SR Preview: Round 15, Part One
IN THE SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: It is a weekly refrain: Can anybody stop the marauding Crusaders?
This week - in a split round that sees only New Zealand and Australian teams in action - the Highlanders get a crack
A no-holds barred showdown is expected when Crusaders defend their unbeaten record in a grudge match against the Highlanders on Saturday.
The Highlanders are themselves on a hot streak, a nine-game victory run.
The Highlanders have a score to settle with the Crusaders and will not hold back.
When they last met 13 weeks ago the Crusaders piled on 24 points in the final 25 minutes to pull off a dramatic 30-27 victory.
Only Australian and New Zealand teams are involved this weekend, as Super Rugby winds down for the June international season.
Teams in the African conferences - including the Lions, who are the Crusaders' nearest rivals to top the overall competition - are sitting out the round as the Springboks prepare for their Test series against France.
Only the Chiefs and Hurricanes play next week, with the competition to resume on June 30 - when the South African sides complete Round 15 and the Australian and New Zealand teams return over the following two weeks.
The Hurricanes travel to Perth to face the Western Force on Saturday, before a tough close to the regular season when they play the Chiefs next weekend and the Crusaders after the June break.
The Brumbies, with three games to play and nine points clear of the Waratahs in the Australian conference, are at home to the hapless Melbourne Rebels, while the Waratahs cross the Tasman to play the Chiefs.
Sonny Bill Williams, another All Black under an injury cloud with a knee issue, will miss the Blues match against the Reds when Super Rugby makes its debut in Samoa on Friday.
In Part One of the preview we look at this weekend's matches!
Friday, June 2:
Blues v Reds
(Apia Park, Apia - Kick-off: 20.35; 19.35 NZ time; 17.35 AEST; 07.35 GMT)
With both teams effectively out of the play-off running, this game is all about the historical appeal - the first-ever Super Rugby encounter in Samoa.
With a big Samoan heritage, including Blues coach Tana Umaga, the talk all week has been about the venue - rather than the quality of the two teams.
The Blues coach, Umaga, admitted the Polynesian factor is the 'main attraction'.
"It is a home game for us and we are going over there with that mindset," Umaga said about his team's trip to Apia.
"We have a lot of connections as a franchise with Samoa, obviously with myself being Samoan," he added.
"It is important for us to respect that with a strong performance.
"It means a great deal to go back there.
"We want to make sure we do it right, because it is good taking something back to the [Pacific] Islands.
"We have two games left in the Super Rugby season and we desperately want to continue our progression."
Reds captain Samoa Kerevi admitted that the Polynesian boys are "bursting at the seems" to get going and play in this historic match.
However, they also hope to become the first Australian to beat a New Zealand side this year.
It will be a tall order, a fact acknowledged by Reds coach Nick Stiles.
We know the strength of the New Zealand conference," Stiles said.
"It has been an exceptionally difficult year for all the Australian sides.
"We know that against New Zealand sides 79 minutes won't do it, you have to play for the full 80 minutes."
For the Blues it is all about the venue.
Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu, whose family migrated yo New Zealand few years ago, said to "go back home and give back" is great.
"You see a lot of Polynesian boys play for top teams like the All Blacks and other teams around the world and we want to give back to [to the Island nation," said the lock, whose father has chieftain status in Samoa.
2016: Blues and Reds drew 25-all, Brisbane
2014: Blues won 44-14, Auckland
2013: Reds won 12-11, Brisbane
2012: Reds won 23-11, Auckland
2011: Reds won 30-13, Brisbane (semifinal)
Prediction: The Blues are unbeaten in their last two games against the Reds, this after enduring their worst losing streak against the Queensland side immediately before that run (four consecutive defeats). The Blues will be hosting the Reds for the first time since 2014; the Auckland based side have lost just two of their nine Super Rugby matches at home to the Reds. The Blues have won their last 11 designated home games against sides from outside of New Zealand, including six wins against Australian opposition in that run. The Reds won their last away game and now have the opportunity to win consecutive away matches for the first time since winning three on the bounce in 2013, a run that included two wins against New Zealand opposition. The Queenslanders have scored four-plus tries in four of their last five matches, more than they had done in their previous 24 games (three times). The Reds will think they have a chance, but that will only become a reality if the Blues have a bad day. The Blues should win by 12 points.
Blues: 15 Melani Nanai,14 Declan O'Donnell, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Tinoai Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Sam Nock, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons (captain),
1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Stephen Perofeta, 23 Jordan Trainor.
Reds: 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Chris Kuridrani, 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 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Andrew Ready, 1 Sef Fa'agase.
Replacements: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Kirwan Sanday, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Kane Douglas, 20 Adam Korczyk, 21 Caleb Timu, 22 Nick Frisby, 23 Jake McIntyre.
Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Will Houston (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Saturday, June 3:
Crusaders v Highlanders
(AMI Stadium, Christchurch - Kick-off: 14.35; 02.35 GMT)
The Crusaders, led by Sam Whitelock, are under pressure to keep their unbeaten record and stay ahead of the Lions at the top of the table.
The Highlanders, captained by younger brother Luke Whitelock, need the win to have any chance of overtaking the Hurricanes, who are second in the New Zealand conference.
Like most New Zealand derbies, this South Island derby could get brutal.
"Both teams are going to go hell for leather and throw the ball around and be really physical. It's going to be an intense match," warned Highlanders coach Tony Brown, a prediction that will send chills down the spine of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
With several injured players, including captain Kieran Read, in a race against time to be fit for the first Test against the British and Irish Lions in three weeks, Hansen can ill-afford any more carnage despite New Zealand derbies being renowned for their physicality.
But the Highlanders have a score to settle with the Crusaders and will not hold back.
When they last met 13 weeks ago the Crusaders piled on 24 points in the final 25 minutes to pull off a dramatic 30-27 victory.
The meltdown still haunts the Highlanders, who say it is payback time.
"You prepare every game to win so if you call that payback, then so be it," Highlanders assistant coach Mark Hammett said.
"It was a tough one to swallow last time."
2017: Crusaders won 30-27, Dunedin
2016: Highlanders won 34-26, Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 25-20, Christchurch
2015: Crusaders won 26-20, Dunedin
2014: Crusaders won 34-8, Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 32-30
Prediction: The Crusaders have won seven of the last nine meetings between these sides, however the Highlanders two victories in that run both came in the last three meetings between the sides. The Highlanders won the last time they faced Crusaders away from home, however they've never won consecutive away games against the side from Christchurch. Each of the last four games between the two have been decided by margins of eight points or fewer, with both teams sharing two wins apiece in that run. Crusaders have won their last 13 matches, only the Crusaders themselves have gone on a longer winning run in Super Rugby (twice), last doing so in 2006 when they set the Super Rugby record of 16 consecutive victories. However, the Highlanders come into this game on the back of a nine match winning run, their best such run in Super Rugby. The Highlanders will run them close, but we feel the Crusaders will remain unbeaten - with a winning margin of five points.
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Samuel Whitelock (captain), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Israel Dagg.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Richard Buckman, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Matt Faddes.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: James Doleman (New Zealand), Michael Winter (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Chiefs v Waratahs
(FMG Stadium, Hamilton - Kick-off: 17.05; 15.05 AEST; 05.05 GMT)
The Chiefs know that with just three matches remaining, they can afford any slip-ups.
Last week's draw with the Blues left them vulnerable in the play-off race.
However, Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said his team has not been performing badly and had a few things gone their way, they could even have knocked over the Crusaders - which was a 24-31 loss in Round 13.
"[It just requires] some simple shifts we can make this weekend, that will make a difference," he said.
"We lost the penalty count four to 11 [in the 16-all draw with the Blues last week]. Four of those were 50-50 [calls], but seven were silly [penalties].
"We have to take the referee out of the game."
He described the Waratahs as a "pretty good side" and pointed out they gave scored 16 tries in their four games against New Zealand teams this season.
"We will have to be a lot better [than last week], especially defensively."
Waratahs and Wallaby flyhalf Bernard Foley believes the right mind-set is what will turn the Waratahs from a struggling outfit (just four wins in eight starts) into an effective unit that can knock over the Chiefs and end Australian franchises' lengthy losing streak to their Kiwi counterparts.
The Waratahs went down to the Highlanders last week and according to Foley that loss has contributed to their fiery preparation for their encounter with the Chiefs this weekend.
"We were so disappointed with last week's result," said Foley.
"Knowing how well we competed for that first 40 minutes and how we were able to score tries in that second half, yet we weren't able to maintain [the lead].
"That probably inspired or fuelled a lot more guys [for the coming weekend].
"We've been trying to unleash our potential, what we can achieve, how we can get better and as we've seen, we can do it in patches but it's about trying to get that 80 minute performance."
2016: Waratahs won 45-25, Sydney
2014: Waratahs won 33-17, New Plymouth
2013: Waratahs won 25-20, Sydney
2012: Chiefs won 30-13, Hamilton
2011: Waratahs won 23-16, Sydney
Prediction: The Waratahs have won six of the last seven meetings between these sides including each of the last three in a row. The Waratahs' six victories in that run have come by an average margin of 13 points, including a 27-point win in Waikato in 2010, the Tahs' biggest win in New Zealand, and the Chiefs third heaviest home defeat. Despite losing the last time the Chiefs hosted the Waratahs, they've won four of their last six home games against the New South Wales side and haven't lost consecutive home matches against them since 2002. The Chiefs lost their last home game (v Crusaders), but haven't lost back to back home matches in a single season since 2011. The Waratahs have lost their last four games in New Zealand, three of those defeats coming by 10-plus points. The Chiefs are in an angry mood and the Waratahs may well be on the receiving end of a big backlash. The Chiefs to win by at least 15 points.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Stephen Donald, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-captain), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 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 Liam Polwart, 17 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Mitchell Karpik, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 Solomon Alaimalo.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Cameron Clarke, 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 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 David McDuling, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Jack Dempsey, 22 Matt Lucas, 23 Bryce Hegarty.
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Richard Kelly (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Rebels
(GIO Stadium, Canberra - Kick-off: 19.45; 09.45 GMT)
The Brumbies could effectively secure top spot in the Australian conference and book their place in the play-offs.
However, Brumbies wing Henry Speight insists the side will be switched on when they host the Rebels.
The ACT side are coming off an impressive tour of South Africa and Argentina, bringing home with them nine points from a possible 10.
In playing the Rebels, they face a side rooted to the bottom of the conference and with a decision over the future looming over them.
However, their only previous win came against the Brumbies in Melbourne and Speight said the side was wary of playing against a fired-up opposition.
"They're always dangerous," Speight said in an interview on the Brumbies website.
"The last time we played them they hadn't won a game and there was lot of emotion. We need to make sure we nail this game before going into the June break."
The Rebels match-up will serve as the Brumbies' last home game of the regular season with trips to Brisbane and Hamilton lying in wait after the June Test matches.
For Speight though the attention will turn to the international side of things after being once again named in the Wallabies squad.
The powerful wing has enjoyed another strong season, scoring seven tries and earning 15 line breaks so far.
In typically humble fashion Speight played down his own form, saying his teammates deserve the credit for his impressive figures.
"I think a lot of that [personal form] comes down to how the team is playing this year and the confidence that we are showing in each other.
"I was pretty happy, very happy actually.
"At the start of the year I was just focused on giving my all for the Brumbies and enjoying my footy. Last night when it [the call-up] came through it felt like all that hard work had come to fruition."
2017: Rebels won 19-17, Melbourne
2016: Brumbies won 30-22, Melbourne
2015: Rebels won 13-8, Canberra
2015: Brumbies won 20-15, Melbourne
2014: Brumbies won 37-10, Canberra
2014: Rebels won 32-24, Melbourne
Prediction: The Rebels won the Round 8 clash between these sides earlier this season, however they've never won consecutive games against the Canberra outfit, losing eight of their 12 encounters overall. The Rebels have lost their last five matches; the last time they endured more consecutive defeats was a run of 12 losses from 2011 to 2012. The Brumbies have lost their last two home games; they've not lost three on the bounce at home since 2011. The Rebels have been held tryless in three of their last five games away from home, though they've scored a total of 16 tries in their last five away games within Australia. Henry Speight has scored three tries in his last two games against the Rebels, including a brace when these teams last met in Round 8 this season. The Brumbies will be in a merciless mood and should win by 20 points.
Brumbies: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Aidan Toua, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Jordan Smiler, 7 Chris Alcock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter (captain), 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Nic Mayhew.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Faalelei Sione, 18 Leslie Leulua'Iali'I-Makin, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Jarrad Butler, 21 De Wet Roos, 22 Andrew Muirhead, 23 Nigel Ah Wong.
Rebels: 15 Reece Hodge, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Tom English, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Ben Volavola, 9 Nic Stirzaker (captain), 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga'a, 6 Hugh Sinclair, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Steve Cummins, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Laurie Weeks, 19 Culum Retallick, 20 Will Miller, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 23 Jonah Placid.
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Damon Murphy (Australia), James Leckie (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)
Western Force v Hurricanes
(nib Stadium, Perth - Kick-off: 19.55; 23.55 NZ time; 11.55 GMT)
While the Hurricanes are desperate to keep alive their slim hopes of catching the table-topping Crusaders, the Western Force continue to fight with the dark cloud of Super Rugby exile hovering over them.
The Hurricanes, with a game in hand, are 11 points behind the Crusaders.
It does mean they will rely on somebody else to know over the seven-time champions.
If that happens the Hurricanes cane overtake the Crusaders when the two sides meet in Round 17.
The Canes were given a healthy boost - with Beauden Barrett, Ardie Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Mark Abbott all in the squad to meet the Force.
Barrett, Savea and Abbott have all shaken off concussion symptoms, while Milner-Skudder will come off the bench for his first Super Rugby appearance since fracturing bones in his right foot back on March 10.
Western Force coach Dave Wessels said his team - rather than trembling with fear - is looking forward to taking on the Hurricanes.
"Our biggest challenge is to learn how to back-up performances," he said of last week's win over the Reds.
"We didn't play well in our last home game. It's important that we address that this weekend.
"We want to play the way the people of Western Australia will be proud of."
Wessels saw some reward for his team - despite having won just four wins from 12 starts this season.
The Force have four men in the Wallabies squad for the June Test window.
Wessels said that it's a testament to Richard Hardwick, Adam Coleman, Dane Haylett-Petty and Tatafu Polota-Nau, who have worked hard for the Force this season and Wallaby selection is just reward for their efforts.
"We're delighted for the guys who've been selected," he said.
"There's no greater honour than to get the opportunity to represent your country.
"I also know that we have a number of other players who are very close to selection, which is fantastic! One of our goals is to grow the number of Test players in our group."
2016: Hurricanes won 41-6, Palmerston North
2015: Hurricanes won 42-13, Perth
2013: Hurricanes won 22-16, Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 46-19, Perth
2011: Hurricanes won 34-28, Palmerston North
Prediction: The Hurricanes have won nine of the 10 games between these sides, including the last eight in a row by an average margin of 17.5 points. The Force have lost their last seven games when hosting New Zealand opposition, including a record home defeat in their last match in Perth (49 points v Highlanders). The Hurricanes have won their last 12 games in a row against non-New Zealand opposition, with those victories coming by an average margin of 30.5 points. The Hurricanes have conceded just one try this season after their opposition forced a turnover, fewer than any other team in the competition. Marcel Brache has scored in each of his last two games for the Force, though each of his five career Super Rugby tries have come when playing away from home. It is not a case of 'if', but rather by how much the Hurricanes will win by. We feel it will be 25 points - if not more.
Western Force: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 James Verity-Amm, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Bill Meakes, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Michael Ruru, 8 Isi 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 Marcel Brache.
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Thomas Perenara (captain), 8 Brad Shields, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Vaea Fifita, 4 Sam Lousi, 3 Ben May, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Loni Uhila.
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
Assistant referees: Graham Cooper (Australia), Jordan Way (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports & sportguru.info