SR Preview: Round 12, Part One
IN THE SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: You may as well call this the dance of the desperates. The Cheetahs and Brumbies are both desperate to end their losing streaks.
The Cheetahs, who have lost their last seven matches, have been in the brink of a number of upsets. But coach Franco Smith has just about pulled out the last strand of hair, as his team continues to butcher healthy leads and lose in the dying stages.
They have to arrest the run of 'chokes' against a Blues side that look lethal - even without the skills of a concussed Sonny Bill Williams.
The Brumbies are in the fortunate position that they are in the rabble that is the Australian conference, as they have won just three matches in nine starts and have just one win in the last six weeks. They are on a three-match losing streak.
In Part One of the preview we look at the Friday matches!
Friday, May 12:
Blues v Cheetahs
(Eden Park, Auckland - Kick-off: 19.35; 09.35 SA Time; 07.35 GMT)
The Blues return to Eden Park after two wins on the road in Australia, desperate to keep their winning streak going against the Cheetahs.
The Cheetahs, on the other hand, will be desperate to get out of a rut that's seen them lose seven straight games.
Though they came agonisingly close last week against the Highlanders, going down 41-45 by conceding three tries in the final five minutes.
In fact the Cheetahs held a 24-0 lead in the first half.
The Blues will aim to pile on the misery at Eden Park, a ground where the Cheetahs have never won.
In fact, they've never beaten the Blues anywhere in New Zealand, with games played in Whangarei and Albany in previous years.
Statistically, the Cheetahs can be a pretty decent side - with a number of individuals ranking highly in this year's competition for carries, metres gained and tackles made.
However, their inability to close out games may come back to haunt them yet again.
Blues coach Tana Umaga also feels his team can be better at the death.
"Last week we produced probably the best first half of the season, but dropped off in the second half," Umaga said.
"We are still looking for 80 minutes of complete football."
Cheetahs coach Franco Smith took a 'vow of silence' this week, as he struggles to get his team to overcome their mental frailties.
"I think it is best that I say very little this week," Smith responded from Auckland, when asked about his frustrations with the team's losing streak.
"Obviously it is frustrating," he said, adding: "This week it is a case of working very hard and flying under the radar."
2015: Cheetahs won 25-24, Bloemfontein
2014: Blues won 40-30, Auckland
2013: Cheetahs won 34-13, Bloemfontein
2011: Blues won 29-22, Auckland
2010: Cheetahs won 36-32, Bloemfontein
Prediction: The Cheetahs have won three of their last five games against the Blues after having never between them in five games between 1997 and 2009. However, each of the last six games between these teams has been won by the home side on the day, and the Cheetahs are yet to win when visiting Auckland. The Blues return home after a fortnight on the road and will be looking to avoid consecutive home defeats for the first time since losing their last three home games in 2015. The Auckland squad have won four of their last five games against teams from South Africa; having won just one in nine prior to this streak. The Cheetahs have lost 10 straight games away from home, the last and only time they lost more in succession was a drought of 13 away losses spanning the entirety of the 2008 and 2009 campaigns. Only one of the last four games where a South African team has visited Auckland has a team led at both half and full-time. The Blues average 18 minutes and 15 seconds of time in possession this season, more than any other team in the competition and two minutes, 20 seconds more than the Cheetahs. The Cheetahs remain the most accurate goal kicking team in the competition, landing 87 percent of their attempts so far. Blake Gibson has made 97 tackles this campaign, the third most of any player and at the best success rate of the 11 players to make 90+ (93 percent). Torsten Van Jaarsveld needs just three more to become the first player this season to land 100 successful line-out throws. The Cheetahs can compete with New Zealand teams. They must just learn to close out games. We doubt they would have overcome that hurdle in a week and the Blues should sneak another thriller - by seven points or less.
Blues: 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Declan O'Donnell, 13 George Moala, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Michael Collins.
Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (captain), 12 William Small-Smith, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Teboho Mohoje, 6 Niell Jordaan, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Tom Botha, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Charles Marais.
Replacements: 16 Elandré Huggett, 17 Retshegofaditswe Nche, 18 Johan Coetzee, 19 Armandt Koster, 20 Uzair Cassiem, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Niel Marais, 23 Clinton Swart
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Lions
(GIO Stadium, Canberra - Kick-off: 19.45; 11.45 SA time; 09.45 GMT)
The Brumbies return to action after a bye in Round 11.
They were under instructions from Coach Stephen Larkham to 'get away from football'.
Burly wing Henry Speight the players came back "really fresh" ahead of the clash with the South Africans.
"Our bye weeks have been really well placed this year for the breakup of our season, it's been good for us and we've come into this game keen and fresh," he said.
Speight knows that his teammates have to be at their best come Friday when the host a Lions team that is currently sitting on top of their conference after winning seven games straight.
"The Lions are a really good side at the moment, top of their conference and I think their result this season has really shown that they're a massive threat," Speight commented.
"They are really imposing across the park. They have a massive forward pack and a really dangerous back line."
The Brumbies' winger insists that the talk surrounding the Australian team's recent performances against international franchises hasn't affected his focus ahead of this weekend's clash.
"Our main focus is us, and trying to improve our performance week in and week out, and trying to stay on top of our conference because ideally that will put us in a good spot for play-offs.
"We go well against our domestic rivals but it's always a good test to go and perform against an international team and this week is no different.
"It's another massive test for us and in a way it's a good challenge to step up to."
Lions coach Johan Ackermann admitted it is a crucial game against quality opposition.
"They are one of the major teams in the competition, with a lot of Australian [internationals] - especially the backline, like [Henry] Speight and [Tevita] Kuridrani, who can have a massive impact with their line-breaks," Ackermann said.
"They also have a big loose forwards and locks. They have scored penalty tries from scrum and have scored a lot of tries with their mauls - they always produce tricky mauls."
The Lions coach spoke of it being a "physical test" for his team.
2015: Brumbies won 30-20, Johannesburg
2012: Brumbies won 34-20, Johannesburg
2011: Lions 29-20, Canberra
2010: Brumbies won 24-13, Canberra
2009: Lions won 25-17, Johannesburg
Prediction: The Brumbies have won three of their last four games against the Lions, though the last three iterations of this fixture have all been won by the away side on the day. The Brumbies enter this fixture on the back of three straight defeats, the last time they lost more in a row was a four-game stint in 2011 of which the fourth game was a 29-20 loss to the Lions. The Lions have won on each of their last four visits to Australia, as many wins as they had managed in all of their 17 prior visits. The Brumbies have conceded a league-low 6.4 clean breaks per game this campaign despite making more tackles per game (127) than any other team. Malcolm Marx has crossed for six tries so far this campaign, more than any other forward in the competition. It is a tough call to make and the Brumbies do indeed have quality across the park. However, the Lions could edge ahead in the final quarter and win by eight points.
Brumbies: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 James Dargaville, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Jordan Smiler, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter (captain), 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Leslie Leulua'iali'i-Makin, 19 Blake Enever, 20 Ben Hyne, 21 De Wet Roos, 22 Jordan Jackson-Hope, 23 Tom Banks
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Sylvian Mahuza, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Ruan Ackermann, 6 Albertus Smith, 5 Francois Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Johannes Jonker, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Corne Fourie.
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Robert Kruger/Cyle Brink, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Jacques Nel, 23 Anthony Volmink.
Referee: Paul Williams
Assistant referees: Nick Briant, Jordan Way
TMO: Ian Smith
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports & sportguru.info