SR Preview: Round Four, Part Two
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: There has been plenty of drama off the field this week. Saturday will ensure the drama is on the field.
The Lions, beaten finalists last year, this week learnt that coach Johan Ackerman is being head-hunted by English Premiership franchise Gloucester.
Ackermann, the consummate professional fronted up to the media and confirmed the offer. He also made it clear he did not want it to be a distraction.
In other off-field developments, it was confirmed that the Waratahs and Brumbies will play for the Dan Vickerman Cup on Saturday - in honour of the ex-Wallaby lock who passed away last month.
Vickerman played for both franchises during his playing career.
We look at the Saturday matches!
Saturday, March 18
Hurricanes v Highlanders
(Westpac Stadium, Wellington - Kick-off: 19.35; 06.35 GMT)
The Hurricanes versus Highlanders rivalry has always been a fierce contest.
It reached fever pitch just two years ago, when the two franchises met in the 2016 Super Rugby Final.
Last year the two teams split their matches one apiece, with the Highlanders winning 17-16 in Dunedin and the Hurricanes winning the return match 27-20 in Wellington.
Both teams have had their share of injuries, but the Highlanders' talent resources are a lot more depleted than the home team.
Hurricanes assistant coach Jason Holland is adamant the Highlanders will be up for a scrap.
"They have still managed to put a pretty good fifteen on the field," Holland said.
"They might say the same about us. It is going to be massive whatever happens. We know what sort of challenge it may be,'' Holland said.
"The boys are ready to go again.
"The physicality goes up again and you've got to be aggressive and be bold. It will be no different this weekend.''
The Highlanders played a very tactical game last week and used the kick-and-chase very effectively
''I felt as though our kick-chase and our pressure game was right on the money last week," Highlanders coach Tony Brown said.
"It probably won us the game."
A similarly determined defensive effort will be required against the defending champions.
2016: Hurricanes won 27-20, Wellington
2016: Highlanders 17-16, Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 21-14, Wellington (Final)
2015: Hurricanes won 56-20, Wellington
2015: Hurricanes won 20-13, Dunedin
2014: Highlanders won 18-16, Wellington
2014: Highlanders won 35-31, Dunedin
Prediction: The last 10 games between these teams have seen each notch five victories, with all but one of those 10 fixtures decided by a margin of no greater than the value of a converted try. The Highlanders have won on five of their last seven visits to Wellington to face the Hurricanes, though were pipped in a 27-20 loss when these teams met in Round 14 last season. The Hurricanes have won their last seven games on home soil, their longest streak in franchise history and the equal longest current streak of any team in the competition (Lions). The Highlanders have won their last three regular season games away from home, the last time they enjoyed a longer such streak was a four-game stretch in 2005. Hurricanes trio Julian Savea (10), Ngani Laumape (10), and Vince Aso (nine) have made more clean breaks than any other players in the competition this season; Waisake Naholo (five) has made the most of any Highlander. The Highlanders have a realistic chance of an upset and it will indeed be close, but we feel the Hurricanes will sneak a thriller - by seven points.
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Vince Aso, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeffery To'omaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (captain), 1 Chris Eves.
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Ben May, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Wes Goosen.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (captain), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Fletcher Smith, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Joe Wheeler, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Sekonia Pole, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Jackson Hemopo, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Matt Faddes.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Waratahs v Brumbies
(Allianz Stadium, Sydney - Kick-off: 19.45; 08.45 GMT)
Saturday's grudge match against the Brumbies will hold special meaning for the Sekope Kepu who will mark his 100th Waratahs cap at the inaugural Dan Vickerman Cup.
When he arrived at the Waratahs his goal was to play one game for the side, not dreaming he would ever make it to 100.
"My ultimate dream was to play rugby as a professional sport, full-time," Kepu said in an interview on the Waratahs website.
"I remember coming over and walking through the corridors here and seeing guys I watched growing up like Lote Tuqiri, Phil Waugh, Dan Vickerman, Tatafu [Polota-Nau] - it was a very overwhelming experience.
"You want to look at it as just another game. I came over with a dream to play one cap for NSW but to get 100 is humbling."
The Waratahs versus Brumbies rivalry is one that excites both the players and fans and Kepu admitted there will be a lot on the line for the game.
"It's a massive game, it's one of those one's you really look forward to going up against guys you know at a national level," Kepu said.
"They [Brumbies] bring massive experience, it's going to be a challenge. We've got to be on top of our game, go out and play our game.
"In the first three games, we haven't played to our full potential. We've got to lead the way as a front row. In a way it's something that I'm really looking to," said Kepu.
2016: Brumbies won 26-20, Sydney
2016: Brumbies won 32-15, Canberra
2015: Waratahs won 13-10, Canberra
2015: Waratahs won 28-13, Sydney
2014: Waratahs won 26-8, Sydney (semifinal)
2014: Waratahs won 39-8, Sydney
2014: Brumbies won 28-23, Canberra
Prediction: The Brumbies have won their last two games against the Waratahs, the last and only time they have won more in succession against the NSW franchise was a three-game stint across the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The Waratahs have won 13 of their previous 16 home games against the Brumbies, though were pipped in a 26-20 loss in the last such fixture. The Brumbies have won each of their last four away fixtures within Australia, never before have they enjoyed a longer streak in such games. The Brumbies boast the most accurate line-out of any team in the competition, losing a league-low 0.7 line-outs per game and enjoying a line-out success rate of 96 percent. Israel Folau scored a try in each of the Waratahs' two games against the Brumbies last season and has scored three tries in his last four games against the ACT side overall. The Waratahs have been a massive disappointment this season, while the Brumbies have shown some old-fashioned grunt. That, we feel, will see the Brumbies edge an arm-wrestle - by no more than 10 points.
Waratahs: 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Israel Folau, 12 Irae Simone, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley/Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nick Phipps, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 David Lolohea, 19 David McDuling, 20 Ned Hanigan, 21 Michael Wells, 22 Jake Gordon, 23 Bryce Hegarty/David Horwitz.
Brumbies: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Nigel Ah Wong, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Jordan Smiler, 7 Lolo Fakaosilea, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Leslie Leulua'Iali'I-Makin, 19 Blake Enever, 20 Ben Hyne, 21 De Wet Roos, 22 Jordan Jackson-Hope, 23 Andrew Smith.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nic Berry (Australia), William Houston (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)
Lions v Reds
(Ellis Park, Johannesburg - Kick-off: 17.15; 15.15 GMT; 01.15 Sunday, Match 19 AEST)
Lions coach Johan Ackermann was hoping that the offer to move to England to join Gloucester next season would not be a distraction to his team.
He will know on Saturday if his plan was successful.
They are facing a vastly improved Reds team that came within second of beating the Crusaders.
The Gloucester saga was certainly not the only issue high on the agenda at Ellis Park this week.
Ackermann made it clear that two of the main issues on their loss to the Jaguares last week - discipline and missed tackles - were addressed.
Springbok flank Jaco Kriel, sitting beside his coach at a media briefing, issued a stern warning to his teammates.
"I believe that they [the Reds] are in better form than the Waratahs," he said of a team the Lions beat 55-36, in a match where the Lions leaked five tries.
Kriel said the Reds have some "x-factor players" - like flyhalf Quade Cooper.
Reds coach Nick Stiles said his side, with just one win in three outings, will be looking to use the Ellis Park encounter as a springboard for their season.
It will mean they need to break a nine-match losing streak away from home.
"We have discussed it [the nine-match losing streak on the road] and that honesty within the group has set us up nicely," Stile said at the team's base in Johannesburg.
"For us to win over here could be similar to 2010, when the Reds came over here and that win became the springboard for the season and ultimate success [winning Super Rugby] a year later.
"You can see us grow each week and you are seeing growth in the squad."
2015: Lions won 18-17, Brisbane
2014: Lions won 23-20, Johannesburg
2012: Reds won 34-20, Brisbane
2011: Reds won 30-25, Johannesburg
2010: Reds won 41-26, Johannesburg
Prediction: The average margin between these sides across the history of this fixture is just eight points, though it's been the Lions who have enjoyed victory in each of the last two meetings between these teams. The Lions have won each of their last seven games at home, their longest winning streak ever on home turf, scoring an average of 47 points per game in that stretch. The Reds haven't won away from home since Round 16, 2015 (v Force), losing each of their nine road games since. The Queensland side has restricted their opposition to just 13 minutes and 35 seconds of possession per game this season, the lowest of any team. Elton Jantjies has scored 54 points in his last three games on home turf, including a haul of 15 points against the Waratahs in Round Two this season. The Lions are a difficult team to beat at home - with the Waratahs, Highlanders, Crusaders, Sharks, Jaguares and the Blues - among those who have fallen victim to their high-paced game at Ellis Park. The Reds will give them a scare, but a strong last quarter will see the Lions go clear and win by 15 points.
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Madosh Tambwe, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Francois de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Ruan Ackermann, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Albertus Smith, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Jaco van der Walt, 23 Harold Vorster.
Reds: 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Izaia Perese, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 George Smith, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Andrew Ready, 1 James Slipper (captain).
Replacements: 16 Stephen Moore, 17 Markus Vanzati, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Lukhan Tui, 20 Adam Korczyk, 21 James Tuttle, 22 Jake McIntyre, 23 Chris Kuridrani.
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: Willie Vos (South Africa)
Sharks v Kings
(Kings Park, Durban - kick-off: 19.30; 17.30 GMT)
Complacency could be the Sharks' biggest stumbling block this week.
There is no reason, on paper, why the Kings should be a threat.
Centre Andre Esterhuizen admitted that, given people's expectations that they will win, mental preparation is just as important as on-the-field training.
"The thing with the Kings is that you can never underestimate them," Esterhuizen said.
"If they get their tails in the air, it could be a long night for us, so starting well is important for us.
"We also mustn't allow the game to get loose, we must keep to our structures, earn the right to go wide and we will play from there and hopefully score some tries."
The Southern Kings are eager to rectify the errors that have proven so costly this season.
Kings coach Deon Davids said that his side is aware of the enormity of the task at hand.
"It is always difficult to go to Durban, but we are looking forward to this game," Davids said.
Following last weekend's 10-41 defeat to the Stormers, the coach stressed the importance of building on the positives from the last match while improving on areas that needed to get better.
"There were aspects of our game last week where we did some good things, but there is also stuff that we need to tidy up," Davids said.
"At times we do seem like we are losing against ourselves. We need to be more clinical, it's all about executing better.
"It is important that we up our work ethic and do the work for 80m minutes."
2016: Sharks won 53-0, Durban
2016: Sharks won 43-8, Port Elizabeth
2013: Sharks won 58-13, Durban
2013: Sharks won 21-12, Port Elizabeth
Prediction: The Sharks have won all four previous games between these teams, and have outscored the Kings 154-21 across their last three meetings. The Sharks have won their last two games on home turf against South African squads, the last time they enjoyed a longer winning streak in such games was a four-game stint ending in 2014. The Kings continue to search for their first Super Rugby win against South African opposition and have conceded eight tries and more than 50 points in each of their last three road fixtures against fellow South African teams. The Sharks have slotted 15 penalty goals so far this season, more than any other side, while they've conceded a joint-low three penalty goals. The Kings are the only team in the competition who are yet to miss a kick at goal; Lionel Cronje has kicked 15 goals without missing, no other player has hit more than six without missing at least once. It is unlikely the Kings will break their duck against SA teams. We feel the Sharks will win by 15 points.
Sharks: 15 Curwin Bosch, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Odwa Ndungane, 10 Bernhard Janse van Rensburg, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Lubabalo Mtembu (captain), 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Jacques Vermeulen, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Stephan Lewies, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: 16 Stephan Coetzee, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 John-Hubert Meyer, 19 Etienne Oosthuizen, 20 Daniel du Preez, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Jeremy Ward, 23 Garth April.
Southern Kings: 15 Masixole Banda, 14 Makazole Mapimpi, 13 Berton Klaasen, 12 Waylon Murray, 11 Alshaun Bock, 10 Lionel Cronje, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Ruaan Lerm, 7 Andisa Ntsila, 6 Chris Cloete, 5 Wilhelm van der Sluys, 4 Irne Herbst, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Michael Willemse, 1 Schalk Ferreira (captain).
Replacements: 16 Kurt Haupt, 17 Schalk van der Merwe, 18 Justin Forwood, 19 Tyler Paul, 20 Stefan Willemse, 21 Johan Steyn, 22 Pieter-Steyn de Wet, 23 Johann Tromp.
Referee: Egon Seconds (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Cwengile Jadezweni (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
Jaguares v Cheetahs
(Velez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires - kick-off: 16.40; 21.40 SA time' 19.40 GMT)
The Lions have come a cropper two years in a row - the second time just a week ago.
Cheetahs coach Franco Smith felt there were some valuable lessons to be learnt for their compatriots' errors against what is effectively Argentina's national team.
"The Lions wanted to contain the Jaguares in the first half and pick up the pace after the break," Smith said.
"However, the Jaguares opened too much of a gap in the first half-an-hour.
"It is vital to be in their faces from the outset."
Smith also spoke of being "fearless on defence" and "fearless with the ball in hand".
"It will require a very special performance by us," he said, adding: "The Jaguares in Buenos Aires is very tough to beat."
Injuries and the need to freshen up the squad forced Smith to make numerous changes to his matchday squad.
"We need to produce a better performance than we did against the Sunwolves last week.
"The Jaguares is a very accomplished team withy 23 internationals."
2016: Jaguares won 34-33, Bloemfontein
Prediction: The only previous encounter between these teams saw the Argentinian franchise snatch a one-point win against the Cheetahs after trailing by seven at half-time. The Cheetahs have lost their last seven games away from home, last tasting victory on the road in a Round 3 clash with the Sunwolves last season. The Jaguares have won each of their last three games when hosting South African opposition, winning each game by 12+ points. The Jaguares have the best ruck success of any team in the competition, winning 98 percent of rucks and losing just 1.7 rucks per game on average. Tian Meyer has provided four try assists so far this campaign, more than any other player. The Cheetahs may run them close, perhaps closer than the Lions did last week, but at home, the Jaguares will be too good and win by less than 10 points.
Jaguares: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Ramiro Moyano, 13 Matías Orlando, 12 Jerónimo de la Fuente, 11 Santiago Cordero, 10 Juan Martín Hernández, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Tomás Lezana, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Matías Alemanno, 4 Marcos Kremer, 3 Felipe Arregui, 2 Agustín Creevy (captain), 1 Santiago García Botta.
Replacements: 16 Julián Montoya, 17 Lucas Noguera Paz, 18 Ramiro Herrera, 19 Marcos Kremer, 20 Ignacio Larrague, 21 Javier Ortega Desio, 22 Felipe Ezcurra, 22 Santiago González Iglesias, 23 Bautista Ezcurra.
Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Ryno Benjamin, 13 Michael van der Spuy, 12 Clinton Swart, 11 Ruan van Rensburg, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Tian Meyer (captain), 8 Niell Jordaan, 7 Teboho Mohoje, 6 Henco Venter, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Tom Botha, 2 Elandré Huggett, 1 Danie Mienie.
Replacements: 16 Joseph Dweba, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Johan Coetzee, 19 Carl Wegner, 20 Paul Schoeman, 21 William Small-Smith/Johannes Prinsloo, 22 Shaun Venter, 23 Fred Zeilinga.
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Pablo Deluca (Argentina)
TMO: Santiago Borsani (Argentina)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports