SR Preview: Round Four, Part One
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: With speculation rife about the future of Super Rugby and the possible culling of teams, some franchises may be playing for survival.
The SANZAAR Executive Committee met in London last Friday to assess the 'economic and sporting environment' under which its tournaments (Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship) are operating.
SANZAAR remained tightlipped about the proposals, but that has not stopped the rumour mill from running wild.
Depending in which grapevine you follow (or believe), Super Rugby will be reduced to 16 or 15 teams. Australian and South African teams are at the top of the culling list, while Japan's Sunwolves and Argentina's Jaguares have also been mentioned.
Only the dominant New Zealand teams are safe, or so the rumour mongers are telling us.
However, SANZAAR would have us believe that nothing has been finalised.
"Following two days of robust discussion there are a number of tournament considerations that now require further discussion and consultation," a statement from the organisers - South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby - said this week.
"This includes final consultation within the national unions and discussion with key stakeholders that would allow the adoption of future changes proposed by the strategic plan," SANZAAR Chief Executive Officer Andy Marinos said.
"SANZAAR will make a formal statement on the future of the organisation, Super Rugby and the tournament format in the coming days once these further meetings have been concluded," added Marinos.
Either way, it has added spice to an already intriguing tournament and some teams will have a lot to play for this weekend - starting with the Sunwolves - who play the Bulls in Pretoria on Friday.
We look at the Friday matches!
Friday, March 17
Crusaders v Blues
(AMI Stadium, Christchurch - Kick-off: 19.35; 06.35 GMT)
What a game to start the weekend. It is a massive occasion and the expectations are high for both teams.
The Crusaders are one of just three teams that are still unbeaten, but the Blues have lost twice in the opening weeks.
Blues coach Tana Umaga said it is important for the team to make progress this week after last week's disappointing performance against the Highlanders.
"We are looking for a much more competitive effort at set piece, and with more accuracy in core skills," Umaga said.
"You cannot be competitive in this competition with the error rate that we committed last week."
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson admitted the Blues will be on fire in Christchurch.
"We have to respect them, as these derby matches are at Test match level," the Crusaders coach said.
"You can see the attrition and injury rates that have come out of them," he said of the brutal nature of the New Zealand derbies.
He admitted the Blues are desperate to get their campaign back on track.
"We have had a couple of tough matches, so we want to take those lessons on board and move forward," the Crusaders coach said.
2016: Crusaders won 26-21, Auckland
2016: Crusaders won 28-13, Christchurch
2015: Crusaders won 34-11, Auckland
2015: Crusaders won 29-15, Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 21-13, Christchurch
2013: Blues won 35-24, Auckland
Prediction: The Crusaders have won their last five games against the Blues, the longest winning streak of either side in the history of the fixture. The Crusaders have won seven of their last eight games on home turf, scoring an average of 5.4 tries per game in that span. A three-point win against the Highlanders in their last game against New Zealand opposition leaves the Crusaders hunting for back-to-back wins against fellow Kiwi teams for the first time since a win against the Blues in Round 17, 2015. The Blues have won only one of their last 21 games away from home against New Zealand opposition; a 34-20 win against the Canes in Round Two, 2013 their only positive result in that span. The Crusaders lead the competition in average offloads (18.7) and passes (192.3) per game so far this season. The Blues will indeed be desperate and will run the Crusaders close, but we feel the home team will edge another thriller - by five points.
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Manasa Mataele, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Jed Brown, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Sean Wainui.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Ihaia West, 23 TJ Faiane.
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Angus Mabey (New Zealand), Cam Stone (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Rebels v Chiefs
(AAMI Park, Melbourne - Kick-off: 19.45; 21.45 NZDT; 08.45 GMT)
While the Rebels are considered underdogs and the wake of a horror start to the season, the Chiefs said complacency will not be an issue.
The Rebels are coming off a bye round, after two disappointing outings against the Blues and Hurricanes to start their 2017 Super Rugby campaign.
"They have had two weeks to prepare for us," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said.
"They will look to bring a lot more heat."
Rennie pointed out that in the first 20 minutes of each of their games they were right in it.
"We are certainly not going to take them lightly," he said, adding: "However, our focus is on our standards and being better than we were last week.
Rebels coach Tony McGahan remains upbeat and is looking to improve on previous performances when they take on the Chiefs.
"Our performances haven't been good enough in the first two weeks and whatever excuses we could hang onto would be nice but we know that ultimately we're judged on what we do on the field and that starts again on Friday," McGahan said.
"We understand that we had a really tough start to the season, certainly the scorelines don't reflect the work that we've put in so we need to make sure that we address that."
With 13 games still to play, the Rebels are focused on getting their season back on track with a solid performance on Friday.
"We need a performance this weekend that we can hang our hat on and something to build off because we understand the competition and where the Australian sides are," McGahan said.
"It's a long season and we understand that our performances have been anything but poor so we need to make sure that we're getting better with our performance this week."
2016: Chiefs won 36-15, Hamilton
2015: Rebels won 16-15, Melbourne
2014: Chiefs won 22-16, Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 39-33, Melbourne
2011: Chiefs won 38-10, Hamilton
Prediction: The Chiefs have won four of the five previous meetings between these franchises, though their one defeat to the Rebels came away from home. The Rebels have conceded 212 points in their last three games against New Zealand opposition and they last snatched a win against them in Round 13, 2015 (v Blues) losing seven such games since. The Chiefs have won on three of their last four trips to Australia, including a 50-5 win against the Reds on their last visit in Round 16, 2016. The Chiefs have stolen 2.7 line-outs per game this season, the equal most of any team and 1.7 per game more than the Rebels. Reece Hodge is one of just four players to have kicked a goal from his own side of the halfway line this season, and his 52.5m attempt is currently the longest successful goal kicker of any player this season. You would have to be a diehard supporter to wager money on the Rebels. The Chiefs should win by 15 to 20 points.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Jack Debreczeni, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Tom English, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 9 Nic Stirzaker (captain), 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga'a, 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Steve Cummins, 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Fereti Sa'aga.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Murray Douglas, 20 Jake Schatz, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Sione Tuipulotu, 23 Ben Volavola.
Chiefs: 15 Shaun Stevenson, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Stephen Donald, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane (co-captain), 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Sabastian Siataga, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Mitchell Brown, 20 Mitchell Karpik, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Aaron Cruden (co-captain), 23 Johnny Faauli.
Referee: Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
Assistant referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Graham Cooper (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
Bulls v Sunwolves
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria - Kick-off: 19.00; 17.00 GMT; 02.00 Saturday, March 18 JST)
Neither team has won a match this season, but the Sunwolves may just have more motivation - given their name is on at least one unofficial list of teams to be culled.
They made a statement last week, about being legitimate competitors, and would like to ram that home with a first-ever win on South African soil.
Bulls coach Nollis Marais admitted that you underestimate the Sunwolves at your own peril.
"If you give them turnover ball they will punish you," Marais said.
"They are a side that keeps the ball well.
"They also bring something special every game. They do something new every game and they are an unpredictable side.
"Yes, they do have some structure. It is not just running from everywhere. They do play in certain areas of the field.
"That is why you have to be very accurate against them and not give them possession."
Sunwolves captain Edward Quirk admitted there is very little they can do about the pending boardroom decision - which could see them being axed.
However, they are determined to prove a point by upstaging the three-time former champion Bulls.
"We performed a lot better than we did the previous two weeks," he said about his team's 31-38 loss to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last week.
"It may be a short week for us, but we are really excited about the challenge.
"Our confidence is high after the Cheetahs game, but obviously need to keep improving.
"We will have to improve significantly, because we are playing against a very, very big bulls team.
"We are super excited for the challenge and really enjoying the tour."
2016: Bulls won 50-3, Pretoria
2016: Bulls won 30-27, Singapore
Prediction: The Bulls have won each of the two encounters between these teams so far in contrasting fashion, grinding to a 30-27 win in Round Five last season before cruising to a commanding 50-3 victory in Round 16. In fact, this is the Bulls' first home fixture since that 50-3 win against the Japanese side, and they have won 10 of their last 13 games at home overall. The Sunwolves have scored 29 (Round 17, 2016) and 31 (Round Three, 2017) points in their last two away fixtures respectively, setting a new franchise record for most points scored on the road in each game. The Bulls have forced their opposition to make 133.5 tackles per game so far this season, the most of any team. Kenki Fukuoka has scored three tries in his last two games for the Sunwolves, including a brace in his side's last away fixture. The Sunwolves will test the Bulls, especially in the first half. However, we feel the powerful Bulls pack will overpower the Japanese team's forwards eventually and the Bulls should race clear to win by 20 points.
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Handré Pollard (captain), 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Renaldo Bothma, 6 Ruan Steenkamp, 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Edgar Marutlulle, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Jacobie Adriaanse, 19 Rudolph Snyman, 20 Jannes Kirsten, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Jesse Kriel.
Sunwolves: 15 Shota Emi, 14 Takaaki Nakazuru, 13 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi, 12 Timothy Lafaele, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Hayden Cripps, 9 Keisuke Uchida, 8 Willie Britz, 7 Shumei Matsuhashi, 6 Ed Quirk (captain), 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Yasuo Yamaji, 2 Yusuke Niwai, 1 Koki Yamamoto.
Replacements: 16 Atsushi Sakate, 17 Masataka Mikami, 18 Heiichiro Ito, 19 Liaki Moli, 20 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 21 Kaito Shigeno, 22 Jumpei Ogura, 23 Ryohei Yamanaka.
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser, Stuart Berry
TMO: Willie Vos
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports