SR Preview: Round 10, Part One
IN THE SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: As we head into the second half of the season, there is substantially less room for errors (read defeats).
Our weekend starts with two teams who are sitting pretty in the play-off zone, but can't afford too many slip-ups - as it would allow some determined chasers back into the hunt.
The vastly improved Highlanders, on a four-match winning streak, host a Stormers team looking to bounce back from two consecutive defeats.
That is followed by the Chiefs, well settled in the play-off zone, against the basement-dwelling Sunwolves.
Then follows an all-Australian derby between the Reds and Waratahs - both well outside the top 10 and whose play-off hope lies in the fact that the equally dismal Brumbies have lost three of their last four matches.
In Part One of the preview we look at the first three matches of the weekend!
Friday, April 28:
Highlanders v Stormers
(Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin - Kick-off: 19.35; 09.35 SA time; 07.35 GMT)
The Stormers are the 'desperate' team in this encounter.
They are still a good 12 points clear of their nearest rival in the Africa One conference, the Bulls, but should they lose this week and next week against the Hurricanes, it will open the back door for a Bulls team that are at home for the rest of the season.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown is aware of the threat the Stormers brings - based on their form before the last two weeks, when they lost to the Lions and Crusaders.
"They are an exciting side who like to play an expansive game," Brown said of the Stormers - a side that he played eight games in, in 2008.
"They will be looking forward to familiar dry conditions and I am sure they will be well up for the game."
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck spoke of a 'tough week', coming off the (24-57) loss to the Crusaders and then only having six days in the build-up.
Fleck said they kept it 'simple', because changing things too much tactically will not help the players.
He was also aware of the Highlanders' impressive form in recent weeks - victories over the Brumbies, Rebels, Blues and Sunwolves.
"They had a bit of an unlucky start to their campaign," Fleck said, adding: "The last few weeks they have really started to turn in on.
"Tactically they are very smart. They kick a lot behind you, put pressure on you and play in your half."
As is always the case, the big talking point for teams playing the Highlanders is their backline, with All Blacks Ben and Aaron Smith they key players.
"On turnover possession they can kill you," the Stormers coach said, adding: "That is what let us down against the Crusaders, we turned over too much ball.
"We can't afford that against the Highlanders, as their back three will skin us alive."
He also spoke of the line speed of the Crusaders on defence and said they have to be much better all round of they want any chance to win.
2015: Highlanders won 39-21, Dunedin
2014: Stormers won 29-28, Cape Town
2012: Stormers won 21-6, Dunedin
2011: Stormers won 18-6, Cape Town
2010: Stormers 33-0, Cape Town
Prediction: The Highlanders won their last encounter with the Stormers 39-21 in Round Seven, 2015, snapping a six-game losing streak against the Cape Town side. The Stormers have never scored more than 24 points in a game against the Highlanders when playing in New Zealand, and average just 19pts per game across that eight-game span. The Highlanders were defeated by one point in their last home game against a team from South Africa, they've not lost consecutive such games since Round Seven, 2012, when they lost to the Stormers. The Highlanders have won their last four games, the last time they won more in succession was a stretch of five wins from March to April last season. The Stormers have lost their last six games in New Zealand, their longest losing streak there, including a 33-point defeat to the Crusaders in the last round which was their second-heaviest loss in New Zealand in the competition's history. The Stormers have demanded their opposition make 125 tackles per game this season, forcing a bigger defensive effort of their opponents than any other team in the competition. The Stormers have scored eight tries when beginning possession with a kick return, the second most of any team in the competition (Crusaders - nine). The Highlanders have been successful with 89 percent of their goal kicks this season, the best accuracy of any team in the competition and 15 percentage points more accurate than the Stormers (74 percent). In fact, Marty Banks boasts a goal kicking accuracy of 96 percent, having missed just one of his 25 attempts; the best accuracy of any player in the competition to have attempted at least 10 kicks. Sarel Marais has been involved in nine tries this season (three tries, six try assists), the fourth most of any player and the most of any player not playing for the Hurricanes. The Stormers can win, but don't put your house on it. The smart money is on a Highlanders win - we think by six points.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Gareth Evans, 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 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Stormers: 15 Sarel Marais, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Dan Kriel, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Jan de Klerk, 4 Eben Etzebeth (vice-captain), 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Oliver Kebble.
Replacements: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 JC Janse van Rensburg, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Kobus van Dyk, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Dewaldt Duvenage, 22 Shaun Treeby (Stormers debut), 23 Bjorn Basson.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Saturday, April 29:
Chiefs v Sunwolves
(Waikato Stadium, Hamilton - Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT; 16.35 Japan time)
It is telling of the Sunwolves' status - or the perceived lack of threat they pose - that the Chiefs made a raft of changes for this game.
All told, there are just three players - Damian McKenzie, Aaron Cruden and Dominic Bird - who will wear their same numbers on their jersey as last week.
Frontline players like Michael Leitch, Brodie Retallick, Siegfried Fisi'ihoi and Atu Moli are being rested altogether.
Chiefs coach Dace Rennie certainly raised some eyebrows when he did not even name a scrumhalf among the replacements.
Jonathan Taumateine will start and captain Aaron Cruden will cover the No.9 position.
The Sunwolves are not just last in the Africa One conference, with one win from eight, they also lost 3-50 the Crusaders and 15-40 to the Highlanders in their last two outings.
However, assistant coach Andrew Strawbridge dismissed the notion that they are disrespecting the visitors from Japan.
"You base your season and your planning around when you're going to rest people and not rest people, based on who you're playing, and who you think you can cope with," Strawbridge told the Waikato Times.
"I don't think it matters who [what team] it is.
"We played the Western Force last week and according to the media they weren't supposed to have been too much of a hurdle. We struggled to put them away."
Sunwolves lock Shinya Makabe said playing the New Zealand teams are vastly different from facing up to South African sides.
"We were surprised by the speed of the New Zealand teams," he said about the adjustments they had to make in the first two matches.
"We will keep improving and hopefully we would be able to do the things we intend to in the Chiefs game."
These teams have never met before.
Prediction: This will be the first game between these teams, though it will be the third and final game of the Sunwolves' first ever tour to New Zealand. The Chiefs have won their last five games on home soil, the last time they went on a longer home winning streak was a run of nine from 2013 to 2014. In fact, the Chiefs have won 20 of their last 23 games at home against teams from outside New Zealand, those wins coming by an average margin of 15 points. The Sunwolves are yet to win away from home, with their 11 losses so far coming by an average margin of 30 points. In fact, the Japanese side have conceded 90 points already in their tour of New Zealand so far from just two games. The Chiefs have stolen 17 line-outs this campaign, the equal most of any team in the competition (level with the Kings). The Sunwolves have lost just 2.9 rucks per game this season, the fewest of any team, and boast a league-high 96 percent ruck success rate. The Chiefs have conceded just one try from possessions beginning in their opposition's half this season, the fewest of any team in the competition and 11 fewer than the Sunwolves. Damian McKenzie is one of just three players to have made over 100 carries this season; in fact, his 121 carries are 20 more than any other player in the competition. Jamie-Jerry Taulagi has provided 17 offloads for the Sunwolves this campaign, the equal most of any player in the competition alongside the Stormers' Sarel Marais. No matter what the Chiefs say, they see this as an easy game and we feel the same - it is just a matter of the margin. The Chiefs to win by at least 30 points.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Solomon Alaimalo, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Stephen Donald, 11 Sam McNicol, 10 Aaron Cruden (captain), 9 Jonathan Taumateine, 8 Sam Cane, 7 Mitchell Karpik, 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Taleni Seu, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Sosefo Kautai, 19 Mitchell Brown, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Alex Nankivell, 22 Shaun Stevenson, 23 James Lowe.
Sunwolves: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Teruya Goto, 13 William Tupou, 12 Derek Carpenter, 11 Yasutaka Sasakura, 10 Hayden Cripps, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Willem Britz, 7 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 6 Edward Quirk, 5 Sam Wykes, 4 Shinya Makabe, 3 Heiichiro Ito, 2 Takeshi Kizu, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Uwe Helu, 20 Rahboni Vosayaco, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 Yu Tamura, 23 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi.
Referee: Will Houston (Australia)
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Reds v Waratahs
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - Kick-off: 19.45; 09.45 GMT)
These two teams are playing for scraps of honour and the faint hope that the Brumbies will keep losing - leaving the back door open to them for a play-off place.
The quality and form of the Australian teams have been well-documented, so when they face each other it is life or death - a chance for some redemption.
It is often also a dour slugfest.
Reds coach Nick Stiles feel that there is plenty to play for, despite the constant criticism of the poor standards in the Australian conference.
"No one needs reminding of the importance of this match for both sides," Stiles said.
"This is the only Queensland versus New South Wales fixture in the 2017 calendar and it has a lot of implications for the Australian conference.
"I know the team, the organisation and our fans are really looking forward to it.
"It's also great to be able to bring a few players back from injury this week.
"Everyone wants a chance to pull the colours on against New South Wales.
"Those guys have worked really hard to ensure they're fit to play and are really excited to take the field on Saturday."
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said the New South Wales versus Queensland rivalry is one that means a lot to the side and the team will be wanting to represent the state proudly when they pull on the sky blue jersey on Saturday.
"For us this weekend it's all about pride in our jersey," Gibson said.
"This is our biggest local derby and we want to represent our State proudly."
In order to win, both sides certainly needs to raise the bar substantially - something Gibson readily acknowledged.
"A big focus for us this weekend is improving our line-outs," the Waratahs coach said, adding: "We have David McDuling and Dean Mumm starting as locks to ensure we have superior line-outs."
Waratahs captain Michael Hooper said he knows what to expect of the encounter on Saturday.
"We are in anticipation for a tough game and a physical, hard battle", said Hooper.
"[We're also] anticipating a really good battle in [the] back row.
"We've got some really young, hungry guys here in Wellsy [Michael Wells] and Ned [Hanigan] that take it up to an older back row."
2016: Waratahs won 15-13, Brisbane
2016: Waratahs won 30-10, Sydney
2015: Waratahs won 31-5, Sydney
2015: Waratahs won 23-5, Brisbane
2014: Waratahs won 34-3, Brisbane
Prediction: The Waratahs have won their last six games against the Reds, conceding an average of just seven points per game in that span. Eight of the last 11 Australian derbies in Super Rugby have been won by the home team, including each of the last two. The Reds come into this fixture looking for consecutive wins for the first time since Round 17, 2014. Both the Reds and Waratahs have kicked just one second-half penalty goal each this season, the equal fewest of any team in the competition alongside the Hurricanes. Scott Higginbotham has snatched five line-out steals so far this season, the equal most of any player and more than any other Australian-based player. Who is the best of a very bad bunch? We think the Reds will get up for this one and edge the Waratahs by five 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 Stephen Moore, 1 Sef Fa'agase.
Replacements: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Kirwan Sanday, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Izack Rodda, 20 Leroy Houston, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Campbell Magnay.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Cam Clark, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Dean Mumm, 4 David McDuling, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Hugh Roach, 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Irae Simone, 23 Bryce Hegarty.
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jordan Way (Australia), Damon Murphy (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports