SR Preview: Round 14, Part One
IN THE SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: When teams enter 'must win' territory, it makes for great entertainment.
The Chiefs know they MUST win to stay in touch with the table-topping Crusaders and keep alive their prospects of finishing first - which brings with it home ground advantage in the play-offs.
The Blues MUST win just to keep alive their fast-fading hopes of a spot in the play-offs.
Add to that the fact that it is an all-New Zealand derby and it is the perfect start to the weekend.
Then there is a slight reprieve when the Reds host the Western Force in an all-Australian derby where only dented honour is at stake.
In Part One of the preview, we look at the Friday matches!
Friday, May 26:
Blues v Chiefs
(Eden Park, Auckland - Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT)
It is a distraction the Chiefs could have done without - news that yet another player is heading abroad.
Chiefs hooker Hika Elliot has become the latest New Zealand player to depart Aotearoa for the lure of the more lucrative Euro.
Elliot has signed with French club US Oyonnax.
Elliot joins a number of Chiefs heading overseas after this season - including scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Toulon), flyhalf Aaron Cruden (Montpellier) and wing James Lowe (Leinster).
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie did not have much time to ponder the sideshow, as his team needs to bounce back from last week's loss to the Crusaders.
And their opponents are also coming off a heart-breaking loss - to the Stormers in Cape Town.
"The Blues will be pretty desperate this week," Rennie told a media briefing.
"If the Blues lose this weekend, their chances of qualifying [for the play-offs] are gone."
He said the Chiefs have not counted out the fact that they can still finish top of the standings.
"However, a couple of other sides need to knock over the Crusaders," Rennie said, adding: "We will control what we can and that involves [producing] a good performance this week.
"They [matches between the Chiefs and Blues] are always massive encounters."
Blues coach Tana Umaga said the team faced a significant test after the demanding one-off game in South Africa and he had adjusted their training to suit this week.
"This is our final derby game of the regular season and I know the team will want to produce their best performance of the season," Umaga said.
"We need to produce an 80-minute performance across the board and ensure we are disciplined in that approach."
2017: Chiefs won 41-26, Hamilton
2016: Chiefs won 29-23, Hamilton
2015: Chiefs won 23-16, Hamilton
2015: Chiefs won 23-18, Albany
2014: Chiefs won 11-8, Auckland
2014: Chiefs won 32-20, New Plymouth
Prediction: The Chiefs have won their last 11 games in a row against the Blues, though those wins have come by an average margin of just eight points. The Chiefs have won three of their last four regular season away games against fellow New Zealand opposition; three of those four games were won by the team trailing at half-time. The Blues have won five of their last seven Friday fixtures on home turf, including each of their last two; the last time they won more in succession was a seven-game streak from 2012 to 2014. The Blues have won only one of their last 21 New Zealand derbies, despite leading at half-time in four of their last seven. The Chiefs will be looking to avoid back-to-back losses for the first time since the 2015 play-offs when they visited the Highlanders. While the Blues will always have a chance, given the talent at their disposal, they have simply not been consistent enough to overcome a team of the Chiefs' calibre - who will win by 15 points.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13. George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 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 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Stephen Perofeta, 23 TJ Faiane.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-captain), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane (co-captain), 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Solomon Alaimalo, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Reds v Western Force
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - Kick-off: 19.45; 17.45 AWST; 09.45)
The build-up to this match - as has been for the last couple of months - has been overshadowed by the sideshows - the uncertainty over the future of the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels.
It has become such a big issues that captain Matt Hodgson has stepped in and started counselling his teammates.
Coach Dave Wessels praised Hodgson for his efforts "off the field" and what it has meant to the team.
Hodgson, a qualified mental health first-aid worker and an ambassador for the Living charity, has quietly been counselling players who are coming under increasing pressure over the uncertainty of their playing future.
"He has done a tremendous amount for our group," Wessels said.
"He is one of those guys the players play for and it is great to have him back [from injury].."
Wessels said this match is huge in the context of the Australian conference and his men are up for the challenge.
"We were very disappointed with our performance against the Highlanders and irrespective of who we are playing it's important that we respond with the same intensity that has been evident for the majority of our season so far," the coach said.
Reds coach Nick Stiles said that they played "relatively well" over the last month.
"We have beaten the Kings, we have beaten the Rebels and everyone said we should have beaten the Waratahs as well," he said.
"We have four games to go plat for, for the here and now, but also for the future of the organisation."
2017: Force won 26-19, Perth
2016: Force won 22-6, Brisbane
2015: Reds won 32-10, Perth
2015: Reds won 18-6, Brisbane
2014: Force won 30-20, Perth
2014: Force won 32-29, Brisbane
Prediction: The Force have won six and drawn one of their last nine games against the Reds, including wins in their last two meetings. A Round 12 win against the Rebels sees the Reds hunt for back-to-back wins for the first time since Round 17, 2014. Five of the last eight Australian derbies played on a Friday night have been won by the away team on the day. The Western Force have conceded just three tries this season when defending for seven or more phases, the joint fewest of any team in the competition. Eto Nabuli has had 11 try involvements so far this season (eight tries, three try assists), the joint fifth most of any player and the most of any player from outside New Zealand. It is tough to call, but we are going with the home team, the Reds, to sneak a late winner - by five points or less.
Reds: 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Chris Kuridrani, 13 Samu Kerevi (captain), 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Nick Frisby, 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 Adam Korczyk, 21 James Tuttle, 22 Jake McIntyre, 23 Lachlan Maranta.
Western Force: 15 Marcel Brache, 14 James Verity-Amm, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Bill Meakes, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Michael Ruru, 8 Isireli Naisarani, 7 Matt Hodgson (captain), 6 Ross Haylett-Petty, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Matt Philip, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Heath Tessmann, 1 Francois van Wyk.
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Pek Cowan, 18 Tetera Faulkner, 19 Richie Arnold, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Mitchell Short, 22 Luke Burton, 23 Luke Morahan.
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Jordan Way (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports & sportguru.info