JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first four Super Rugby matches of round two, including the big New Zealand derby in Christchurch.
HIGHLANDERS vs BLUES (Dunedin, Friday, 08:35)
Take a look at some of the backline players who will be on show at the Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday. Fullback Ben Smith is back in New Zealand after taking an overseas sabbatical and missing eight Tests in 2017. New Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger has picked several other Test stars, namely scrumhalf Aaron Smith, flyhalf Lima Sopoaga and wing Waisake Naholo, in his starting side.
The Blues will take the field with the likes of No 9 Augustine Pulu, centres Sonny Bill Willams and George Moala, and 2017 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year Rieko Ioane in their ranks. To say that both teams boast plenty firepower in their respective back divisions is an understatement.
Whether the Blues will have the platform to unleash Williams and Ioane in the wider channels is another story. According to Opta Stats, the Highlanders had one of the strongest set pieces in the 2017 tournament, and scored the third-most tries from first phase during the conference stage. The Blues will need to combat the challenge at the scrums and lineouts this Friday if they hope to score an upset.
The Highlanders loose forwards – Liam Squire, Dillon Hunt and Luke Whitelock – will be difficult to beat at the breakdowns and collisions. It will be interesting to see whether the Highlanders employ the same kick-chase tactics that have yielded positive results in the past. They do possess some of the best tactical kickers in Aaron Smith, and one of the best high-ball exponents in Ben Smith.
The Blues can make a statement with an away win against a fellow New Zealand side. That said, the Highlanders will view a home match against a relatively weaker side like the Blues as a must-win fixture. The hosts should be going all out to obtain four log points on Friday.
Stats and facts
- The Highlanders have won eight of their last 11 games against the Blues, and will be looking for a third consecutive win against them for the first time since 2003.
- The Blues have been defeated in each of their last five away games against the Highlanders; however, they’ve picked up three losing bonus points in that span.
- The last time the Highlanders opened a Super Rugby campaign with a victory was in 2014, when they picked up a 29-21 win at home against the Blues.
- The Blues have now gone 11 games without a win against New Zealand opposition, their longest ever drought against their countrymen.
Ben Smith has scored eight tries in his last eight games against the Blues, including four in his last three games against them.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Dan Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman,17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Dan Pryor, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Blues – 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Augustine Pulu (c), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Glenn Preston, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Subs: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Michael Tamoaieta, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Sione Havili/Antonio Kiri Kiri, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 23 Melani Nanai.
REBELS vs REDS (Melbourne, Friday, 10:45)
The Rebels will be a lot stronger in 2018. The axing of the Force has led to a number of players and coaches moving east in search of opportunities. Dave Wessels will make his debut as Rebels coach on Friday, as will a number of former Force players and British & Irish Lions lock Geoff Parling.
In theory, the group of players should be stronger. It may take some time, though, for the composite team to gel and become a new force – no pun intended – in the Australian conference.
They certainly have everything to prove. The Rebels had one of the weakest set pieces in the tournament last year. They conceded the most tries across the conference stage (79) and scored the fewest (23).
Fortunately, they will be up against one of the weakest teams in the 2017 competition this Friday. The Reds won four games and lost 11 last season.
There’s a good chance that Wessels and company will begin their season on a positive note.
Stats and facts
- Each of the last three games between these teams has been decided by a margin of no greater than five points, with the Rebels picking up two wins in that span.
- The Rebels have won four of their last five season openers, though they were trounced 56-18 by the Blues in round one last year.
- The Reds have won just one of their last 16 games away from home; however, that win came against the Rebels in round 12 last season.
- The Rebels scored just 16 points per game last season, the fewest of any team in the competition and five fewer per game than the Reds.
New Rebels signing Geoff Parling (who played all three Lions Tests against Australia in 2013) won a team high of 90 lineouts for Premiership champions, the Exeter Chiefs, last season.
Rebels – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Tom English, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Sefa Naivalu, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Will Genia, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Angus Cottrell, 6 Lopeti Timani, 5 Adam Coleman (c), 4 Matt Philip, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Jordan Uelese, 1 Tetera Faulkner.
Subs: 16 Anaru Rangi, 17 Fereti Sa’aga, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Ross Haylett-Petty, 21 Michael Ruru, 22 Semisi Tupou, 23 Billy Meakes.
Reds – 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Duncan Paia’aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Jono Lance, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 Adam Korczyk, 6 Caleb Timu, 5 Lukhan Tui, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 James Slipper.
Subs: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 JP Smith, 18 Sef Fa’agase, 19 Kane Douglas, 20 Liam Wright, 21 Tate McDermott, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Filipo Daugunu.
SUNWOLVES vs BRUMBIES (Tokyo, Saturday, 06:15)
Three South Africans will feature for the Sunwolves in Tokyo on Saturday. The inclusion of lock Grant Hattingh, flank Lappies Labuschagne, and No 8 Willie Britz will boost the hosts’ ability to compete at the lineouts and breakdowns – to a certain extent.
The Brumbies boasted one of the better set pieces last year, and should look to target the Japanese franchise at the scrums and lineouts on Saturday. Wallabies halfbacks Joe Powell and Christian Lealiifano should enjoy a steady supply of clean ball, and one would expect the Brumbies to rack up a convincing, bonus-point victory.
The Sunwolves will endeavour to play a less structured game. They may want to avoid taking on the Brumbies defence in structured play, though. The Canberrra-based outfit proved hard to breach in 2017.
Stats and facts
- The Brumbies ran out to a 66-5 win in the only previous meeting between these teams back in round 14, 2016.
- The Sunwolves will be looking for successive wins in Super Rugby for the first time after ending their 2017 campaign with a 48-21 win against the Blues.
- The Brumbies have won two of their last three games outside Australia, though were soundly beaten in a 28-10 loss to the Chiefs in their last such fixture.
- No team missed more tackles per game in Super Rugby 2017 than the Sunwolves (29).David Pocock returns – in his four seasons at the club, he’s never missed more than a single tackle in a game for the Brumbies.
Sunwolves – 15 Jason Emery, 14 Lomano Lava Lemeki, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Hosea Saumaki, 10 Robbie Robinson, 9 Yutaka Nagare (c), 8 Willie Britz, 7 Lappies Labuschagne, 6 Kazuki Himeno, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Ho Shota Horie, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Subs: 16 Jaba Bregvadze, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 James Moore, 20 Edward Quirk, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Sione Teaupa.
Brumbies – 15 Tom Banks, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Chance Peni, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Tom Cusack, 6 Rob Valetini, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Richie Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Ben Alexander.
Subs: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Faalelei Sione, 18 Leslie Leuluaialii-Makin, 19 Rory Arnold, 20 Lachlan Mccaffrey, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Wharenui Hawera, 23 Lausii Taliauli.
CRUSADERS vs CHIEFS (Christchurch, Saturday, 08:35)
The Hurricanes did the Lions a favour when they beat the Crusaders in the final round of the 2017 conference stage. That result marked the Crusaders’ first and only loss of the regular season, and allowed the Lions to finish ahead of the Cantabrians at the top of the standings.
The Crusaders went on to beat the Highlanders 17-0 in the quarter-finals and the Chiefs 27-13 in the semi-finals. They became the first team in history to travel across the Indian Ocean and win a Super Rugby final when they triumphed 25-17 at Ellis Park in the 2017 decider.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson admitted that his players were out on their feet during the latter stages of that final. He gave one the impression that the team would prefer to avoid that sort of challenge in subsequent tournaments.
The Crusaders will be looking to extend their good run against fellow New Zealand teams this week. Ultimately, they should be aiming to top the Kiwi conference and strengthen their chances of hosting a decider later this year.
The Crusaders come into this game with a full-strength side. The Chiefs, however, will be missing some key players. Halfbacks Tawera Kerr Barlow and Aaron Cruden have taken up contracts abroad, while utility back Tim Nanai-Williams has been sidelined with a serious injury.
New Chiefs coach Colin Cooper has made some interesting selections. Centre Charlie Ngatai will start at fullback, while regular fullback Damian McKenzie – who wore the No 15 jersey for the All Blacks last year – will slot in at flyhalf.
The Chiefs boast an exciting side on paper. The visitors will have their work cut out for them at the set pieces, though, and on attack in general.
The Crusaders possessed one of the strongest scrums in the 2017 tournament, and scored a lot of their tries after winning a lineout and setting the maul. Their defence did well to keep the opposition out, and to create scoring opportunities via turnovers at the breakdowns.
Brodie Retallick and Dominic Bird will be looking to get the better of their All Blacks teammates Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano at the lineout. The front-row battle between another pair of All Blacks, loosehead Wyatt Crockett and tighthead Nepo Laulala, also promises to be a classic.
Veteran Matt Todd will be up against one of the better breakdown exponents in Sam Cane. The Crusaders boast the better loose-forward combination, though, and this may allow them to win the gainline battle and breach the Chiefs defence.
Stats and facts
- The Crusaders have won their last two games against the Chiefs, the last time they won more against them in succession was a four-game streak from 2009 to 2011.
- The Chiefs have won each of their last three regular-season games away from home against the Crusaders.
- The Crusaders have won seven of their last eight games against fellow New Zealand opposition; four of those wins coming after they were level or trailing at half-time.
- Seta Tamanivalu has scored seven tries in his last six games for the Crusaders in Super Rugby, including a brace in his last game against the Chiefs.
- Damian McKenzie beat 80 defenders in Super Rugby last year, 19 more than any other player in the competition (David Havili, 61).
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Peter Samu, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Chris King, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Billy Harmon, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele.
Chiefs – 15 Charlie Ngatai (cc), 14 Shaun Stevenson, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Fa’auli, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Taleni Seu, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Dominic Bird, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Aidan Ross.
Subs: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Atu Moli, 18 Angus Ta’avo, 19 Liam Messam, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Sean Wainui.
Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images