SR Preview: Round Eight, Part One
IN THE SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: Now that the cat is out the bag, the South African and Australian conferences are going to get a lot more interesting.
The Sunwolves can travel to Christchurch on Friday, for an encounter with the seven-time champion Crusaders, safe in the knowledge that they will partake in the competition next year, even if they concede 100 points in all their remaining matches.
However, on Saturday is when things get interesting.
First up the Reds, apparently also safe, host the Southern Kings - one of the teams on the South African shortlist for franchises to be culled in 2018.
Then we can sit back and enjoy another thrilling New Zealand derby - the Blues versus Hurricanes.
In Part One of the preview, we look at the first three matches of the weekend!
Friday, April 14:
Crusaders v Sunwolves
(AMI Stadium, Christchurch - Kick-off: 19.35; 16.35 Japan time; 07.35 GMT)
The Sunwolves could be in for a rude awaking when they arrive in Christchurch on Saturday.
The Crusaders will play the Japanese side, who have been confirmed by SANZAAR as safe from the impending cull looming over Super Rugby, for the first time.
The Crusaders, along with the Stormers, are the only unbeaten sides remaining going into round eight of the competition.
The seven-time champion Crusaders ease back into the fray following a bye and have All Black captain Kieran Read back for his first outing of the season - having recovered from wrist surgery.
And the match will also be a significant milestone for fellow All Black Crockett, as he makes a record 176th appearance in Super Rugby.
The 34-year-old will overtake retired All Black Keven Mealamu's record of 175.
The Crusaders feel comfortable enough to have made a raft of changes to the side that beat the Waratahs a fortnight ago.
Just five players of their 23 remain in the same position
The Sunwolves, who are coached by retired All Black back row forward Filo Tiatia and have listed former Highlander Fumiaki Tanaka to start at scrumhalf, upset the Bulls 21-20 in Tokyo last weekend.
However, they should not expect such 'hospitality' from a New Zealand outfit determined to cling to their place at the top of Super Rugby's totem pole.
These teams have never met before in Super Rugby
Prediction: This will be the first-ever meeting between these sides, though the Sunwolves' only previous encounter with New Zealand opposition ended in an 83-17 loss to the Hurricanes. The Crusaders have won each of their last six games, though four of those victories came by single-figure margins. In fact, the Crusaders have won 12 of their last 14 games at home, scoring an average of 37 points per game across that period. The Sunwolves have scored four tries in two of their last three games away from home after doing so only once in their six Super Rugby away matches before that. The Crusaders have won their last 14 regular season games against teams from outside New Zealand, scoring an average of 38 points per game across those victories. The only way the Sunwolves will win this game is if the Crusaders fail to turn up. The Crusaders will win by at least 25 points - probably a lot more.
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Manasa Mataele, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Pete Samu, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Whetu Douglas, 21 Leon Fukofuka, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 George Bridge.
Sunwolves: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Takaaki Nakazuru, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Derek Carpenter, 11 Teruya Goto, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, 7 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 6 Edward Quirk, 5 Sam Wykes, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Takuma Asahara, 2 Takeshi Kizu, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Heiichiro Ito, 19 Shinya Makabe, 20 Yuhimaru Mimura, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 William Tupou, 23 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Shuhei Kubo (Japan), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Glen Newman (New Zealand)
Saturday, April 15:
Reds v Southern Kings
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - Kick-off: 15.05; -7.05 SA time; 05.05 GMT)
The Reds may have escaped the big Super Rugby cull - or at least they believe they will.
However, Reds fullback Karmichael Hunt admitted it is a 'difficult time' all round.
"As players, we wanted to stand for a five-team [five Australian teams in the] competition, but obviously the Australian Rugby Union and SANZAAR [South Africa, New Zealand, Australian and Argentina Rugby] have gone the other way," Hunt said.
"For us, as Reds players, our focus is here - on playing rugby and winning games," he added.
The problem is that their opponents, the Southern Kings, are in line - or at the very least on the official shortlist - to be culled from the competition in 2018.
Hunt said the Reds are determined to put the sideshows behind them and focus on a team that will be determined to claim a few scalps and make a statement about staying in the competition going forward.
"Being one [win] from six [starts] is not goof, so we are looking forwards to putting in a good performance," the fullback said.
Reds coach Nick Stiles admitted that his team's preparations have been disrupted by a Wallaby camp, with their first full training session on Tuesday afternoon.
The Kings made a statement of intent against the Western Force (another team on the chopping block) last week.
They will have to replicate that performance - only with a 'W' attached to the result.
Kings coach Deon Davids admitted that his side was expecting another tough encounter against the Reds.
"The Reds are a quality side with a lot of international players in their squad," Davids said.
"It is going to be important for us to minimise our mistakes and use our opportunities much more effectively against them on Saturday," he said.
"Last week [against the Force] there was much improvement in certain areas of our game.
"Unfortunately, close decisions and our inability to use our opportunities better cost us that game.
"We are a team that is still learning, eager to learn and we are very excited to get an opportunity to play a quality side like the Reds on Saturday here in Brisbane."
These teams have never met before in Super Rugby
Prediction: This will be the first meeting between the Reds and Kings; the South African side have won once, drawn once and lost once in their three previous visits to Australia. The Reds have won six of their last eight games at home against South African opposition, including each of their last two. The Kings have won just one of their last five games outside of South Africa, conceding an average of 48 points per game across that period. The Kings have made 133 tackles and won 9.5 turnovers per game this season, more than any other team in either category. Samu Kerevi has beaten 33 defenders from just seven games this season, eight more than any other player and 14 more than Kings' best Lionel Cronje (19). The Reds are at home and while they (according to the ARU) have no axe hovering over their head, they are under pressure. The Kings will again be competitive, but we expect the Reds to edge the visitors by eight points.
Reds: 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Izaia Perese, 13 Samu Kerevi (captain), 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 George Smith, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Lukhan Tui, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Alex Mafi, 1 Sef Fa'agase.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Ready, 17 Kirwan Sanday, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Kane Douglas, 20 Adam Korczyk, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Chris Kuridrani.
Southern Kings: 15 Masixole Banda, 14 Yaw Penxe, 13 Berton Klaasen, 12 Luzuko Vulindlu, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Lionel Cronje (captain), 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Ruaan Lerm, 7 Tyler Paul, 6 Chris Cloete, 5 Wilhelm van der Sluys, 4 Mzwanele Zito, 3 Justin Forwood, 2 Michael Willemse, 1 Chris Heiberg.
Replacements: 16 Martin Bezuidenhout, 17 Schalk van der Merwe, 18 Dayan van der Westhuizen, 19 Irne Herbst, 20 Andisa Ntsila, 21 Johan Steyn, 22 Wandile Mjekevu, 23 Pieter-Steyn de Wet.
Referee: Quinton Immelman (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa), Damon Murphy (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
Blues v Hurricanes
(Eden Park, Auckland - Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT)
The defending champion Hurricanes travel to Auckland to face the Blues in a match that had the spotlight on sideshows all week.
The sideshows revolve around code-hopping All Black Sonny Bill Williams, who will be starting in a new unique jersey which does not feature the logo of the team or competition sponsors - to conform with his Muslim beliefs.
However, Williams has agreed to wear, instead, the logo of child health service - whose principal sponsor is the banking giant the sponsors the Blues.
Back to the rugby.
The Hurricanes come into the match second on the New Zealand conference ladder with five wins and one loss, while the Blues are in fifth place with three wins and four losses.
Blues coach Tana Umaga said the team is looking forward to taking on the unbeaten Hurricanes.
"We are under no illusions that the Hurricanes will pose a tough test and we will need to be at our best for the whole 80 minutes," he said.
"We continued to make progress last week and for much of the game played well but could not quite get across the line.
"We need to continue that improvement in all aspects, especially our decision-making at critical moments."
Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd said he was expecting a tough match against the Blues.
"Their results probably haven't been what they'd like, but you only have to look at the team sheet to know they have attacking threats across the park," Boyd said.
"We will need to be a lot better on defence this week to come out on the right side of the ledger."
2016: Hurricanes won 37-27, Wellington
2016: Hurricanes won 23-19, Auckland
2015: Hurricanes won 29-5, Auckland
2015: Hurricanes won 30-23, Palmerston North
2014: Blues won 37-24, Auckland
2014: Hurricanes won 39-20, Wellington
Prediction: The Hurricanes have won their last four games against the Blues, the longest winning streak by either team in this fixture since the Blues won the first eight games between the clubs. The Blues have won just one of their last nine home games against fellow New Zealand teams, though each of their last four such fixtures has been decided by no more than the value of an unconverted try. Only once in their last nine away games against New Zealand opposition have the Hurricanes conceded more than two tries. Six of the last eight New Zealand derbies so far this season have been decided by a single figure margin, and each of the last three has been won by the home team. The Blues have failed to score a second-half try in three of their last five Super Rugby games; each of those three was against New Zealand opposition. It is Auckland, so the Blues will be up for it. However, the question is: 'Will they finally produce and 80-minute performance?' We think not, which means the Hurricanes will win by 12 points with a couple of late scores.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 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, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 George Moala.
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Wes Goosen, 13 Vince Aso, 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 Ben May.
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Cory Jane.
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports