JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the last four matches in round nine of the Super Rugby tournament.
CRUSADERS vs STORMERS (Saturday 09:35)
The Stormers face an enormous task in Christchurch this Saturday. No Cape side has ever won a Super Rugby match in this part of the world. The Crusaders have won 37 of their last 38 matches against South African opposition at home.
The Crusaders have won their past five matches against the Stormers. Even though the Stormers look a much-improved side and have won six out of seven games in 2017, they will be up against an unbeaten Crusaders team that has averaged five tries per match.
The Stormers are coming off a loss to the Lions. In that clash, the Cape side was outmuscled and tactically outplayed by a superior Lions outfit. That result has put the Stormers under pressure ahead of a challenging three-game tour of New Zealand (at least as far as the race for top spot in the South African group is concerned).
Skipper Siya Kolisi has been rested for the battle against the best team in New Zealand. This decision sees Eben Etzebeth taking over the captaincy and forces yet another back-row reshuffle. Coach Robbie Fleck has decided that Nizaam Carr, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Sikhumbuzo Notshe represent the Stormers' best chances of breakdown and gainline supremacy.
Fleck should have noted the Crusaders' strength at the set pieces. According to Opta, the Crusaders are ranked second in the tournament for lineout success and fifth for scrum success. As many as 24 of the Crusaders' 36 tries have been scored in the first three phases (11 in the first phase, and 13 in either the second or third phase).
Perhaps this is why Fleck has opted for three locks in his starting pack and two strong lineout forwards in Jan de Klerk and Cobus Wiese on the bench. But how will these selections impact on the performance of the back row?
Carr and Notshe were largely ineffective at the gainline against the Lions last week. Du Toit looked to be off the pace when he was selected at No 7 for the Springboks against England last November.
The Stormers' younger players made a statement in the recent match against the Chiefs. Indeed, the whole team proved that they can outmuscle and outlast a crack Kiwi opponent.
But a trip to New Zealand will demand more of the players' fitness and fortitude. A clash against the Crusaders will demand a lift in the players' physicality and intensity.
The Crusaders have made a habit out of striking late in the contest (they've scored 11 tries in the fourth quarter). Only the Hurricanes and Lions (12) have scored more tries during this period.
The Stormers would do well to come away from this fixture with a losing bonus point.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele.
Stormers – 15 Dillyn Leyds, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Dan du Plessis, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Chris van Zyl, 4 Eben Etzebeth (c), 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Subs: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Jan de Klerk, 20 Cobus Wiese, 21 Jano Vermaak, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Dan Kriel.
FORCE vs CHIEFS (Saturday 11:45)
The Chiefs have won eight of the 10 games between these sides. They should expect to add another victory to their tally this Saturday and strengthen their position (second) in the New Zealand conference.
The Force have won their last two matches at home. However, victories against the Kings and Reds are no measure of excellence. More should be read into the Force's two losses against Kiwi opposition (45-17 to the Crusaders and 24-15 to the Blues).
The Chiefs have recorded the best lineout success rate this season (94%). The Force have conceded 12 tries from first phase in 2017. Expect to see the Chiefs striking from this set piece on Saturday.
The Force defence will be in for a long and trying evening. Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie has gained more metres than any other player (673) and is one of only two to make more than 100 carries (110, Samu Kerevi is the other player with 101). The Chiefs are ranked first in the tournament for offloads (17.4 per game).
Force – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Curtis Rona, 13 Marcel Brache, 12 Bill Meakes, 11 Luke Morahan, 10 Luke Burton, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Richard Hardwick, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Isi Maisarani, 5 Ross Haylett-Petty, 4 Lewis Carmichael, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Ben Daley.
Subs: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Pek Cowan, 19 Onehunga Havilli, 20 Brynard Stander, 21 Mitch Short, 22 Jono Lance, 23 Alex Newsome.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Shaun Stevenson, 13 Sam McNicol, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam , 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi.
Subs: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Sosefo Kautai, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Toni Pulu.
BULLS vs CHEETAHS (Saturday 17:15)
The Bulls will be desperate for any sort of win at Loftus Versfeld this Saturday. They are yet to beat a South African opponent in 2017, and are in danger of bowing out of the playoff race at an early stage.
The Bulls have already lost three out of four matches against Africa 1 opponents. They cannot afford to lose another game to a conference rival.
While the Cheetahs won the last meeting between these sides, they have never won back-to-back matches against the Bulls. Perhaps the Bulls will take heart from their home record against the Cheetahs. The men in blue have won seven of the last eight derbies at Loftus Versfeld.
The Cheetahs should have their own point to prove. Franco Smith's charges let a golden opportunity slip in Bloemfontein last week. After leading the Chiefs 24-0 after 27 minutes, they took their foot off the pedal and ended up losing 41-27. The Cheetahs' defensive performance in the second half was a disgrace.
While Smith and opposite number Nollis Marais have talked a big game in the media, neither side has been effective on attack in 2017. After eight rounds, the Cheetahs are ranked 13th for tries scored, while the Bulls are at 15th.
That said, the Bulls may have taken some confidence from the recent win against the Jaguares. Their lineout has been solid. Players like Handré Pollard and Jesse Kriel are starting to find some form.
In contrast, the Cheetahs may be lacking belief after such a gutting loss to the Chiefs. They will be hard-pressed to knock over the Bulls in Pretoria.
Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Nic de Jager, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Subs: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Martin Dreyer, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Marnus Schoeman/Jacques Potgieter, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Francois Brummer, 23 Franco Naude.
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 William Small-Smith, 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 Nico Lee, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Carl Wegner, 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Charles Marais.
Subs: 16 Elandre Huggett, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Francois Uys, 20 Niell Jordaan, 21 Uzair Cassiem, 22 Tian Meyer, 23 Fred Zeilinga.
SHARKS vs REBELS (Saturday 19:30)
The Sharks have won all four previous meetings between these sides. Their 57-point win (64-7) against the Rebels in 2013 is their biggest Super Rugby victory.
The Sharks have won their last seven home games. The Rebels have never won a game in South Africa, and have won just two out of 27 matches played outside of Australia.
There should be no room for complacency this Saturday, though. Robert du Preez's side is coming off a bye, and will have noted the Rebels' improvement in the recent win against Brumbies. What's more, a big win against the Rebels will allow the Sharks to strengthen their bid for a playoff place. The hosts have a lot to play for.
The Sharks would do well to attack the Rebels' set pieces. The Melbourne-based side is ranked 17th for both scrum and lineout success this season. Meanwhile, the Sharks are ranked third and eighth in these departments, and have the best lineout winner in the competition (Ruan Botha has 37 wins including steals).
Sharks – 15 Rhyno Smith, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Philip van der Walt, 6 Tera Mtembu (c), 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Ruan Botha, 20 Jacques Vermeulen, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 23 Jeremy Ward.
Rebels – 15 Reece Hodge, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Tom English, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga'a, 6 Lopeti Timani, 5 Dominic Day, 4 Steve Cummins, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Fereti Sa'aga.
Subs: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Tom Moloney, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Culum Retallick, 20 Hugh Sinclair, 21 Mick Snowden, 22 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 23 Ben Volavola.
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images