S15 preview: Round 20, Part One
S15 preview: Round 20, Part OneSHARE
The top six may already have been decided, but there will still be plenty to play for in the final round of Super Rugby before the play-offs.
The teams that have made the knock-out stage of the competition are fiercely vying for home advantage, whilst the rest of the bunch will be looking to finish up as high as possible.
The Crusaders have a chance of sneaking the New Zealand conference by getting a bonus-point win over the Hurricanes who will want to set things right in Christchurch after going down at home to the Highlanders last week.
From there it is on to Melbourne where the Rebels will wave goodbye to a host of players when they take on the Highlanders who can still finish above them on the standings.
The first match on Saturday will see the defending champion Chiefs face another tricky assignment against a Blues team smarting from consecutive defeats in South Africa which ended their challenge.
We take a closer look at the matches:
Friday, July 12
Crusaders v Hurricanes
(AMI Stadium, Christchurch – Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT)
The Crusaders need a bonus-point win at home against the Hurricanes if they are to keep their slim hopes of topping the New Zealand conference alive.
The seven-time champions showed their class last week as they took the Chiefs apart, and they will have to follow that up with another big performance in order to sneak past the defending champions in the last weekend before the play-offs.
An injury to Luke Romano has forced coach Todd Blackadder to bring Tom Donnelly into the second row, but the rest of the starting line-up that put the Chiefs away last week has been retained.
If they do secure the five points they need, then their fate will be in the hands of the Chiefs who play the Blues on Saturday, but their biggest concern will be maintaining the momentum they have built up in the last few weeks as they head into the knock-out phase of the competition.
The Crusaders are always strong in the set-pieces and will try to use their scrums and line-outs as a launching pad against a Hurricanes team not renowned for their dominance up front.
However, the key to their recent success has been the improved form of their backline. All Blacks Dan Carter and Israel Dagg have been in great touch, which has given the Christchurch outfit some serious venom on attack.
They will be tested against a talented Hurricanes backline who have little to lose in their last game of the season, and it will be interesting to see how Conrad Smith's charges measure up against the more structured approach of the Crusaders.
Prediction: The Hurricanes have nothing to lose and will chuck the ball around, but the Crusaders are in great nick at the moment and should win this one at home by about 15 points.
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 Tom Donnelly, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Jimmy Tupou, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tyler Bleyendaal, 22 Telusa Veainu.
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Alapati Leiua/Matt Proctor, 13 Conrad Smith (captain), 12 Reynold Lee-Lo, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben May, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Reggie Goodes, 17 John Schwalger, 18 Blade Thomson, 19 Faifili Levave, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 Ope Peleseuma, 22 Matt Proctor/Andre Taylor.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Garrett Williamson (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Rebels v Highlanders
(AAMI Park, Melbourne – Kick-off: 19.40; 09.40 GMT)
It will be farewell time in Melbourne on Friday as the Rebels' last game of the season sees a changing of the guard with coach Damien Hill and six players on their way out.
The home side will be looking for their fifth win of the season – which would be a record in the short three-season history of the franchise – and they will fancy their chances against a Highlanders outfit that has been languishing at the bottom of the table all year.
The Highlanders may have had a season to forget, but they certainly showed what they are capable of on attack in their surprise win against the Hurricanes in Wellington last week, and they will be looking for more of the same against the Rebels.
Coach Jamie Joseph has plenty of talent at his disposal, but they have battled to find much cohesion this year, and they will be keen to end a frustrating season with a bang.
The Rebels forwards have proven that they are no pushovers, and will play with plenty of heart against an ageing Highlanders pack, but the visitors should have an edge when the ball goes to the backline.
The Highlanders have some serious firepower out wide, and they will want to put on a show in All Black wing Hosea Gear's last Super Rugby match before he heads to Japan.
All of this should make for an entertaining game as both teams have little to play for apart from sentimentality and should give the ball some width in their last hit-out of the season.
Prediction: This one could go either way, and based on their display last week we are backing the Highlanders to get up again and spoil the Rebels' farewell party by beating them by about five points.
Rebels: 15 Angus Roberts, 14 Jason Woodward, 13 Tom English, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Cooper Vuna, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Gareth Delve (captain), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Jarrod Saffy, 5 Cadeyrn Neville, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Luke Jones, 19 Jordy Reid, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 James O'Connor, 22 Kimami Sitauti.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Tamati Ellison, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 Elliot Dixon, 6 TJ Ioane, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn (captain), 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Andrew Hore (captain), 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Jake Paringatai, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Hayden Parker, 22 Shaun Treeby.
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Matt O'Brien (Australia)
TMO: Peter Marshall (Australia)
Saturday, July 13
Blues v Chiefs
(Eden Park, Auckland – Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT)
The Chiefs travel to Auckland on Saturday knowing exactly what it will take for them to top the New Zealand conference and secure home ground advantage in the play-offs.
However, the major focus for the Waikato side this week will be bouncing back from their defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch last week as they look to build some confidence ahead of the knock-out phase of the tournament.
They face a Blues team that will only be playing for pride, but they can still expect a fierce test from John Kirwan's team that lost both of their matches in South Africa.
Those losses to the Sharks and Cheetahs may have ended the Blues' hopes this season, but they will feel that they have plenty to prove at the end of a campaign which promised so much before fizzling out.
They have an opportunity to make a major statement against the defending champions, so we should be set for yet another cracking Kiwi derby.
The Chiefs' forward pack got bossed around by the Crusaders last week, so they will want to get on top of the Blues up front and keep them under pressure.
The Blues clearly missed their injured halfback pairing of Piri Weepu and Chris Noakes last week, and their replacements will have to step things up a notch if they are to compete with the Chiefs duo of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden.
Prediction: The Blues are dangerous, but the Chiefs will be too focused and should do enough to win by about five points.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Francis Saili, 11 Lolagi Visinia, 10 Baden Kerr, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili/Brendon O'Connor, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Kane Barrett, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Anthony Boric, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Sam Prattley.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Liaki Moli, 19 Brendon O'Connor/Sean Polwart, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Jackson Willison, 22 Marty McKenzie.
Chiefs: 15 Andrew Horrell, 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Robbie Robinson, 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 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Mahonri Schwalger, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Augustine Pulu, 21 Gareth Anscombe, 22 Asaeli Tikoirotuma.
By Michael de Vries