S15 Preview: Round Two, Part One
S15 Preview: Round Two, Part OneSHARE
After last week's appetisers it is time to get stuck into the main feast of Super Rugby action, starting with three big derbies on Friday.
The two matches in Australia last week may have technically kicked the season off, but this weekend is the moment all Southern Hemisphere fans have been looking forward to – Super Rugby is finally in full swing.
While pre-season fixtures are good for brushing off cobwebs, looking at depth and getting banter going in the comments section, it is tough to attach any real significance to the results, so it is quite a relief that the speculation ends this weekend when it really counts.
Friday will see each conference host a derby, so there should be no lack of intensity as all the teams involved look for a fast start in what should be a very competitive season.
The action starts in the deep south of Dunedin where the Highlanders host the defending champion Chiefs, which will hopefully see the "Zoo" in the enclosed Forsyth-Barr Stadium packed with the usual assortment of colourful locals.
From there it is on to Melbourne where the only two teams to have won a game this season – the Rebels and the Brumbies – take each other on for a guaranteed spot at the top of the log.
Finally, Friday is set to end with a bang at Loftus Versfeld where the Stormers face the Bulls in the latest edition of their fierce North/South derby which should produce a gripping start to the South African conference.
Friday, February 22
Highlanders v Chiefs
(Forsyth-Barr Stadium, Dunedin – Kick-off: 19.35; 06.35 GMT)
The Highlanders have made a habit in recent years of starting the Super Rugby season like a house on fire and then gradually fizzling out towards the end of the season.
Coach Jamie Joseph is determined not to see his team go from contenders to also-rans for the third consecutive year, so he has signed up a number of big names in the hope that the additional firepower will give them what they need to sustain their potency.
With the likes of Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu in Dunedin the Highlanders will no longer be the tenacious underdogs of the New Zealand conference, but one of the teams expected to run with the big dogs at the head of the pack, and they will get a chance to live up to that billing in their opening game.
The Chiefs were clinical in their victorious campaign last year, and although they have lost a few big names their strength last season was their unified team approach rather than the influence of any stars, so they will still be one of the toughest teams to beat.
Despite being without drawcards like Sonny Bill Williams, Richard Kahui and Sona Taumalolo, the Chiefs still have a solid spine in a talented halfback pairing, balanced loose trio and solid tight five, so they will present a stern test for the home side on Friday.
Another advantage for the Chiefs is their astute coaching staff, with head coach Dave Rennie and former All Black assistant Wayne Smith forming a formidable brains trust that will have a clear plan on how to counter the fierce rucking and physicality that the Highlanders are known for.
Prediction: The Chiefs will be a tough nut to crack, but the Highlanders will be full of confidence in front of their home crowd and should take this one by about five points.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Phil Burleigh, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear (captain), 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 John Hardie, 6 Joe Wheeler, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Elliot Dixon, 19 Tim Boys, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Hayden Parker, 22 Buxton Popoali'i.
Chiefs: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Patrick Osborne, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (captain), 3 Ben Afeaki, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Ben Tameifuna, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Tanerau Latimer, 20 Augustine Pulu, 21 Charlie Ngatai, 22 Lelia Masaga.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
Rebels v Brumbies
(AAMI Stadium, Melbourne – Kick-off: 19.40; 08.40 GMT)
The Rebels managed to see off the Force last week to get their season off to a winning start, but they will have to raise their game considerably if they are to get the better of the Brumbies.
Rebels skipper Gareth Delve admitted after the win over the Force that his team expect more of themselves, and they will have to make that step up immediately with Jake White's charges on their way to Melbourne.
The Rebels have real star quality in Wallabies Scott Higginbotham, Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor, but they will need far more than individual brilliance if they are to make it two wins from two games on Friday.
The Brumbies are a disciplined unit that boast one of the most impressive defensive systems in the competition, and they will be in the Rebels' faces from the start.
The Canberra side showed great commitment to prevent the Reds from scoring a try against them last week, and they will be keen to show that they can be just as ruthless on attack against the Rebels.
One concern for the visitors will be the erratic goal-kicking form of Christian Lealiifano last week, with scrumhalf Nic White looking far more solid off the kicking tee, and they will know that any mistakes they make are likely to be punished by the accurate boot of O'Connor.
Prediction: The Rebels will have their moments but the Brumbies are a well-drilled side that will wear them down over 80 minutes to take a 10-point win.
Rebels: 15 James O'Connor, 14 Lachlan Mitchell, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Richard Kingi, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Gareth Delve (captain), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Scott Higginbotham, 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 Jarrod Saffy, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 Alex Rokobaro, 22 Tom English.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Joe Tomane, 13 Andrew Smith, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Clyde Rathbone, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (captain), 7 David Pocock, 6 Peter Kimlin, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Dan Palmer, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Fotu Auelua, 19 Colby Faingaa, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Robbie Coleman, 22 Tevita Kuridrani.
Referee: James Leckie (Australia)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Ian Smith (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Bulls v Stormers
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria – Kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
Forget about a low-key fixture to usher in the new season in South Africa, it will be all fireworks at Loftus Versfeld on Friday night when South Africa's most successful Super Rugby team comes up against the most consistent side in the country in recent years.
With last season's talk of 'rebuilding' now behind them, the Bulls will be out to make a statement of intent at the start of their campaign against a team that managed to beat them home and away last year.
Neither of the Stormers' victories over the Bulls last year were by much, but nobody grinds out results like Allister Coetzee's team, and they will be after more of the same in what should be a typically physical encounter up north.
Whilst Bulls coach Frans Ludeke has named just about the most experienced side possible, the Stormers have a fresh look to them this year with a few Springboks from the Lions bolstering their ranks, so it will be interesting to see which factor has the biggest influence on the game.
The Bulls are likely to stick to their tried and tested formula with a group of players that can deliver their familiar brand, but for the Stormers it will be about integrating the likes of Elton Jantjies and Jaco Taute with their approach.
Stormers coach Coetzee is expecting the Bulls to come out firing in front of their home crowd, and acknowledged that the territorial battle will be key in Pretoria.
"They have a solid squad, they are playing in front of their home crowd and it is going to be a tough ask for us – whoever goes to Loftus will be the underdog, because of the history.
"What we realise against the Bulls is that you must make sure you get out of your half accurately – their kicking game is very effective, based on strangling you in your own half, where you make mistakes," he explained.
Coetzee is also wary of the impact that new Bulls attack coach Victor Matfield will have, and pointed to the set-pieces as a vital area where both sides will be desperate to establish dominance.
"They have an extra arrow in their quiver with Victor Matfield as their line-out and attack coach – there are certain things Victor brings to a side, which I know.
"You have to get your set piece right – line-outs are very important against a side like the Bulls, who have a great contesting and defensive line-out – then at the breakdown they also put you massively under pressure," he said.
Prediction: This one really could go either way, with neither side likely to take many chances, but the Stormers have more players with x-factor which is why we think they will clinch a narrow victory by less than three points.
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Lionel Mapoe, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies (captain), 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Juandrè Kruger, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Morné Mellett.
Replacements: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Grant Hattingh, 19 Arno Botha, 20 Jano Vermaak, 21 Louis Fouché, 22 Francois Venter.
Stormers: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Jean de Villiers (captain), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 De Kock Steenkamp, 3 Pat Cilliers, 2 Deon Fourie, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Martin Bezuidenhout, 17 Frans Malherbe, 18 Don Armand, 19 Nizaam Carr, 20 Dewaldt Duvenage, 21 Gerhard van den Heever, 22 Joe Pietersen.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa), Stefan Breytenbach (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
By Michael de Vries
* Rotate the pictures to see our mini gallery of Friday's teams!