their six away fixtures and endured a cumulative score line of 97-332. The Sunwolves have recorded the worst tackle success rate this season (79 percent) while the Sharks have boasted the third best (87 percent). Only two players have scored more tries than Akihito Yamada (9) this season, although both players (Matt Faddes & Israel Folau) have played four games more than the Sunwolves winger who has played just 10 games. No doubt the Sharks will win easily - by at least 20 points.
Sharks: 15 Rhyno Smith, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 JP Pietersen (captain), 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Garth April, 9 Stefan Ungerer, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Lubabalo Mtembu, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Stephan Lewies, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Curwin Bosch/Pat Lambie, 23 Heimar Williams.
Sunwolves: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Hajime Yamashita, 13 Derek Carpenter, 12 Mifiposeti Paea, 11 Yasutaka Sasakura, 10 Yu Tamura (captain), 9 Kaito Shigeno, 8 Edward Quirk, 7 Taiyo Ando, 6 Liaki Moli, 5 Faatiga Lemalu, 4 Hitoshi Ono, 3 Shinnosuke Kakinaga, 2 Takeshi Kizu, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Replacements: 16 Futoshi Mori, 17 Masataka Mikami, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Naohiro Kotaki, 20 Yoshiya Hosoda, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 Ryohei Yamanaka, 23 Kentaro Kodama.
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Cwengile Jadezweni (South Africa), Archie Sehlako (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistical information provided by Opta Sports