PREVIEW: Super Rugby, Round Nine - Part Two
SOCIAL MEDIA MELTDOWN: It should be about the on-field action. Unfortunately, it is an off-field storm that dominated the headlines.
The Waratahs are doing everything they can not to let the sideshow of Israel Folau's anti-gay comments on social media sidetrack them from Saturday's Super Rugby clash with the Reds.
"Our focus now is on ensuring we get to this Reds game," Waratahs assistant coach Chris Malone said.
"It's a great opportunity for us after beating three Australian conference rivals in the last few weeks.
"It's a really big game for us and really exciting at the Sydney Cricket Ground."
The other matches we look at in this section of our preview will see the Highlanders host the Brumbies and the Sharks at home to the Bulls.
We take a look at the last three games of the weekend!
Saturday, April 14:
Highlanders v Brumbies
(Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin - Kick-off: 19.35; 17.35 AEST; 07.35 GMT)
The Brumbies travel across the Tasman Sea fresh off reviving their season with a defining win over the Reds last week.
Indications that the Brumbies are finding their form is the manner in which they powered back from being 0-15 down to win 45-21.
That momentum combined with the Brumbies' good record at Forsyth Barr Stadium has their fans believing that they could finally end the Kiwi dominance over Aussie teams.
Australia has now gone 47 matches, dating back to July 2016, without a win against a New Zealand team in Super Rugby.
The last time the Canberra-based team played the Highlanders outside of Australia they came away with a 30-19 win in 2013.
Current Brumbies players Sam Carter, Christian Lealiifano, Scott Sio and the injured Henry Speight was involved in that famous result five years ago.
Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger said his charges are refreshed from last week's bye - having lost their last two matches before the break.
"Fair to say we have a good perspective of where we are at the moment as a team and over the last few weeks, we have taken some good learnings from our matches," Mauger said.
"The guys have come back fresh from the break and have trained well.
"Our training focus this week has been on using those recent learnings to solve a few issues that will allow us to perform come the weekend," Mauger added.
Brumbies coach Dan McKellar admitted Australian Super Rugby teams need to "earn" the respect from their New Zealand counterparts.
McKellar says New Zealand teams don't respect their Australian rivals and the Brumbies are desperate to turn that around.
"This Saturday is about us going to New Zealand and earning respect as a club and a team," McKellar said.
"We look at our results in recent times in New Zealand and there haven't been too many times where it's been one-sided, it's just the critical moments in the game where we haven't won."
2017: Highlanders won 18-13, Canberra
2016: Highlanders won 15-9, Canberra (preliminary play-off match)
2016: Highlanders won 23-10, Invercargill
2015: Brumbies won 31-18, Canberra
2013: Brumbies won 30-19, Dunedin
Prediction: The Highlanders have won their last three games on the bounce against the Brumbies, never before have they won more in succession against the team from the Australian capital. The Brumbies have won on three of their last five excursions away from home to face the Highlanders, though their most recent such victory came in Round Nine, 2013. The Highlanders have won their last nine games on the bounce at home, the last and only time they won more was a 13-game glut from 2000 to 2002. The Highlanders have won 12 of their last 13 games against Australian opposition, including each of their last seven. The Brumbies have won only one of their last five games away from home, with that win coming against the Sunwolves by just seven points. The Brumbies have lost their last 11 games against teams from New Zealand, their longest ever drought in such fixtures. The Highlanders have gained fewer than 300 metres in each of their last two games after having been so heavily restricted only once in their 14 games prior. The Brumbies have a goal-kicking accuracy of just 61 percent this campaign, lower than any other team in the competition. Waisake Naholo has made 13 offloads this season, the joint-most of any player in the competition. Wharenui Hawera has slotted eight penalty goals so far this campaign, the most of any player who is yet to miss an attempt; however, he's been successful with just two of eight conversion attempts. There may be some good reasons to take a punt on the Brumbies, but our money is on the Highlanders to win by 12 points.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Tei Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Brumbies: 15 Tom Banks, 14 James Dargaville, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Chance Peni, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Matt Lucas, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 David Pocock, 6 Tom Cusack, 5 Blake Enever, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Folau Fainga'a, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Leslie Leuluaialii-Makin, 19 Sam Carter, 20 Michael Oakman-Hunt, 21 Joe Powell, 22 Kyle Godwin, 23 Andrew Smith
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Waratahs v Reds
(Sydney Cricket Ground, Sydney - Kick-off: 19.45; 09.45 GMT)
Hopefully, everybody will be able to forget the Israel Folau saga for a few hours on Saturday.
After all, the match will be an historic occasion, with the two sides meeting at the Sydney Cricket Ground for the first time since 1983.
Both sides will wear traditional strips for the match, with Queensland once again donning a maroon jersey, as it did in its home clash against the Waratahs last year.
"New South Wales has been one of our main rivals throughout Queensland's history and it is always a great occasion, made even more special by the fact we're playing at the Sydney Cricket Ground," Reds coach Brad Thorn said.
"The guys love that we're playing in the maroon jersey again.
It would be good to see more of it in the future."
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson also did his best to steer attention away from the Folau saga and towards the significance of the encounter.
"It's going to be new for everyone once you get over the fact that it's a different ground, at the end of the day, it's still going to be a rectangle," Gibson said.
"We are looking forward to what will be a very physical encounter.
"It [the SCG] is still a ground in Sydney and one that's close to our home ground.
"I think historically, it's a fantastic venue."
2017: Waratahs won 29-26, Brisbane
2016: Waratahs won 15-13, Brisbane
2016: Waratahs won 30-10, Sydney
2015: Waratahs won 31-5, Sydney
2015: Waratahs won 23-5, Brisbane
Prediction: The Waratahs have won their last seven games in a row against the Reds, this after having lost their previous five on the bounce against the Queensland side. The Waratahs have won their last three games on the trot overall, the last time they won more was a four-game streak in April-May 2016. The Reds have won only two of their last 13 Australian derbies when playing away from home, conceding 45 points in each of their last two such fixtures. The Reds have a tackle success rate of 86 percent this campaign, the best of any team in the competition. Michael Hooper has crossed for a try in two of his last three games against the Reds, and has scored a try in three of his last six games overall. The Reds' lack of composure and inexperience have cost them on more than one occasion this season and that is why our money is on the Waratahs to win by 10 points or more.
Waratahs: 15 Bryce Hegarty, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Will Miller, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Ned Hanigan, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Lalakai Foketi, 23 Cameron Clark.
Reds: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Filipo Daugunu, 13 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 12 Samu Kerevi, 11 Izaia Perese, 10 Jono Lance, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Caleb Timu, 7 Liam Wright, 6 Lukhan Tui, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 James Slipper (captain).
Replacements: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Jean-Pierre Smith, 18 Sef Fa'agase, 19 Adam Korczyk, 20 Angus Scott-Young, 21 Tate McDermott, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Jordan Petaia.
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen & James Leckie
TMO: George Ayoub
Sharks v Bulls
(Kings Park, Durban - Kick-off: 17.15; 15.15 GMT)
The Du Preez factor is very real in this match.
Not only is there the twins, Jean-Luc du Preez starting and Daniel du Preez on the bench, but the key is Robert at flyhalf.
And, as we all know, they are coached by their father, Robert senior.
The Bulls, who lie fourth with only nine points from a possible 30, have lost their previous three away matches this year.
The visitors from Pretoria have already enjoyed their two mandatory byes and with a game in hand over the second-placed Sharks (in the South African Conference) and two over the conference-leading Lions, will travel to Durban full of purpose in their own quest to move up the table.
The Sharks coach pointed to the team's dramatic turnaround on their Australasian tour as a pointer to their threats.
After losing both matches in Australia, they bounced back to beat the Blues and came within seconds of also beating the Hurricanes.
"Over the past two weeks, we really started to click as unit on-field and we want to carry that momentum going into our next two matches, before the break," Du Preez, senior, said.
"This is going to be a typical local derby match and it's important that we stick to our plans and execute them accurately on the day."
"It's always a special feeling to play in front of our home fans and we are happy to be back home."
Bulls coach John Mitchell said his team has it all to play for.
"One thing we can bank on is that this will require a huge effort from our side if we want to beat the Sharks at home," Mitchell said.
"They will not make it easy for us or allow us to rule the game.
"This will be hard work and we need to be prepared for that."
Bulls captain, Burger Odendaal, said they could not afford to lose momentum again during the next couple of weeks.
"We started well, then lost our way and with us bouncing back nicely against the Stormers, it is time to kick on," Odendaal said.
"The week's rest has done all of us well, so we are keen to go and record a win in Durban. We have the players and the game plan to be very competitive against a strong Sharks team."
2017: Bulls won 30-17, Durban
2016: Sharks and Bulls drew 16-all, Pretoria
2015: Bulls won 17-10, Durban
2015: Bulls won 43-35, Pretoria
2014: Bulls won 23-19, Pretoria
2014: Sharks won 31-16, Durban
Prediction: The Bulls are undefeated in their last five games against the Sharks, their longest ever run without a loss against them. The Sharks have lost their last two home games against South African opposition, the last time they lost more was a three-game drought from 2004 to 2006. The Bulls have won only one of their last 10 games away from home; however, that sole win came against the Sharks in Round 15 last season. The Sharks have stolen 1.4 line-outs per game this season, more than any other team in the competition. Handre Pollard has made 86 kicks in general play this season, the second-most of any player in the competition behind Elton Jantjies (119). The Bulls clearly have no problem with winning in Durban, but we feel the Sharks have enough momentum to sneak a late winner - by five points.
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 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 John-Hubert Meyer, 19 Tyler Paul, 20 Daniel du Preez, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Marius Louw, 23 Kobus van Wyk.
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Johnny Kötze, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain), 11 Divan Rossouw, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Thembelani Bholi, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Rudolph Snyman, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Frans van Wyk, 19 Jason Jenkins, 20 Roelof Smit, 21 André Warner, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Duncan Matthews.
Referee: Egon Seconds
Assistant referees: AJ Jacobs, Cwengile Jadezweni
TMO: Marius Jonker
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports