Preview: Super Rugby, Round Two - Part Two
WALL-TO-WALL: Strap yourself in. There are 12 hours of uninterrupted action on the first full Saturday of the season.
It starts with the Sunwolves - now being used to prepare the Japan national team just like the Jaguares are an extension of Argentina. The Japanese franchise host the Brumbies in Tokyo in the first match of the marathon session.
That is followed by what must be the match of the weekend - the defending champion Crusaders at home to the Chiefs, a settled team against a franchise with plenty of personnel changes, including a new head coach.
A short hop across the Tasman sea and the Waratahs host the Stormers.
We then cross the Indian Ocean where the Lions, beaten finalists the last two years, start their quest to win their first Super Rugby title since 1993 - when they host the Jaguares at Ellis Park.
The day concludes when the Bulls, now under the tutoring of New Zealander John Mitchell, take on the Hurricanes in Pretoria.
We look at Round Two's Saturday matches!
Saturday, February 24
Sunwolves v Brumbies
(Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo - Kick-off: 13.15; 15.15 AEST; 04.15 GMT)
There is no attempt to conceal the fact that Japan's rugby bosses are using the Sunwolves to help prepare their national team for the World Cup tournament they host next year.
Jamie Joseph, the New Zealand who played for the All Blacks and Japan, is coach of the Sunwolves and the Japan national team.
He is leaning heavily on foreign imports - with South Africa one of the biggest sources of for his playing roster.
Even without prop Ruan Smith who, left the franchise for "family reasons", Joseph still has six South Africans in his Super Rugby squad - Hencus van Wyk, Grant Hattingh, Wimpie van der Walt, Pieter Labuschagne, Willem Britz and Gerhard van den Heever.
Britz, Labuschagne and Grant Hattingh are all in the starting XV for Saturday. They are being earmarked to represent Japan at the World Cup next year.
Van der Walt has already made his international debut for Japan.
Joseph admitted they face a tough challenge in the Brumbies.
"I anticipate that they are going to put a lot of pressure on the set pieces - like scrum and line-out," Joseph said.
"Plus, they have tough backs that are really hard to stop."
The Brumbies are a team in transition, of sorts.
They have a new head coach in Dan McKellar, who took over from Stephen Larkham at the end of last year.
The Brumbies were greeted by snow at their first training session in Tokyo on Thursday, with temperatures expected to be as low as three degrees for the game.
"We've had a look at the Sunwolves, the reality is the coaching staff is the same group as the national team," McKellar said.
"But to a certain extent, you're guessing.
"We're focused on ourselves and getting our plan right, making sure we turn up to execute well and get the outcome we want.
"They'll bring a whole lot of enthusiasm, a whole lot of energy and will play off the cuff. We have to be ready for that."
2016: Brumbies won 66-5, Canberra
Prediction: The Brumbies will start favourites, but don't write off the Sunwolves altogether. They have upset teams in the past and once they get on the front foot, they play with an energy that is difficult to contain. Still, the Brumbies should win by at least 15 points.
Sunwolves: 15 Jason Emery, 14 Lomano Lava Lemeki, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Hosea Saumaki, 10 Robbie Robinson, 9 Yutaka Nagare (captain), 8 Willem Britz, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Kazuki Himeno, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Ho Shota Horie, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Replacements: 16 Jaba Bregvadze, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 James Moore, 20 Edward Quirk, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Sione Teaupa.
Brumbies: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Chance Peni, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Tom Cusack, 6 Rob Valetini, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Richie Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Faalelei Sione, 18 Leslie Leulua'iali'i-Makin, 19 Rory Arnold, 20 Lachlan Mccaffrey, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Wharenui Hawera, 23 Lausii Taliauli.
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Egon Seconds (South Africa), Shuhei Kubo (Japan)
TMO: Minoru Fuji (Japan)
Crusaders v Chiefs
(AMI Stadium, Christchurch - Kick-off: 19.35; 06.35 GMT)
Apart from the numerous All Blacks on show, the Chiefs and Crusaders have a history of meeting in the opening week - facing off against each other three times in the last decade in Christchurch.
They played in 2009 (Crusaders won 19-13), 2014 (Chiefs won 18-10), 2016 (Chiefs won 27-21), and now this weekend, which is eagerly awaited throughout the country.
Chiefs coach Colin Cooper cannot wait to get his first crack at the defending-champion Crusaders with his new franchise.
"We know it has to happen," he said, adding: "We have to play down in Christchurch this year, so playing the Crusaders first, we're not daunted by it, we're excited by it, going to Christchurch and their backyard."
Crusaders back Jack Goodhue admitted they will have a target on their backs as defending champions, but are up for the challenge.
"It will be about attitude," the 2017 All Black said.
"[It is about] how much we want it.
"The boys are excited for this first round.
"We will just play our own game and hopefully start the season well."
The other talking point is about exciting utility back Damian McKenzie playing at No.10.
The Chiefs coach, Cooper, selected a physical and experienced lineup to set the benchmark for the side's 2018 campaign.
The starting XV features five 2017 All Blacks in the forward pack alone, as well as the much-talked-about combination of Brad Weber and Damian McKenzie in the No.9 and No.10 jerseys.
"Everyone is talking about Damian, but it's just about giving him time at No.10," Cooper said.
"Brad is coming off injury, but played really well in the pre-season and shows a lot of excitement if he can get into space."
Goodhue said they know what to expect.
"With Damian [McKenzie] at No.10, he will want to run it a bit more," the midfielder said, adding: "He is an exciting player.
"He gets a lot of reward for his high-risk game."
2017: Crusaders won 27-13, Christchurch (semifinal)
2017: Crusaders won 31-24, Suva
2016: Chiefs won 23-13, Suva
2016: Chiefs won 27-21, Christchurch
2015: Chiefs won 26-9, Christchurch
2015: Chiefs won 40-16, Hamilton
Prediction: It is, without doubt, the match of the weekend and a tough game to call. The Chiefs, despite the many changes, have threats all over the park. However, the Crusaders look a more solid, all-round team and should win a real Kiwi arm-wrestle by five points.
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Peter Samu, 5 Samuel Whitelock (captain), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Chris King, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Billy Harmon, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele.
Chiefs: 15 Charlie Ngatai (captain), 14 Shaun Stevenson, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Taleni Seu, 7 Sam Cane (captain), 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Dominic Bird, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Aidan Ross.
Replacements: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Atunaisa Moli, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Liam Messam, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Sean Wainui.
Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Waratahs v Stormers
(Allianz Stadium, Sydney - Kick-off: 19.45; 08.45 GMT; 10.45 SA Time)
The Waratahs, determined to lift themselves from the mire of mediocrity they slipped into last year, host a Stormers team determined to prove their detractors wrong.
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said the team is ready to play.
"The game against the Stormers will be a physical contest and it's a chance for our guys to show what they have, and what we have been focusing on delivering," Gibson said.
"The kind of start we had against the Rebels [in a pre-season trial] last week was too slow for my liking, and we cannot afford to do that against the Stormers.
"We will need to up the tempo."
Wallaby No.6 Ned Hanigan also spoke of the physical nature of the opposition.
"They are very direct, upfront and physical, so it'll warm the shoulders up for the season ahead, we're looking forward to it," Hanigan said.
"If you win the contact zone more than half the time in a game you're probably going to win.
"This weekend will be a contest in that area and it's something that we're looking forward to, getting geared up to get into it."
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said that his team is determined to carry the momentum they gained from last week's narrow win over the Jaguares in their first game on tour.
"It has been a good week for us in Sydney and the players are focused on making a positive start to the tour," Fleck said.
"We know there are several areas in which we can improve, so we will be giving it everything on Saturday," he added.
2016: Waratahs won 32-30, Cape Town
2015: Stormers won 32-18, Sydney
2014: Waratahs won 22-11, Cape Town
2013: Waratahs won 21-15, Sydney
2012: Stormers won 19-13, Cape Town
Prediction: The Stormers can win in Sydney, as they have done before. But is this Stormers selection of the same quality as the class of 2015? Coach Robbie Fleck spoke at length about rustiness last week and that 'rustiness' will most likely cost them. The Waratahs by 12 points.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Andrew Kellaway, 13 Lalakai Foketi, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Curtis Rona, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Tom Staniforth, 3 Paddy Ryan, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Shambeckler Vui, 19 Nick Palmer, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Mitch Short, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Alex Newsome.
Stormers: 15 Sarel Marais, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Johannes Engelbrecht, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Kobus van Dyk, 6 Siyamthanda Kolisi (captain), 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 John Schickerling, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Ramone Samuels, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Dean Muir, 17 Jacobus Janse van Rensburg, 18 Carlu Sadie, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 George Whitehead, 23 EW Viljoen.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), William Houston (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Lions v Jaguares
(Ellis Park, Johannesburg - Kick-off: 15.05; 13.05 GMT; 10.50 Buenos Aires time)
The Jaguares are looking to break a trend that has existed since their entry into Super Rugby.
They have beaten the Lions twice in Buenos Aires and have lost twice in Johannesburg.
However, their lack of discipline has often been their biggest problem and could come back to haunt then against the free-running Lions.
Lions coach Swys de Bruin is cautious, pointing to how the Argentinians came back against the Stormers - showing their true qualities in the last 20 minutes at Newlands.
"They are an international team, no doubt," De Bruin said.
"It is going to be very important that we maintain our disciplinary standards."
He said they will not creep into their shells and become conservative in their approach.
"We have been playing a particular brand [of rugby] for the last five years and we are going to stick to that."
De Bruin said they have worked very hard on fixing their wonky line-outs.
Jaguares lock Guido Petti suggested they may target the Lions' scrum.
"The scrum was very good [against the Stormers] and we want to continue along that line," Petti said.
The lock described the Lions as a "dynamic" team, which opens the game up and looks to attack the open spaces out wide.
2017: Lions won 24-21, Johannesburg
2017: Jaguares won 36-24, Buenos Aires
2016: Jaguares won 34-22, Buenos Aires
2016: Lions won 52-24, Johannesburg
Prediction: Discipline is indeed the key word for this game. If the Jaguares maintain their composure they will be in with a realistic chance of winning at Ellis Park for the first time. However, the Lions showed last week they do have the experience to win tight games and should win by 12 points.
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Sylvian Mahuza, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Albertus Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques Van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Jacobus Adriaanse, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Hacjivah Dayimani, 21 Marco Jansen Van Vuren, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Rohan Janse Van Rensburg.
Jaguares: 15 Joaquin Tuculet, 14 Bautista Delguy, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Bautista Ezcurra, 11 Emiliano Boffelli, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Tomas Lezana, 7 Javier Ortega, 6 Pablo Matera (captain), 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 2 Agustin Creevy, 1 Felipe Arregui.
Replacements: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Javier Manuel, 18 Juan Pablo Zeiss, 19 Matias Alemanno, 20 Marcos Kremer, 21 Martin Landajo, 22 Leonardo Senatore, 23 Ramiro Moyano.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: AJ Jacobs (South Africa), Jaco Pretorius (South Africa)
TMO: Willie Vos (South Africa)
Bulls v Hurricanes
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria - Kick-off: 17.15; 15.15 GMT; 04.15, Sunday, February 25 NZ time)
Bulls captain Burger Odendaal jokingly said there were more journalists at Thursday's media briefing than there were in the stands last year.
As that idiom goes: Many a true word said in jest.
The fact is, John Mitchell has been tasked with getting the Bulls up to a respectable standard and ensure the spectators return to Loftus Versfeld.
Mitchell was keen to see the competition starting and his campaign as Bulls coach get underway.
"The wait is finally over for us," the former All Black mentor said.
"We worked hard to get to this point and that work and progress will now be tested against one of the best teams in the competition.
"It is a tough way to start, but we would not want it any other way.
"We know we play a very decent team, but our squad will be pretty focussed on our own outcomes and how to get there.
"We worked hard to this point, but we understand that we will not be the complete product yet.
"It remains a fantastic competition and I am happy to be back as a coach. We have a number of objectives we want to achieve in Super Rugby and we can finally start testing our progress against a very capable opponent."
Bulls captain, Burger Odendaal, despite his somewhat comical reference to the empty stands, was pleased to have a home start.
"We love playing at Loftus Versfeld and realise that we owe our loyal supporters a good season," Odendaal said.
"The guys are pretty determined to deliver just that. We face some formidable opponents in the Hurricanes, but this is our home and we are committed to start something special as a group."
The talking point around the Hurricanes team is the decision to leave World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett on the bench.
It is part of an agreement with New Zealand rugby.
Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd confirmed his All Blacks are to miss two Super Rugby matches.
Having Barrett as insurance on the bench is not a bad compromise.
"Jeez, I might get myself in trouble here," Boyd said in a teleconference call from Pretoria.
"Am I allowed to talk about that?
"The All Black management and coaches have no input on when or how, but we have a requirement to give our All Blacks two weeks where they don't play at the end of the week.
"That's our choice when we do that and why, but they require an additional two weeks rest."
2017: Hurricanes won 34-20, Pretoria
2015: Hurricanes won 17-13, Pretoria
2014: Hurricanes win 25-20, Wellington
2013: Bulls won 48-14, Pretoria
2011: Bulls won 26-14, Napier
Prediction: Is it too soon for John Mitchell to have a real impact on the Bulls? Gut instinct says it will take a few weeks. Then again, gut instinct is not always correct. We think the Hurricanes will win a hard-fought battle - by nine points.
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain ), 11 Johnny Kotze, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Andre Warner, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Thembelani Bholi, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Rudolf Snyman, 3 Frans van Wyk, Jaco Visagie, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Conraad van Vuuren, 19 Nic de Jager, 20 Marco van Staden, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, Divan Rossouw.
Hurricanes: 15 Matt Proctor, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Wes Goosen, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Thomas Perenara, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields (captain), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 James O'Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Alex Fidow, 19 Murray Douglas, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Jamie Booth, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Ben Lam.
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Stephen Geldenhuys (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Compiled by Jan de Koning