SR Preview: Round Six, Part One
IN THE SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: The possibility of teams being axed next year continues to hover, ominously, over the competition.
It means any match involving the 'fringe' teams - like the Rebels and Western Force - will have added pressure for those teams.
Already the Cheetahs have admitted the 'fear of failure' is putting a choke hold on their performances.
It is vital for these teams that they start proving their value on the playing field, otherwise the threat of axing will remain.
In Part One we look at the first three matches of the weekend!
Friday, March 31:
Highlanders v Rebels
(Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin - Kick-off: 19.35; 17.35 AEDT; 06.35 GMT)
Both teams are under pressure and desperate to get the win.
The Highlanders are currently 11th on the standings - with wins against the Blues and Brumbies, but defeats against the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes - stuck at the bottom of the New Zealand conference.
''It's far too early to be looking at the points table now,'' Highlanders coach Tony Brown told the Otago Daily Times.
"At the moment all we have to do is try and prepare for the next game as best we can."
Turning to the Rebels, Brown described them as a "quality" team that is playing good rugby - despite the fact that they are winless and stuck at the foot of the table with a solitary losing bonus point.
Rebels coach Tony McGahan used the cliched 'week-to-week' proposition when asked about his team's perilous position.
McGahan is hoping his bench players can provide the impact that will finally turn a competitive first-half performance into a winning 80 minutes.
The Rebels have conceded a combined 27 points in a total of nine minutes to finish their last two games, but McGahan wants to see the reserves provide a spark late for a complete performance.
"We need to start well but we need to finish off the back end of games," he said.
"We've seen more and more the impact of benches and what you need to get done to play out the full 80 minutes.
"It's a really tight competition and you see that results wise with some sides having won a couple games right at the death and we've lost a couple.
"We need to make sure that we're winning the ball and be able to keep it and make sure that we're not putting ourselves under huge pressure defensively which has been the case.
"Once we fix those little errors we're going to be much better at running out the back end of games."
The Highlanders are coming off their second win of the season after they took down the Brumbies 18-13 in Canberra.
Despite the Highlanders sitting in fifth on the New Zealand Conference ladder, the Rebels are well aware of the dangers posed by the 2015 Super Rugby champions.
"They're a terrific side, they won a title a few years ago and have been there or thereabouts the last couple of years," McGahan said.
"They've got some world-class players and they're a side who works exceptionally hard for each other.
"No doubt they're really keen to get a result down here at home because they don't like losing down here and have a very strong record."
2016: Highlanders won 27-3, Melbourne
2014: Highlanders won 33-30, Dunedin
2013: Rebels won 38-37, Melbourne
2012: Highlanders won 43-12, Dunedin
2011: Highlanders won 40-18, Melbourne
Prediction: The Highlanders have won four of the five prior games between these teams, including each of their last two; three of their four wins have come by a margin of greater than 20 points. The Highlanders have won each of their last five games on home turf against Australian opposition, though they've won by an average margin of just eight points. This will be the Rebels 15th excursion for a Super Rugby fixture in New Zealand; the Melbourne side has managed only one win from their previous 14 such games. Only two players have assisted more tries this season than Aaron Smith (four), who has provided more assists than any other New Zealand based player. Reece Hodge is one of only five players, and the only Australian-based player, to have kicked a goal from his own side of the halfway line this season. Let's not beat about the bush, the Rebels are unlikely to win. The Highlanders should win by at least 15 points.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (captain), 14 Tevita Li, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Joe Wheeler, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Aki Seiuli.
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Elliot Dixon, 20 Tupou Sopoaga, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Rebels: 15 Jack Debreczeni, 14 Tom English, 13 Mitch Inman, 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: Siliva Siliva, Tom Moloney, Tyrel Lomax, Dominic Day, Lopeti Timani, Jake Schatz, Esei Haangana, Mick Snowden, Sione Tuipulotu, Ben Volavola.
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill, Angus Mabey
TMO: Aaron Paterson
Saturday, April 1:
Blues v Western Force
(Eden Park, Auckland - Kick-off: 17.15; 12.15 AWST; 04.15 GMT)
The Western Force, like the Rebels and (apparently also) the Brumbies, are at the centre of a campaign by the Rugby Union Players' Association to keep all five Australian team in Super Rugby.
However, the petition just adds fuel to the fire in the rumour grapevine that plans are afoot to axe one or two Aussie teams.
There is no doubt the Force have a point to prove.
Blues coach Tana Umaga believes all these sideshows will fire up the Perth-based franchise.
Umaga said the Blues expects a tough challenge from the Force, who will be motivated by all the speculation around their future.
Force coach Dave Wessels said his team needs to improve on last week's performance (a 17-45 capitulation against the Crusaders) and taking on the Blues at Eden Park provides the opportunity to do so.
"We know that to turn around the outcome of last week we need to be a lot better in a number of key areas – not least our defence," Wessels said.
"It's great to have the experience of Dane [Haylett-Petty], Billy [Meakes] and Hodgo [Matt Hodgson] back in the side this week.
"The boys have trained really hard this week under difficult circumstances and I couldn't be more proud to be part of this team."
2016: Blues won 17-13, Perth
2015: Blues won 41-24, Auckland
2014: Blues won 40-14, Perth
2012: Blues won 32-9, Auckland
2011: Blues and Force drew 22-all, Perth
Prediction: The Blues are undefeated in their last seven games against the Force; their only loss to the Western Australian side in Super Rugby came in Round Five, 2008. The Blues have won each of their last three home games against the Force, scoring a total of 111 points across that period. The Blues have won each of their last seven games at home against Australian opposition, surpassing 40 points scored on three occasions in that span. The Western Australian side have conceded just 5.5 clean breaks per game this campaign, fewer than any other team in the competition. Jonno Lance has slotted 10 of his 11 kicks at goal this season, the best rate of any player to attempt 10+ shots at goals (91 percent). It is another game where the home team is clear favourites and we believe the Blues will win by about 20 points.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi or Sam Prattley, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Rieko Ioane.
Western Force: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Chance Peni, 13 Marcel Brache, 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Jono Lance, 9 Ryan Louwrens, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Matt Hodgson, 6 Ross Haylett-Petty, 5 Richie Arnold, 4 Matt Philip, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Ben Daley.
Replacements: 16 Anaru Rangi, 17 Pek Cowan, 18 Shambeckler Vui, 19 Richard Hardwick, 20 Kane Koteka, 21 Michael Ruru, 22 Ian Prior, 23 Robbie Coleman.
Referee: Shuhei Kubo (Japan)
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Chiefs v Bulls
(FMG Stadium, Hamilton - Kick-off: 19.35; 08.35 SA time; 06.35 GMT)
The Chiefs will face the Bulls after a close shave against the Rebels in Melbourne in round four, where they snatched a 27-14 bonus point victory that left players and coaches with plenty to ponder during their bye week.
"We're not happy with the way the Rebels game went and it was a less than satisfactory performance from our team," Chiefs assistant coach Andrew Strawbridge told the Waikato Times, before adding that subsequent changes were made based on that sloppy showing against the Rebels.
That spells trouble for Bulls team in a desperate slump - having lost to the Blues (14-38) last week and their only victory having been a scrappy 34-21 triumph over the winless Sunwolves.
The Bulls readily admit they have been way off the pace this season.
"We certainly have a lot to improve," coach Nollis Marais said at the team's training base in Rotorua.
"We cannot be proud of that last 40 minutes we produced against the Blues.
"We are a better team than that and we have an opportunity against a great team to prove that."
Bulls captain, Adriaan Strauss, shared the sentiment.
"We are not doing justice to ourselves, we are not achieving the targets we set and we are disappointing our supporters," Strauss said.
"That said, this team is certainly good enough, but talk is cheap.
"We need to go out and show that on the field. We could not have picked a more fitting place or opponent to do that than against the Chiefs at home, but we have to show that belief and justify the hard work done."
2015: Chiefs won 34-20, Rotorua
2014: Chiefs and Bulls drew 34-all, Pretoria
2012: Chiefs won 28-22, Hamilton
2011: Bulls won 43-27, Pretoria
2010: Bulls won 33-19, Hamilton
Prediction: The Chiefs are undefeated in their last three games against the Bulls, and will be looking to win back-to-back games against them for the first time since Round 10, 2002. The Chiefs have lost just one of their 10 home games against the Bulls, winning each of their last two. The Bulls have scored three tries after beginning possession with a free kick so far this season; no other team has managed more than one try via this method. Liam Messam lines up for his 150th appearance in Super Rugby this weekend; the Chiefs' forward has scored three tries in his last five games at home. Piet van Zyl has scored three tries in his last five games away from home for the Bulls, despite playing an average of just 45 minutes per game in that period. The Bulls ca win, but I would not bet my house on it. The Chiefs should walk away with a comfortable win - 15 points or more.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Shaun Stevenson, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-captain), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (co-captain), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi.
Replacements: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Kane Hames, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Mitchell Karpik, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Solomon Alaimalo.
Bulls: 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Nick de Jager, 6 Ruan Steenkamp, 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Rudolph Snyman, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Jacobie Adriaanse, 19 Jason Jenkins, 20 Jannes Kirsten, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Warrick Gelant.
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Paul Williams (New Zealand), Cam Stone (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports