SR Preview: Round Five, Part One
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Trends have started to appear and we are only into Round Five.
These trends suggest the Australian teams are in a worse state than last year, the New Zealand franchises are even more dominant and the only possible threat to the Kiwis are likely to come from South Africa.
There are no South African teams playing on Friday, so we are left with a trans-Tasman encounter and an all-Aussie derby.
It will certainly provide the Aussie franchises with a couple of chances to prove us wrong and show they are not just also-rans.
We look at the Friday matches!
Friday, March 24
Crusaders v Western Force
(AMI Stadium, Christchurch - Kick-off: 19.35; 14.35 Australian Western Time; 06.35 GMT)
The Western Force players and coaches must be getting tired of having to answer questions over their future in Super Rugby - given the ongoing speculation about the future format of the competition.
The only way to answer those questions would be to make a statement about their legitimacy on the playing field.
And who better to make a statement against than the seven-time champion Crusaders.
Force coach Dave Wessels said that the match against the Crusaders is an exciting opportunity for his team to win away from home against a challenging opposition.
"Playing New Zealand teams in New Zealand is the ultimate test of our progress over the last few months," Wessels said.
"There's great energy in the group and we're looking forward to Friday."
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson was quick to play down the favourites tag his team is carrying into the game and said he is expecting a tough challenge from the Force.
"They are fresh from a bye, which generally gives a team a bit of an edge, and our games against the Force have traditionally been really tight," Robertson said.
"We know we will need to be on form on Friday, but we are up for the challenge."
2016: Crusaders won 20-19, Perth
2014: Crusaders won 30-7, Christchurch
2013: Force won 16-14, Perth
2012: Crusaders won 38-24, Christchurch
2011: Crusaders won 42-30, Perth
Prediction: The Crusaders have won four of their last five games against the Force, including each of their last two; they've never won more than two in a row against the Western Australian team. The Crusaders are undefeated in their four previous home games against the Force, keeping them to seven points or fewer twice during that span. The Crusaders have won their last eight games against Australian opposition; never in Super Rugby history have they enjoyed a longer winning streak in such fixtures. The Force have lost their last six away to New Zealand sides, their longest run of defeats away to Kiwi opposition. The Force have scored multiple tries in their last two Super Rugby games, the last time they found the try line more than once in more consecutive games was a streak of three that ended in Round 13, 2015. The Force always give the Crusaders a run for their money and are likely to do so again. However, the Crusaders have too much class and in the last three matches showed they can win even when under immense pressure. The Crusaders should win by about 12 points.
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Digby Ioane, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Scott Barrett, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks,2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Mitchell Dunshea, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Manasa Mataele.
Western Force: 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Marcel Brache, 11 Chance Peni, 10 Jono Lance (captain), 9 Ryan Louwrens, 8 Richard Hardwick, 7 Kane Koteka, 6 Isi Naisarani, 5 Matt Philip, 4 Ross Haylett-Petty, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Ben Daley.
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Pek Cowan, 18 Tetera Faulkner, 19 Richie Arnold, 20 Matt Hodgson, 21 Michael Ruru, 22 Ian Prior, 23 Robbie Coleman.
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
Assistant referees: Richard Kelly (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Rebels v Waratahs
(AAMI Park, Melbourne - Kick-off: 19.45p AEDT; 08.45 GMT)
The Melbourne Rebels will defend the Weary Dunlop Shield against the Waratahs, as they host their first Australian derby of the season.
The Melbourne Rebels will contest six Australian derbies in 2017.
However, this may well be the most crucial of the season.
Both teams spoke of their 'desperate desire' to turn their seasons around - the Rebels winless at the bottom of the standings after three defeats and the Waratahs just two positions higher with one win in four starts, that victory coming against the Western Force.
The Rebels are coming off a confidence-boosting performance against the league-leading Chiefs last week, but the Waratahs lead the head to head record between two sides with nine wins from 11 previous meetings.
Rebels coach Tony McGahan admitted that his team can't afford another defeat.
"It's vital that we win, the competition demands that, and to play our role in the Australian conference we need to win all our home games," the coach said.
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson made several changes, saying he hopes it will get the Tahs playing the style of game they are eager to play.
"We need to get our combinations clicking," Gibson said.
"Up until now we have been far too inconsistent and the mistakes have been on us to fix.
"We are pleased to have Bernard [Foley] back [at flyhalf], his absence has certainly been felt in those first four rounds.
"The short $turn around I think has been good for us this week on the back of [last] Saturday's loss. The team came in Monday eager to do what needs to be done to get us out where we are right now.
"The Melbourne Rebels won't be an easy side to face at home and certainly they were unlucky to get the loss they did last week.
"They will be as eager as we are to get the win on Friday night," added Gibson.
2016: Rebels won 21-17, Sydney
2015: Waratahs won 18-16, Sydney
2015: Waratahs won 38-28, Melbourne
2014: Waratahs won 41-19, Melbourne
2014: Waratahs won 32-8, Sydney
Prediction: The Rebels earned a four-point win against the Waratahs when they last met, which was their second ever win against the NSW franchise, and will now be looking for back-to-back wins against them for the first time. The Waratahs have taken competition points from all of their five previous games against the Rebels in Melbourne, winning four and picking up a losing bonus point in the other. The NSW side has won seven of their last nine games away from home in Australia, including each of the last two, winning by an average margin of 17 points in those seven matches. The Rebels (7.3) boast the fewest penalties conceded per game of any team in the competition this season. Israel Folau has scored 13 tries in his last 10 games away from home for the Waratahs, including a brace against the Sharks in the NSW side's last road trip. This is a tough one to call and home ground advantage may just swing the game - the Rebels to sneak a late winner, by five 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 - from: Pat Leafa, Tom Moloney, Tyrel Lomax, Dominic Day, Lopeti Timani, Jake Schatz, Ben Meehan, Mitch Inman, Ben Volavola.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Andrew Kellaway, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Jed Holloway, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 David Lolohea, 19 David McDuling, 20 Michael Wells, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Cam Clark, 23 Taqele Naiyaravoro.
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Jordan Way (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports