S15 Preview: Round Eight, Part One
S15 Preview: Round Eight, Part OneSHARE
It will be a battle of wills when the Sharks and the Crusaders collide in a crunch Super Rugby clash at Kings Park on Friday.
The Christchurch side last weekend showed the character that has become synonymous with the most successful Super Rugby franchise in history in their victory over the Stormers at Newlands.
They will be the underdogs once again on Friday, with their stocks further depleted after the physical Cape Town encounter, but as they proved yet again, they can never be counted out.
The Sharks will be equally intent to ensure that they don’t let a win slip on home soil with a gruelling schedule ahead, making the Durban duel the pick of the matches on Friday.
Round Eight kicks off in Auckland, the setting for the desperate New Zealand derby between the Blues and the Highlanders before the Brumbies get their first crack at the Southern Kings in Canberra.
Quintin van Jaarsveld looks at Friday’s fixtures.
Blues v Highlanders
(Eden Park, Auckland – kick-off; 19.35; 06.35 GMT)
Eight rounds into the season and this match is already a must-win affair for the bottom dwellers of the New Zealand Conference.
The hosts’ fourth-place standing in the kiwi conference was expected after starting afresh this season with a new coach and a new-look side.
Sitting ninth on the overall log is a fair reflection of John Kirwan’s charges’ early season endeavours – two sterling bonus-point wins followed by three defeats on the trot.
However, the visiting Highlanders’ unenviable status as the competition’s lone winless team comes as a shock. Considered by many to be destined to return to the play-offs for the first time in over a decade this season, the high-profile acquisitions of Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Brad Thorn have failed to galvanise the struggling Dunedin side.
They are firmly rooted at the bottom of the overall and New Zealand Conference standings after five consecutive losses. With just six points to their name, the Highlanders are 11 points adrift of the Blues and a whopping 19 shy of the conference-leading Chiefs, which already puts paid to any conference honours they may have harboured.
Their defeat to the Reds last weekend was a new low for the franchise as it was their first ever defeat to the Brisbane outfit at home, while the Blues regained much of the confidence they had lost after their blistering start to the season despite going down to the Chiefs.
It may not have been the desired result, but the positives far outweighed the negatives. They pushed the defending champions close – ultimately succumbing 16-23 – in a performance that will put an extra spring in their step ahead of this crucial match.
Prediction: The contest won’t be the mismatch that the Highlanders’ dire 2013 record suggests as the Blues’ inconsistency makes them unpredictable. Having said that, we expect the Blues to be too good for their visitors at home, but it should be a close game. Blues by seven.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (captain), 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Francis Saili.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Buxton Popoalii, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 John Hardie, 6 Jarrad Hoeata, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Andrew Hore (captain), 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Ma'afu Fia, 18 TJ Ioane, 19 Elliot Dixon, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Lima Sopoaga, 22 Phil Burleigh.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Jonathon White (New Zealand), Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Southern Kings
(Canberra Stadium, Canberra – kick-off: 19.40; 10.40 SA time; 08.40 GMT)
With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the tournament newcomers will look to cause a major shake up against the pace-setting Brumbies at Canberra Stadium.
Contrasting fortunes and contrasting goals – that best describes this encounter against the table-topping Brumbies and the Southern Kings, who languish in 14th-place.
The Super Rugby rookies haven’t earned a single log point – bar the arbitrary four points for their Round Three bye – since their maiden win over the Western Force.
The Port Elizabeth side are on a four-match losing streak and while they were competitive in their defeats at home to the Sharks and Chiefs, they were thoroughly outplayed in their opening tour matches against the Crusaders (55-20) and Hurricanes (46-30).
The demands of Super Rugby have already begun to take its toll on the Kings, whose defence has rapidly unravelled since the start of the season and leaked 13 tries on tour alone.
Their Canberra counterparts, in turn, are sitting pretty at the top of the log. Nothing but a full house will be considered a success by coach Jake White, and with that sense of expectation, all the pressure will be on the hosts to deliver.
The Kings will cling on to the hope that this could count in their favour, but they are bound to struggle to contain the Brumbies, whose ball retention has been second to none this season.
Prediction: Both teams will learn a lot about their depth with both coaches making a number of changes, albeit for different reasons.
The Brumbies could be a tad slow out of the blocks but once they find their rhythm they’ll overwhelm the Kings. Brumbies by 17.
Brumbies: 15 Robbie Coleman, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Nic White, 8 Fotu Auelua, 7 George Smith, 6 Ben Mowen (captain), 5 Etienne Oosthuizen, 4 Peter Kimlin, 3 Dan Palmer, 2 Siliva Siliva, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Stephen Moore, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Sam Carter, 19 Colby Faingaa, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Andrew Smith, 22 Zack Holmes.
Southern Kings: 15 George Whitehead, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 Andries Strauss (captain), 11 Ronnie Cooke, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Nicolas Vergallo, 8 Cornell du Preez, 7 Wimpie van der Walt, 6 Devin Oosthuizen, 5 Rynier Bernardo, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Grant Kemp, 2 Hannes Franklin, 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Kevin Buys, 18 David Bulbring, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Shaun Venter, 21 Marcello Sampson, 22 Elric van Vuuren.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Andrew Lees (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Sharks v Crusaders
(Kings Park, Durban – kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT; 06.00, Saturday, April 6 NZ time)
After sidestepping each other last season, the Sharks and the Crusaders will relish renewing their rivalry on Friday.
The 15-team format and its emphasis on derby matches means that these two teams last met in 2011. The Crusaders won on both occasions, with Sonny Bill Williams and Dan Carter combining to rip the Sharks to shreds (44-28) in the historic Twickenham encounter before the Christchurch side’s 36-8 home win in the play-offs eliminated the Sharks from the equation.
Some 20 months after their last meeting, the teams will finally lock horns again as two of the inform sides of the 2013 season. This time there won’t be a Williams and a Carter in the Crusaders camp, nor will there be a Richie McCaw and a Kieran Read.
The seven-time champions, however, proved at the weekend that they have sufficient depth to keep the ball rolling. The victory over the Stormers at Newlands was nothing short of remarkable and a testament to the Crusaders’ development drive.
New Zealand-born Sharks coach John Plumtree is fully aware of the Crusaders’ pedigree and is preparing his charges for their toughest test to date.
“They have the model in terms of developing their own players, making sure if they lose one, someone else steps up to the plate,” said Plumtree.
“That’s been one of their strengths, they have had to deal with players away with the All Blacks. They start developing at schools and have a good academy system in place.
“It’s no surprise that they have always had players who can compete at this level. Obviously replacing those three world-class players is not easy, but we saw against the Stormers that those who stepped in were more than able to handle the job,” added the Sharks coach.
At the forefront of the fringe players who stepped up was rookie flyhalf Tyler Bleyendaal, who controlled the game like a seasoned Super Rugby veteran. In a game that had a Test match atmosphere, the 22-year-old showed composure beyond his years.
His tactical-kicking was pin-point and his decision-making sound. Bleyendaal’s polished performance was a direct result of his pack’s dominance, and as in Cape Town, the match in Durban will be won and lost up front.
The Crusaders outmuscled the Stormers in the collisions with ruthless and clinical proficiency. It was an emphatic statement, one the Sharks will consider a challenge – a challenge they’ll face head-on.
They won’t hesitate to fight fire with fire, but their confidence should not be mistaken for tactical naivety. As solid as the Sharks pack is, the hosts are sans three of their most powerful and dynamic ball-carrying forwards in injured Springbok trio Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts and Jean Deysel.
As a result, the Saders pack will have a decided size advantage, with the edge in speed going to the Sharks. Variation and accuracy will thus be the Durban side’s main priorities. Frans Steyn’s selection at fullback is as much a tactical one as it is due to the fitness doubts over Louis Ludik.
His booming boot will be used to punish any wayward kicking by the Crusaders with the spotlight in the line-out falling on Franco van der Merwe, who along with IRB Junior World Championship-winning Baby Bok Pieter-Steph du Toit, will be tasked with neutralising Sam Whitelock – fresh from his utter dominance of Andries Bekker – and fellow All Black lock Luke Romano.
The Sharks, too, have benefited from their depth to position themselves atop the South African Conference and third on the overall log, with just a solitary blemish on their record.
They romped to a record 10-try, 64-7 thumping of the Rebels last time out, but according to Plumtree, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
“We would have taken four out of five before the bye week,” he said, adding, “If you look at the Cheetahs, what a good side they are, and the Stormers, beating those two teams, it’s been okay.”
Prediction: A fast start could propel the Crusaders past the Sharks, but expect a tense and closely contested affair regardless.
With a short turn-around from the Crusaders’ demanding Cape Town clash and the Sharks returning from a bye, we feel the hosts will have a bit more gas in the tank and pip the visitors by three points.
Sharks: 15 Francois Steyn, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Keegan Daniel (captain), 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Anton Bresler, 19 Ryan Kankowski, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Riaan Viljoen, 22 Louis Ludik/S’Bura Sithole.
Crusaders: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Adam Whitelock, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock (captain), 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Dominic Bird, 19 Jordan Taufua, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Telusa Veainu, 22 Israel Dagg.
Referee: Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Marius Jonker (South Africa), Reuben Rossouw (South Africa)
TMO: Deon van Blommestein (South Africa)