SR Preview: Round Seven, Part One
IN THE SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: There are already some teams in the 'desperate' category, even with more than half of their league matches still to be completed.
The Waratahs, who face the defending champion Hurricanes first up, are right up there with teams desperate to get their campaign back on track - after just two wins in the first six rounds.
Next up is a team even more desperate - the hapless Bulls facing the Sunwolves in Tokyo. The Bulls, despite a litany of stars in their line-up, have just one win in the opening six weeks, having beaten the Sunwolves (34-21) in Pretoria last month.
The Highlanders and Blues, who face off in Dunedin, are both desperate to stay in the play-offs race after some inconsistent performances in the early weeks.
In Part One we look at the first three matches of the weekend!
Friday, April 7:
Hurricanes v Waratahs
(Westpac Stadium, Wellington - Kick-off: 19.35; 17.35 AEST; 07.45 GMT)
There is the over-used cliche: 'You must earn the right to go wide.'
The Hurricanes believe they have already earned that right on the training field and will not deviate from their expansive game, even if they play in monsoon-like conditions.
Their critics will claim they tend to get too cute.
However, they simply don't believe in spending 60 minutes of a game building a platform. They built that platform in training.
Up against them this week is a team determined to use their massive pack to bully the defending Super Rugby champions into submission.
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson is clear what his team needs to do in Wellington to overcome the New Zealand outfit.
"It's exciting to come up against another kiwi team, and to play against these teams who are the benchmark of the competition," Gibson said
"In terms of our directness, the idea is that we believe we need to take on the Hurricanes in terms of what they do with the ball in hand."
The Hurricanes have no such notions - about being 'direct' or 'physical' - as Waratahs captain Michael Hooper suggested.
The Hurricanes believe that Plan A is still to roll out the champagne game.
"I like attacking, I like getting the ball in hand and we've got players that like attacking as well and the more opportunities we give them, the more times it'll work for us," Perenara told stuff.co.nz.
"Yes, we might make errors every now and then, but I can live with that.
"I think we've got so much upside in some of our players and their ability to attack from anywhere on the field.
"Like I say, we might make an error that will hurt us every now and then, but that's a risk I'm prepared to take."
2016: Hurricanes won 28-17, Sydney
2015: Waratahs won 29-24, Wellington
2014: Waratahs won 39-30, Sydney
2013: Hurricanes won 41-29, Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 33-12, Sydney
Prediction: The Hurricanes have won three of their last five games against the Waratahs, this after losing four games in a row against the Tahs prior to that. The Waratahs have won on three of their last four visits to Wellington after having not won there from 1997 to 2006. The Hurricanes have won their last eight games at home, their longest such streak, and have kept their opposition to single figures in four of their last five home fixtures. The Wellington club have won each of their last four home games against Australian opposition by an average margin of 34 points. The Waratahs have won on just two of their last 13 visits to New Zealand, their last such victory being a 29-24 win against the Hurricanes in Round 10, 2015. The conditions will give the Waratahs a chance, as their forwards will be able to slow the game down. However, the Hurricanes gave too much class and should win by 12 points.
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Wes Goosen, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (captain), 8 Reed Prinsep, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeffery To'omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ben May.
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Vaea Fifita; 20 Toa Halafihi, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Vince Aso
Waratahs: 15 Bryce Hegarty, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Israel Folau, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Cam Clark, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Paddy Ryan.
Replacement: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Sam Needs, 18 David Lolohea, 19 David McDuling, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Irae Simone, 23 Andrew Kellaway
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Shuhei Kubo (Japan), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Glen Newman (New Zealand)
Saturday, April 8:
Sunwolves v Bulls
(Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo - Kick-off: 14.15; 07.15 SA time; 05.15 GMT)
It is a sad indictment on the Bulls that - despite the quality of their players - that they have managed to beat just one team this season - the Sunwolves.
Bulls backline coach David Manuel said the coaching staff have identified a couple of 'weaknesses' that they have worked on.
However, there has been no indication of improvement in their first two tour matches - which saw them slump to 14-38 (against the Blues) and 12-28 (Chiefs) defeats in the wake of dramatic second-half slumps.
Not surprising the Sunwolves believe they have a good chance to exact revenge after the Bulls' 34-21 win at Loftus Versfeld last month, the men from Pretoria's only victory of the season.
"We love playing at home and to host a team like the Bulls in Tokyo is a special occasion for the organisation and our fans," Sunwolves coach Filo Tiatia said.
"Our fans will not only get an opportunity to watch their Sunwolves players but view some world class players like Adriaan Strauss and Handré Pollard at the same time."
Regular captain Edward Quirk, who has been ruled out through injury, spoke openly of "revenge" and there is no doubt the Sunwolves are going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the Bulls.
The Bulls believe this is an opportunity to finally get their game going, having struggled to make the conversion from a structured approach to an expansive game.
Manuel said in the Blues game they had a plan and "applied it most of the game".
"Our challenge is the last 20 minutes of the game when we lack discipline," the assistant coach said.
"The big lesson we've learnt from the Chiefs clash is that the game is about inches and the New Zealand teams are good especially when you make a mistake and don't have the discipline to play for 80 minutes.
"I think a bit of patience is needed from our side.
"We get over anxious and over-excited and that leads to bad decisions with the ball in hand."
He said the players are "professionals" and must take ownership for their performances.
"There has been a huge chat about that [ownership] and if everybody can do that and bring it to the game, we will be better off,' Manuel said from the team's base in Tokyo.
2017: Bulls won 34-21, Pretoria
2016: Bulls won 50-3, Pretoria
2016: Bulls won 30-27, Singapore
Prediction: The Bulls have won each of their three previous meetings between these teams, though the last and only previous time the Sunwolves hosted this fixture it was decided by a margin of just three points. The Sunwolves have taken the lead into the half-time break in three of their last six games at home, though they've yet to convert a half-time lead into a win on home turf. The Bulls have lost their last five games outside South Africa; their last such win came against the Western Force in Round 10, 2016. The Sunwolves are one of just three teams in the competition (Highlanders, Stormers) yet to lose a scrum on their own feed this season. Jannes Kirsten made 14 tackles after coming off the bench in the Bulls' Round Six loss to the Chiefs, the most by a Bulls' replacement player since Jacques Du Plessis made 16 tackles against the Hurricanes in Round Eight, 2014. You have to think the Sunwolves will have a realistic chance of toppling a Bulls team that lacks confidence in their own game. However, there is this nagging feeling the Bulls will finally get their act together and win again - by 15 points.
Sunwolves: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Takaaki Nakazuru, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Derek Carpenter, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Hayden Cripps, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Rahboni Warren, 7 Shuhei Matsuhashi, 6 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Yasuo Yamaji, 2 Yusuke Niwai, 1 Koki Yamamoto.
Replacements: 16 Takeshi, 17 Keita Inagaki, 18 Heiichiro Ito, 19 Sam Wykes, 20 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 Yu Tamura, 23 Ryohei Yamanaka.
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Nic de Jager, 5 Rudolph Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Pierre Schoeman, 18 Martin Dreyer, 19 Jaco Visagie/HendréStassen, 20 Jacques Potgieter, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Francois Brummer, 23 Franco Naude.
Referee: Will Houston
Assistant referees: Rohan Hoffmann, Akihisa Aso
TMO: Minoru Fuji
Highlanders v Blues
(Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin - Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT)
The Gordon Hunter Memorial trophy - which has been played for between the two teams since 2002 - is again up for grabs.
Hunter coached Otago from 1992 to1995 and the Highlanders in the inaugural year of Super Rugby in 1996.
He then went on to be a selector and assistant coach of the All Blacks from 1996 to 1999, before becoming the head coach of the Blues in 2000.
However, there are other reasons why these two sides will be charged up for Saturday's crucial encounter.
Both teams are just outside the play-off zone - mainly because of the convoluted conference system - both with three wins from six starts.
Both have won their last two matches and are beginning to show their play-off potential.
The Blues have welcomed back All Black Steven Luatua from suspension and will be looking to his physicality to get the edge over the Highlanders an what will be a brutal contest.
They also have Sonny Bill Williams, back from an eight-month injury lay-off, in the reserves.
Luatua, who announced he would be leaving the Blues for Bristol after this season, will need to make amends for his foul play misstep in Round Two.
"Without looking too far ahead, we're two games away from the bye and it's been a long block for us,'' Blues coach Tana Umaga told the Otago Daily Times.
Umaga said they will be looking for the "energy and his experience" Luatua showed prior to his indiscretion against the Highlanders.
"He's been training for four weeks now and it's been pretty good actually."
The Blues coach felt his team was not too far away from being at their best.
"We want a little bit more energy and they want to do the same thing - they're in the same predicament as us," Umaga said.
"Hopefully we get a good game out of that, two sides desperate for a result.''
Highlanders coach Tony Brown, despite his team's 39-point demolition of the winless Rebels last week, feels they will need to raise the bar considerably against the Blues.
"We've got a massive challenge against the Blues," Brown said.
"I'd say they're going to be at least three times as good as the Rebels."
2017: Highlanders won 16-12, Auckland
2016: Blues won 33-31, Auckland
2015: Highlanders won 44-7, Auckland
2015: Highlanders won 30-24, Dunedin
2014: Blues won 30-12, Auckland
2014: Highlanders won 29-21, Dunedin
Prediction: The Highlanders have won seven of their last 10 games against the Blues, after having lost six in a row against them prior to that run. The Highlanders have won each of their last four home games against the Blues, though they've come by an average margin of just seven points. Four of the last five New Zealand derbies have been decided by a margin of fewer than 10 points. The Blues have won just one of their last 22 away games in New Zealand; that win came back in Round 2, 2013 against the Hurricanes. Matt Duffie has scored six tries in his last eight games for the Blues, including three tries in his last two games. This will go down to the wire and the lead may change hands several times. To call a winner is perilous, but we will say the Highlanders by five - only because they are at home.
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 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser, James Doleman
TMO: Shane McDermott
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports