SR Preview: Round Six, Part Two
IN THE SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: Expect some big moves on Saturday and Sunday, as the more accomplished teams look to put space between themselves and the chasing pack.
Yes, it is a long way to go and a lot can happen.
However, the Crusaders, Lions, Stormers and Hurricanes all have opportunities to cement their places in the play-off zone - especially on the two South African derbies, where vital conference points are at stake.
The two New Zealand sides face trans-Tasman rivals and are expected to collect easy points.
This may well be the weekend where the leading teams put down big markers.
In Part Two we look at the last four matches of the weekend!
Saturday, April 1:
Reds v Hurricanes
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - Kick-off: 18.45; 21.45 NZDT; 08.45 GMT)
Apart from playing in Brisbane, the Hurricanes hold all the aces.
The New Zealand franchise is coming off a bye this week and travels just two hours across the Tasman Sea.
In stark contrast the Reds have returned from a monstrous two-week tour that - apart from heavy defeats to the Lions and Jaguares - have seen them travel from Brisbane to Johannesburg (11,600-odd kilometres and more than 16 hours flying time), from Johannesburg to Sao Paulo (almost 7,500 kilometres and a nine-hour flight), then - after a three-hour stopover in Sao Paulo - flew to Buenos Aires (1,675 kilometres and three hour flight time). The final leg from Buenos Aires to Brisbane had the players flying 12,355, but spending more than 38 hours in the air.
You do the maths.
With three wins and one loss this season the Hurricanes currently sit in third place on the New Zealand conference ladder behind the Crusaders and Chiefs.
The Reds are third in the Australian conference behind the Brumbies and Waratahs with one win - a fortuitous last-minute victory against the Sharks in the opening round - and four losses.
Reds coach Nick Stiles admitted his team faces a "massive" challenge against the defending champions and again one of the tournament's pace-setters.
"We have to look at that as an opportunity," Stiles said.
"We've had some really disappointing losses over the last few weeks, but you can sense within the team that we're close to producing the right result on the field," the coach added.
"Last week's performance simply wasn't good enough, but the players have been honest in their appraisal and committed to learning from it and getting better.
"It's been a tough few weeks, but we couldn't be happier to be back at home this weekend with an opportunity to make our fans proud."
2016: Hurricanes won 29-14, Wellington
2015: Hurricanes won 35-19, Brisbane
2014: Hurricanes won 35-21, Wellington
2013: Reds won 18-12, Brisbane
2011: Hurricanes won 28-26, Wellington
Prediction: The Hurricanes have won 12 of their last 14 games against the Reds, including each of the last three by an average margin of 15 points. Six of the Reds' last nine games at home have been decided by three points or fewer, including each of the last three. The Hurricanes have won five of their last six games in Australia, including each of their last two, with their five wins coming by an average margin of 18 points. The Reds are the only team so far this season to have scored a try after receiving possession from a 22-metre restart. Hurricanes trio Vince Aso (six tries, one assist), Ngani Laumape (five, two), and Ardie Savea (four, three) have each been involved in seven tries this season; only the Lions' Rohan Janse van Rensburg (8) has been involved in more. It is simply a matter of by how much the Hurricanes will win and we feel it will be at least 20 points.
Reds: 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Chris Kuridrani, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Jake McIntyre, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 George Smith, 6 Adam Korczyk, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Stephen Moore (captain), 1 Markus Vanzati.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Ready, 17 Kirwan Sanday, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Lukhan Tui, 20 Hendrik Tui, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Izaia Perese.
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Vince Aso, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (captain), 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeffery To'omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Chris Eves.
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Ben May, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Pita Ahki.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Nic Berry (Australia), Amy Perrett (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
Stormers v Cheetahs
(Newlands, Cape Town - Kick-off: 15.05; 13.05 GMT)
Cheetahs coach Franco Smith readily admits his team needs to overcome their 'fear of failure' if they are to reach their potential this season.
Smith this week bemoaned the fact that his charges tend to play 'not to lose', rather than playing to win.
If they overcome their fears - brought on by the uncertainty of their future, given the pending changes and possibility of teams being axed from Super Rugby next year - they will be a real threat to the Stormers.
Smith hope that former South African Under-20 wing Luther Obi will provide the spark that will unlock the Cheetahs' attacking potential.
Obi has been named on the bench for the match, while Sergeal Petersen is fit and will start on the right wing.
Including Raymond Rhule, the Cheetahs boast with three former Baby Bok wings in their match squad.
Smith also named regular flyhalf Niel Marais at inside centre, alongside captain Francois Venter.
The Cheetahs coach us clearly looking to shake up his team.
The Stormers, despite being the only unbeaten team in the South African conference, are cautious ahead of what could be a banana peel for the Cape Town-based franchise.
"We were not happy with our defence in the first half [against the Sunwolves last week] and we were pretty open about it during the week," Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said, when asked about the aspects of his team's game that need the most attention.
"Hopefully, we will see a better defensive performance this weekend," he said of the dangers posed by the Cheetahs.
Stormers captain Siya Kolisi said he expects a "very tough" game and that the Cheetahs will "bring everything".
"They had a good game last week against the Sharks," Kolisi said.
"We know what's coming and it is always going to be a tough game for us playing the Cheetahs home and away."
2016: Stormers won 31-24, Cape Town
2016: Stormers won 20-10, Bloemfontein
2015: Stormers won 42-12, Cape Town
2015: Cheetahs win 25-17, Bloemfontein
2014: Stormers won 33-0, Cape Town
2014: Cheetahs won 35-22, Bloemfontein
Prediction: The Stormers have won their last three games against the Cheetahs, the longest winning streak of either time in this fixture since the Stormers won seven on the bounce from 2008 to 2012. The Stormers have won each of their last four regular season games at home, scoring an average of 38 points per game in that span. The Cheetahs have won just two of their last 13 games away from home within South Africa, and haven't won an away game against the Stormers since Round Six, 2006. The Cheetahs boast a goal kicking success rate of 90 percent this campaign, better than any other team in the tournament and 21 percentage points higher than the Stormers. EW Viljoen has scored a try in each of his last three games for the Stormers. The Cheetahs do have a realistic chance of upsetting the apple cart, but our money is on a Stormers win - by eight points.
Stormers: 15 SP Marais, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Dan du Plessis, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Siya Kolisi (captain), 6 Cobus Wiese, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth , 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Replacements: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Caylib Oosthuizen, 18 Oliver Kebble, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Nizaam Carr, 21 Dewaldt Duvenage, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Dan Kriel.
Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (captain), 12 Niel Marais, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Teboho Mohoje, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Charles Marais.
Replacements: 16 Elandré Huggett, 17 Retshegofaditswe Nche 18 Tom Botha, 19 Carl Wegner, 20 Niell Jordaan, 21 Tian Meyer, 22 Nico Lee, 23 Luther Obi
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Quinton Immelman (South Africa), Cwengile Jadezweni (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
Lions v Sharks
(Ellis Park, Johannesburg - Kick-off: 17.15; 15.15 GMT)
Despite what the coaches say, or their attempts to downplay the importance of the game, this is THE match of the weekend.
With just two points separating the table-topping Lions (19 points from five games), Jaguares (18 from five) and Sharks (17 from five) in the Africa Two conference, winning at Ellis Park will be crucial in the greater scheme of things.
Sharks coach Robert du Preez has gone for a heavyweight pack in the hope of blunting the Lions' famed attack.
The combined weight of his loose forwards is 329 kilogrammes.
The Sharks are one of just four teams (Highlanders, Stormers, Sunwolves) who are yet to lose a scrum on their own feed this campaign.
In contrast, the Lions will again rely on mobility.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann is adamant his team won't creep into their shells and become conservative, just because there is some additional pressure.
"I said it last year when it came to crunch time and play-offs, we are set in our routines, we follow the same path, the players are comfortable and they can plan around that and tick the same boxes," Ackermann said.
"Obviously there's stuff that you focus on a little bit more what you didn't do well the week before, but we know it's a big game and a big challenge, everybody is aware of what's going on."
The Lions mentor said the Sharks have played good rugby ate times this season.
"If you look at that squad it's a very young and exciting squad.
"There are quality players and they have the old hands in-between and [coach] Robert [du Preez] has done a great job there."
Sharks coach Robert du Preez said they have to make a big step up from last week's performance, despite recording a come-from-behind win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
"There were a few areas we let ourselves down in last week and we needed to work on for this match," Du Preez said.
"I cannot fault the focus and energy that our players once again brought to training this week, which pleases us as a coaching unit.
"We are under no illusions about the enormity of the match on Saturday.
"The Lions are a good team with threats all around the park.
"They play a similar game to the Cheetahs and our accuracy with our attacking and defensive effort is going to be key.
"There is a huge belief amongst our special group of players and we want to go out there on Saturday and make our fans proud."
2016: Lions won 37-10, Johannesburg
2016: Lions won 24-9, Durban
2015: Lions won 23-21, Johannesburg
2015: Sharks won 29-12, Durban
2014: Sharks win 25-12, Johannesburg
2014: Sharks won 37-23, Durban
Prediction: The Lions have won each of their last three games against the Sharks, more than they had won in their previous 13 meetings.The Lions have won each of their last eight games on home turf, winning by an average margin of 26 points per game across than span. The Sharks have won their last two away games, the last time they enjoyed a longer streak was a stretch of three road wins in Round Three, 2016, which equalled the franchise record. The Sharks are one of just four teams (Highlanders, Stormers, Sunwolves) who are yet to lose a scrum on their own feed this campaign. Malcolm Marx has scored seven tries in his last 10 games, including one in each of his last four appearances. This will be a hard-fought battle that will be in the balance to the end. The Lions to sneak it by five points.
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Madosh Tambwe, 13 Harold Vorster, 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 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Hencus van Wyk, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Albertus Smith, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Jacques Nel, 23 Dillon Smit.
Sharks: 15 Garth April, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Lubabalo Mtembu (captain), 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Mahlatse Ralepelle, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Stephan Lewies, 20 Jacques Vermeulen, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Inny-Christian Radebe, 23 Jeremy Ward.
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), AJ Jacobs (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
Sunday, April 2:
Waratahs v Crusaders
(Allianz Stadium, Sydney - Kick-off: 16.05; 18.05 NZ time; 06.05 GMT)
The Waratahs showed great heart last week to come from behind and steal a late winner.
They will have to raise the bar considerably when the Crusaders arrive in Sydney, as the Kiwis have shown some real killer instinct.
Waratahs Coach Daryl Gibson stressed the importance of a full 80-minute performance from the home side.
"The games they [Crusaders] have played, they've been behind in three of those and have come storming to win," Gibson said.
"So we know if we are going to beat them we have got to play for 80 minutes and be right in there for the whole fight."
Waratahs assistant coach Nathan Grey, however, warned against focusing too much on the opposition and forgetting about the Tahs' own game.
"A lot of people get caught up looking too much at the Crusaders," Grey said.
"You certainly have a quick look at where they can hurt you and where they can damage you, but it's really important this week for us to look within and identify where we can do our things better.
"From that, build a really good performance and put the Crusaders side under a lot of pressure.
"They do leak like all teams do under pressure, so you have to be good enough to be able to do that to them for the full 80 minutes to get the result."
Grey also pointed to the need for a full 80-minute performance, as that is what the Crusaders will bring.
"They have a lot of belief in the way they play and they present a number of challenges, but we're confident that we get our preparation right and we deliver on the field that we can get the job done on Sunday," Grey added.
2016: Crusaders won 29-10, Christchurch
2015: Waratahs won 32-22, Sydney
2014: Waratahs won 33-32, Sydney (Final)
2013: Crusaders won 23-22, Christchurch
2012: Crusaders won 37-33, Sydney
Prediction: The Crusaders have won 12 of their last 14 games against the Waratahs, though the NSW side's two wins in that run have come in the last three meetings between the teams. The spoils are split at four wins apiece between these franchises in their last eight meetings in New South Wales, with the average winning margin across those games coming in at just four points per game. The Crusaders have won on their last four visits to Australia, the last time they enjoyed a longer streak was a franchise-best five straight wins from 1999 to 2000. The Crusaders have made an average of 170 passes per game this season, the most of any team and 23 more than the Waratahs. Silatolu Latu has won 12 turnovers so far this season, the equal most of any player and eight more than Crusaders' best Sam Whitelock (four). It could get ugly for the Waratahs of they are just slightly off their game. We feel the Crusaders will win, by about 18 points.
Waratahs: 15 Cam Clark, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Israel Folau, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Andrew Kellaway, 10 Mack Mason, 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 Irae Simone, 23 Taqele Naiyaravoro.
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Digby Ioane, 13 Tim Bateman 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Matt Todd, 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 Bryn Hallm 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Manasa Mataele.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Will Houston (Australia), Ed Martin (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports