S15 Preview: Round 15, Part One
S15 Preview: Round 15, Part OneSHARE
It is time to put up or shut up with the play-offs getting closer and some crucial matches lined up in Round 15.
Things kick off on Friday in what could be the game of the weekend with the Chiefs facing the Crusaders in Hamilton.
The derby theme on Friday continues as focus shifts to Melbourne where the Rebels host the on-form Waratahs.
Saturday's action kicks off with two trans-Tasman clashes as first the Blues host the Brumbies and then the Highlanders take on the Force in Perth.
We take a closer look at the match-ups:
Friday, May 24
Chiefs v Crusaders
(Waikato Stadium, Hamilton – Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT)
No matter what happens in the first game of the weekend, the Chiefs will keep their spot at the top of the New Zealand conference, but the Crusaders have the opportunity to strike a massive psychological blow in Hamilton on Friday.
The seven-time winners have a game in hand over the defending champions, and with the play-offs approaching fast this game is effectively worth double the points.
On paper the Chiefs would appear the favourites – they are on top of the standings and will be playing at home, but it is not quite as simple as that.
Although the Waikato side have managed to maintain winning ways in recent weeks, they have not been entirely convincing, lacking crucial killer instinct and allowing weaker teams to push them all the way.
The Crusaders on the other hand have been building momentum steadily and come off a comprehensive victory over the Blues in Christchurch last week, so they will be confident heading into this crunch derby.
Both teams have formidable tight fives littered with All Blacks, so the battle up front will be immense with some key match-ups in the set-phases.
At scrum-time the battle between Chiefs tighthead Ben Tameifuna and Crusaders loosehead Wyatt Crockett will be one to savour, whilst locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock will want to impress in an effective trial for the All Black No.5 jersey.
The competition at the breakdown should be just as fierce as both teams boast well-balanced loose trios, and with considerable firepower in both backlines this one is shaping up to be a classic.
Prediction: The Chiefs are a tough nut to crack at home, but they have not been entirely convincing lately so we are backing the Crusaders to get up and take this one by a few points.
Chiefs: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Patrick Osborne, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Matt Vant Leven, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (captain), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Mahonri Schwalger, 17 Toby Smith, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Augustine Pulu, 21 Dan Waenga, 22 Lelia Masaga.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Tom Marshall, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Tom Taylor, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell/Laurence Corlett, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Dominic Bird, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Robbie Fruean, 22 Telusa Veianu.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Rebels v Waratahs
(AAMI Stadium, Melbourne – Kick-off: 19.40; 09.40 GMT)
The Waratahs will be gunning for their fourth consecutive win when they hop across to Melbourne to face a Rebels side that "embarrassed" the Stormers last week.
The Rebels have shown this season that they are no pushovers, and will have taken great heart from their victory last week without stars James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale.
However, they run into a Waratahs side that has hit their straps, and after their fighting win against the Brumbies last week Michael Cheika's side will be full of belief.
The visitors have certainly got more big names up front, with an almost all-Wallaby forward pack, but the Rebels have proven gritty customers under the leadership of Scott Higginbotham this year and will certainly test the vaunted Waratahs in the tight exchanges.
Berrick Barnes came on and turned the game around for the Sydney team last week, so his presence in the starting line-up will give them a further boost as it takes a lot of pressure off playmaker Bernard Foley.
The Waratahs are currently in eighth position on the log, just six points behind the Reds, and they will feel that if they are going to make a late challenge for a play-off place then this game is a must-win.
Prediction: The Rebels will fight hard as usual, but the Waratahs should have enough to take this one by about seven points.
Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Tom English, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Lachlan Mitchell, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Scott Higginbotham (captain), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Jarrod Saffy, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Cadeyrn Neville, 19 Gareth Delve, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 James Hilgendorf, 22 Kimami Sitauti.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Peter Betham, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Matt Lucas, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 John Ulugia, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Luke Holmes, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Will Skelton, 19 Mitchell Chapman, 20 Brendan McKibbin, 21 Rob Horne, 22 Tom Kingston.
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Matt O'Brien (Australia)
TMO: Peter Marshall (Australia)
Saturday, May 25
Blues v Brumbies
(Eden Park, Auckland – Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT)
Both the Blues and the Brumbies will be looking to get things back on track in Auckland this week after crucial derby losses last week which saw them lose valuable ground.
If Graham Henry's comments are anything to go by the Blues were certainly disappointed with the circumstances of their resounding defeat to the Crusaders, so expect a major response from them at home.
The Brumbies have kept their place at the top of the Australian conference, but must start closing out tight games if they are to avoid a repeat of last season's play-off heartbreak.
Jake White's team will play their familiar brand of no-nonsense rugby and look to pin the Blues in their own half and keep them there with their abrasive defence.
The key for the Blues will be their forwards, as if they are able to confront the Brumbies pack and allow their backline to play in the right areas of the field then they will be hard to stop.
After going tryless in Christchurch last week the Blues will feel they have something to prove on attack, which should provide a serious test for the watertight Brumbies defence.
Prediction: The Brumbies have the game to upset any team, but the Blues should take this one at home by about five points.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Brendon O'Connor, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Angus Ta'avao/Sam Prattley, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Kane Barrett, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Jackson Willison.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (captain), 7 Colby Faingaa, 6 Peter Kimlin, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Fotu Auelua, 19 Jordan Smiler, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Robbie Coleman, 22 Clyde Rathbone.
Referee: Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jonathon White (New Zealand), Nick Briant (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Force v Highlanders
(NIB Stadium, Perth – Kick-off: 19.40; 09.40 GMT)
It will be a basement battle between the bottom two sides on the standings when the Force and the Highlanders slug it out in Perth.
The Highlanders are coming off a disappointing South African tour and remain rooted to the bottom of the log, but they have played two games less than the Force and are still just three points behind.
The Force have shown that they cannot be written off, with a couple of big performances against some of the top teams in the competition, and they will be eyeing this game as a must-win to avoid slipping to 15th place.
The home side may not have the most attacking potency around, but they are a hard-working outfit that pride themselves on a committed defensive system, so they will not stand back for the Highlanders.
They will be up against a Highlanders team with little to lose at the bottom of the standings, so expect the visitors to give the ball some air and take the game to the Force.
The Highlanders have shown glimpses of the team that everyone expected them to be at the start of the season, but have battled for consistency, so if they manage to put a good 80 minutes together they could take the game away from the Force.
Prediction: The Highlanders are hurting and have the potential to win this one, but the determined Force should do enough at home to win by about five points.
Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Patrick Dellit, 13 Ben Jacobs, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Chris Alcock, 6 Matt Hodgson (captain), 5 Sam Wykes, 4 Toby Lynn, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Heath Tessmann, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 James Hilterbrand, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Rory Walton, 19 Richard Brown, 20 Brett Sheehan, 21 Junior Rasolea, 22 Sam Norton-Knight.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Jason Emery, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 John Hardie, 6 TJ Ioane, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn (captain), 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Joe Wheeler, 19 Elliot Dixon, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Tino Nemani/Trent Renata.
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Assistant referees: Ian Smith (Australia), Michael Hogan (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
By Michael de Vries