PREVIEW: Super Rugby, Round Seven - Part Two
DANCE OF THE DESPERATES: They will deny it vehemently, but the Lions and Sharks are desperately seeking to put their campaigns back on track.
And both must beat New Zealand teams to do so.
Saturday's action starts when the Blues host a bitterly disappointing and underwhelming Sharks team at Eden Park.
Two defeats on tour mean the Sharks are already back in the also-rans category, and only victory will keep their fading dream alive.
We then head across the Tasman Sea for an intriguing all-Australian derby - the Brumbies hosting the Waratahs in a match that could go a long way to deciding who is the biggest challenger to the Rebels for Aussie conference honours.
After that it is a long trek across the Indian Ocean for the big South African north-south derby - the Bulls looking to put their campaign back on track after a disappointing and winless Australasian tour when they host the Stormers at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria.
The weekend's action is concluded when the Lions - with just a one scratch two-point win over the lowly Sunwolves in their last three matches - will look to beat the defending champion Crusaders in a replay of last year's Final. The match takes place at Ellis Park on Sunday.
We take a look at Saturday's matches!
Saturday, March 31:
Blues v Sharks
(Eden Park, Auckland - Kick-off: 19.35; 08.35 SA time; 06.35 GMT)
The Blues face their third South African team in as many weeks, this time back on their hallowed home turf at Eden Park.
Their (38-35) win over the Lions in Johannesburg was followed by a 20-37 loss to the Stormers in Cape Town and last week's bye.
Like the Sharks, the Blues have shown some promise, but have also been very erratic.
Coach Tana Umaga said the side is determined to get their season back on track at home.
"We've trained well, but we can't give our opponents the sorts of starts we have given this season," Umaga said.
"We are looking to be a lot more accurate, to protect our own ball much better, get a good platform up front and be more accurate in defence.
"We had one good game in South Africa, but then let ourselves down.
"At this level of competition, we need to perform for 80 minutes and look to improve with every outing.
''"Injuries have cost us some players but we have others coming back. We have some players who have been working really hard in training and for the Development team that have put their hands up and deserve an opportunity.
"We are looking forward to getting back on home territory at Eden Park and keen to produce a strong performance for our fans."
Sharks coach Robert du Preez said there was "nothing sinister" about their two defeats on tour and that "it happens".
"I can't fault the effort [of the players]," he said, adding: "It is the accuracy and execution that needs to improve.
"The boys are very disappointed and frustrated, because they know they're letting the fans and themselves down.
"But we have to keep on working harder, and that starts with us coaches, because we're all in this together.
"We're not pointing fingers, we have to fix this together, and I know we will."
2016: Blues won 23-18, Auckland
2014: Sharks won 29-23, Albany
2013: Sharks won 22-20, Durban
2012: Sharks won 29-23, Auckland
2011: Sharks won 26-12, Durban
Prediction: The Blues picked up a 23-18 win in their last meeting with the Sharks, a victory which saw them snap a 10-game losing streak against the Durban side. The Sharks have won four of their last five away games against the Blues, though each of those five fixtures has been decided by a margin of no greater than seven points. Each of the Blues' last three games at home has been decided by a margin of fewer than seven points, with the Auckland side earning a win, draw, and loss in that span. The Blues have won their last four games at home against South African opposition, with their last loss in such a fixture coming back in Round Four, 2015. Akira and Rieko Ioane have each crossed for at least one try in both of the Blues' last two games; in fact, Akira Ioane has scored five tries in his last four games for the club. The Sharks can come good at any time, but we feel the Blues will take the spoils - by five points.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Jordan Trainor, 13 George Moala, 12 Rieko Ioane, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Mike Tamoaieta, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Ross Wright, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Thomas Faiane.
Sharks: 15 Curwin Bosch, 14 Sibusiso Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Lubabalo Mtembu, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Philip van der Walt, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Ruan Botha (captain), 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Armand van der Merwe, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 John-Hubert Meyer, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Tyler Paul, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Marius Louw, 23 Jacobus van Wyk.
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Waratahs
(GIO Stadium, Canberra - Kick-off: 19.45; 08.45 GMT)
The two interstate rivals will battle it out for the Dan Vickerman Cup, but there is also valuable conference points up for grabs.
The Brumbies are coming off an impressive win over the Sharks, their second victory of the season - the same as the Waratahs.
They have been boosted by the return of David Pocock.
Coach Dan McKellar said that despite this being a big game, the team is treating it as just another match so as to avoid losing focus on their strategies.
"In the past, it's been quite an emotional game," he said.
"Obviously, both teams know each other really well and we had some progression in our game against the Sharks and we're just focusing on us and making sure we're better again on Saturday and start to build some momentum at home.
"It's Super Rugby, they'll be physical battles. The boys will no doubt present physically on Saturday night as will New South Wales. So, from our point of view, it's just about getting our game in order."
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson it is an opportunity for the team to leverage their season on the game.
"For the Australian derbies, the conference is incredibly tight," Gibson said.
"It makes every away game an opportunity to get points as it looks like every team is strong at home.
"Australian derbies are competitive and fierce and I see this one being no different.
"We've had a bye and so have the Brumbies, and it's a time where you reflect on where you are at and where you can improve."
2017: Brumbies won 28-12, Sydney
2016: Brumbies won 26-20, Sydney
2016: Brumbies won 32-15, Canberra
2015: Waratahs won 13-10, Canberra
2015: Waratahs won 28-13, Sydney
Prediction: The Brumbies have won their last three games against the Waratahs, and will be searching for a fourth consecutive win against them for the first time in Super Rugby. The Brumbies have won 19 of their last 23 Australian derbies on home turf, including each of their last six by an average margin of 20 points. After a 51-27 win against the Rebels in Round 5, the Waratahs will be searching for back-to-back wins in Super Rugby for the first time since Rounds 14 and 15, 2016. The Brumbies have conceded just eight clean breaks per game this season, fewer than any other team. Israel Folau has made 12 offloads this campaign, the most of any player and more than twice as many as any Brumbies' player (Lachlan McCaffrey - five). Tough call to make, but the smart money is on the Waratahs to win - by eight points.
Brumbies: 15 Andy Muirhead, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Lausii Taliauli, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 David Pocock, 6 Lachlan McCaffrey, 5 Blake Enever, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Folau Fainga'a, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Faalelei Sione, 18 Mees Erasmus, 19 Richie Arnold, 20 Tom Cusack, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Kyle Godwin, 23 Tom Banks.
Waratahs: 15 Bryce Hegarty, 14 Israel Folau, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Jed Holloway, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Michael Wells, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Ned Hannigan, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Will Miller, 21 Mitchell Short, 22 Lalakai Foketi, 23 Alex Newsome.
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nicholas Berry (Australia), James Leckie (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
Bulls v Stormers
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria - Kick-off: 17.15; 15.15 GMT)
The Stormers have won six of their last seven games against the Bulls, who are coming off a winless Australasian tour.
The Pretoria-based franchise will be looking to bounce back to winning ways at Loftus, where they amazingly have won only one of their last seven games.
However, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck is not buying into the suggestion that his team is "favourites".
"We are working hard, we are going well," Fleck said.
"We are grateful for the last two wins [against the Blues 37-20 and Reds 25-1]," the coach added.
"We are improving every week and that is where our focus has to be.
"No matter what the situation is, we are playing the Bulls at Loftus and over the years it has always been a good battle and we are looking forward to the same this week.
"I think they are a tough outfit to play against, especially back at home, so we are going to have to be pretty good on our game this weekend."
Springbok Adriaan Strauss will start for the Bulls for the first time this season, a fitting way to celebrate the landmark of becoming the most capped South African Super Rugby player.
The 32-year-old Strauss will fittingly play in is 149th Super Rugby match - improving on Victor Matfield's record of 148 matches - where it all started for him, in Pretoria.
Bulls coach John Mitchell congratulated Strauss on his milestone.
"Adriaan has been a true servant of South African rugby and has left his mark with the Bulls, so it is fitting that he could reach that milestone in front of his home crowd.
"It will be a typical derby no doubt."
Bulls captain Burger Odendaal feels that the energy from the home crowd after three weeks on the road will be a huge boost.
"We started the season well, but the results on tour were not what we wanted to achieve," Odendaal said.
"Back home at Loftus now, we hope to find that extra gear to get our season back on track.
"No one in this team needs motivation to play well against the Stormers. They are on a roll and we need to be at our very best if we want to stay in the contest."
2017: Stormers won 41-33, Pretoria
2017: Stormers won 37-24, Cape Town
2016: Bulls won 17-13, Pretoria
2016: Stormers won 33-9, Cape Town
2015: Stormers won 15-13, Cape Town
2015: Stormers won 29-17, Pretoria
Prediction: The Stormers have won six of their last seven games against the Bulls, restricting them to fewer than seven first-half points in all but one of those games. The Bulls have won only one of their last seven games on home turf. The Stormers have won seven of their last nine South African derbies, including each of their last two and an eight-point win over the Bulls in their most recent such fixture. Not only have the Bulls (15) won the most line-outs per game of any team this season, but they've done so at a competition-high success rate of 94 percent. Damian de Allende (73) has made four more carries this season than any other player. The Bulls are improving in their evolution to a more entertaining team, but they are not quite on song yet. Current form would dictate that the Stormers will win by 12 points.
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain), 11 Divan Rossouw, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Tim Agaba, 7 Thembelani Bholi, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Hanro Liebenberg, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Frans van Wyk, 18 Lizo Gqoboka, 19 Hendre Stassen, 20 Roelof Smit, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Johnny Kotze.
Stormers: 15 Sarel Marais, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Damian De Allende, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Justin Phillips, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Cobus Wiese, 6 Siyamthanda Kolisi (captain), 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Jan de Klerk, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Ramone Samuels, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Siyabonga Ntubeni, 17 Jacobus Janse van Rensburg, 18 Carlu Sadie, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Kobus van Dyk, 21 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 22 Jano Vermaak, 23 Craig Barry.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant referees: AJ Jacobs (South Africa), Cwengile Jadezweni (South Africa)
TMO: Willie Vos (South Africa)
Sunday, April 1:
Lions v Crusaders
(Ellis Park, Johannesburg - Kick-off: 14.30; 12.30 GMT; 00.30, Monday, April 2 NZ time)
The Crusaders will be the more confident of the two teams, given their impressive demolition of the Bulls last week.
Their host, the Lions, have won just one of their last three games - that was a two-point win over the lowly Sunwolves.
If the Lions, runners-up the last two years, want to stay in the hunt and retain control of the South African conference, they will have to knock over the team that beat them in last year's Final.
Forwards coach Philip Lemmer admitted they have had a tough couple of weeks.
However, the Lions are happy to be back home.
He said they are not as far off the pace as the results seem to suggest.
He added that the Lions are close to 'putting the puzzle together' and get their game right.
"As soon as this [team] comes together, it will be an awesome spectacle to watch," Lemmer said.
"The guys know there is a massive job at hand."
The strength of the Lions in recent years was their ability to outlast teams and Lemmer made it clear nothing less than a totally committed 80-minute effort by the entire team will be good enough.
The Crusaders, who lost just one match in 2017, stunned the Lions to win 25-17 in the Final at Ellis Park last year.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said both sides will be "hugely motivated" for Saturday's rematch.
"It is a great game, a great occasion and a great stadium," Robertson said, adding: "That is what people look for."
2017: Crusaders won 25-17, Johannesburg (Final)
2016: Lions won 42-25, Johannesburg (preliminary play-off)
2016: Crusaders won 43-37, Johannesburg
2015: Crusaders won 34-6, Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 28-7, Johannesburg
Prediction: The Crusaders have won eight of their last nine games against the Lions, including last season's Final. The Lions haven't beaten the Crusaders in a regular season clash since February 2007. The Lions have won 18 of their last 20 games on home turf, failing to pick up competition points only once in that time. The Crusaders have won six of their last seven games in South Africa, including each of their last three; never before have they won four on the bounce in the country. The Crusaders have finished two of their last three games against the Lions without losing a line-out on their own throw. Marvin Orie won a round-high nine line-outs in Round Six, the most by a Lions player in a single game this season. The Lions' recent form suggest the Crusaders will win by about 15 points.
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Sylvian Mahuza, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Voster, 11 Madosh Tambwe, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Dillon Smit, 8 Hacjivah Dayimani, 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Albertus Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malco Marx, 1 Dylan Smith.
Replacements: 16 Corne Fourie, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Jacobie Adriaanse, 19 Lourence Erasmus, 20 Marvin Orie, 21 Marnus Schoeman, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Shaun Reynolds
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Tim Perry
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Tom Sanders, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mike Delany, 23 Manasa Mataele
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa), Egon Seconds (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports