JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first five games in round 17 of the Super Rugby tournament.
HIGHLANDERS vs REDS (Friday, 09:35)
The Highlanders have already qualified for the playoffs and will face the Crusaders or the Lions in the quarter-finals. The Reds, however, will be playing for nothing but pride in their last game of the 2017 Super Rugby tournament.
The Reds may be encouraged by the fact that they've won seven of their last 10 games against the Highlanders. They may be boosted by the news that All Blacks Ben Smith and Aaron Smith have been rested for this clash.
The bad news for the Reds is that All Blacks Liam Squire and Lima Sopoaga will be back in the mix for the Highlanders this week. Squire should make a difference at the gainline, and Sopoaga as a tactical kicker at flyhalf.
The Highlanders have struck a fine balance between kicking and running this season. While they are ranked first in the tournament for kicks from hand, they have scored 32 points (rank four) and four tries (rank five) per match.
The Reds have some of the worst attacking and defensive numbers in the tournament (only four teams have a worse tackle-completion). They will be hard-pressed to deal with the likes of Malakai Fekiota carrying in midfield, or with the Sopoaga targeting their back-three with a series of high kicks.
Highlanders – 15 Richard Buckman, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Luke Whitelock (cc), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Gareth Evans, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Patelesio Tomkinson.
Reds – 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Izaia Perese, 13 Campbell Magnay, 12 Duncan Paia’aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Adam Korczyk, 7 George Smith, 6 Caleb Timu, 5 Izack Rodda, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 Sef Fa’agase.
Subs: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Markus Vanzati, 18 Sam Talakai, 20 Reece Hewat, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Jayden Ngamanu.
REBELS vs JAGUARES (Friday, 11:45)
The Jaguares go into this clash with a two-from-four record against Australian teams. A win against the Rebels this Friday would see the Jaguares finishing their first Australian tour with two wins in two matches.
The Jaguares should not want for motivation. A win would guarantee a third-place finish in the Africa 2 conference (and ensure that the Kings finish last in that group).
The Rebels will finish at the bottom of the Australasian log and 17th overall, regardless of the result this Friday.
Rebels – 15 Jack Maddocks, 14 Tom English, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Amanaki Mafi 7 Colby Fainga’a 6 Sean McMahon 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Steve Cummins 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith.
Subs: 16 Jordan Uelese, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Fereti Sa’aga, 19 Esei Haangana,, 20 Murray Douglas, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Sione Tuipulotu, 23 Semisi Tupou, 24 Jonah Placid.
Jaguares – 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Matías Moroni, 13 Matías Orlando, 12 Bautista Ezcurra, 11 Emiliano Boffelli, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Rodrigo Báez, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Benjamin Macome, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Enrique Pieretto, 2 Agustin Creevy (c), 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro.
Subs: 16 Julián Montoya, 17 Ramiro Herrera, 18 Lucas Noguera, 19 Ignacio Larrague, 20 Juan Cruz Guillemain, 21 Gonzalo Bertranou, 22 Juan Martín Hernández, 23 Santiago Cordero.
KINGS vs CHEETAHS (Friday, 19:00)
Neither the Kings nor the Cheetahs are in the running for the playoffs ahead of this final regular season fixture. And yet, with both teams set to exit the competition and join an expanded Pro14 tournament later this year, many will be interested to see how their respective Super Rugby stories end.
The Kings have claimed historic wins over the Waratahs, Sharks, Jaguares and Bulls. They've already won six matches this season – more than any other Kings side in Super Rugby history. Regardless of what transpires in Port Elizabeth on Friday, the Kings will avoid the South African wooden spoon.
The Cheetahs, on the other hand, have to win on Friday. A loss could see them finishing the Super Rugby tournament – their last – at the bottom of the South African pile.
The Cheetahs have been their own worst enemies in 2017, though. They've been reluctant to kick from hand this season (with an average of 16 per game, rank 18). Only the Sunwolves and Rebels have conceded more tries.
There's been a lot of hype around their attack. Yet the stats tell a different story. The Cheetahs have battled to make metres (rank 12) and beat defenders (rank 15) this season. Looking at those numbers, it isn't hard to understand why they've scored only three tries (rank 11) and 26 points (rank 10) per game.
The Kings have forced more turnovers on average (9.4) than any other team this season. Expect to see the Kings winning the gainline battle and capitalising on the Cheetahs' attacking mistakes on Friday.
Kings flyhalf Lionel Cronjé should also look to aim his kicks on the Cheetahs' limited back three. The Kings have played a smart territorial game thus far, and are ranked fourth in the tournament for kicks from hand.
Kings – 15 Malcolm Jaer, 14 Wandile Mjekevu, 13 Berton Klaasen, 12 Luzuko Vulindlu, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Lionel Cronjé (c), 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Andisa Ntsila, 7 Tyler Paul, 6 Chris Cloete, 5 Wilhelm van der Sluys, 4 Lubabalo Mtyanda, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Michael Willemse, 1 Mzamo Majola.
Subs: 16 Martin Bezuidenhout, 17 Schalk Ferreira, 18 Dayan van der Westhuizen, 19 Irne Herbst/Mzwanele Zito, 20 Thembelani Bholi, 21 Rudi van Rooyen, 22 Masixole Banda, 23 Waylon Murray/Yaw Penxe.
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 William Small-Smith, 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 Clinton Swart, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Niell Jordaan, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Uzair Cassiem, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Joseph Dweba, 1 Ox Nche.
Subs: 16 Reinach Venter, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Armandt Koster, 20 Junior Pokomela, 21 Chris Dry, 22 Ruan van Rensburg, 23 Niel Marais.
SUNWOLVES vs BLUES (Saturday, 05:05)
The Blues will become only the second New Zealand team to visit the Sunwolves in Super Rugby history. The Hurricanes thrashed the Japanese side 83-17 in Tokyo in the opening round of this season.
According to Opta, the Blues boast a ruck success rate of 96%, the best of any team in the competition. The visitors are going to be difficult to contain if they build up momentum. The Sunwolves have missed the most tackles per game (29) and have recorded the worst tackle-completion (80%) in the tournament.
The Blues will not hold back. A near full-strength side has been selected for this clash, even though there is nothing at stake in terms of playoff qualification. The team will be looking to give All Blacks Charlie Faumuina and Steven Luatua a fitting sendoff before the two forwards move to Europe.
Sunwolves – T15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Kotaro Matsushima, 13 William Tupou, 12 Timothy Lafaele, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Keisuke Uchida, 8 Willie Britz (c), 7 Shuhei Matsuhashi, 6 Malgene Ilaua, 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Kotaro Yatabe, 3 Koo Jiwon, 2 Takeshi Hino, 1 Koki Yamamoto.
Subs: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Keita Inagaki, 18 Yasuo Yamaji, 19 Yuya Odo, 20 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 21 Kaito Shigeno, 22 Jumpei Ogura, 23 Ryohei Yamanaka.
Blues – 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Subs: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Josh Goodhue, 20 Jerome Kaino, 21 Sam Nock, 22 StephenPerofeta, 23 Rene Ranger.
CHIEFS vs BRUMBIES (Saturday, 07:15)
A single log point currently separates the Hurricanes and the Chiefs in the overall standings. The team that finishes higher on the log will face the Brumbies in the quarter-finals. The other side will have to travel to South Africa to play the Stormers, the Africa 1 conference winners.
The Chiefs have to beat the Brumbies this Saturday to keep their hopes of playing a quarter-final in Australasia alive. Thereafter, they will hope that the Crusaders beat the Hurricanes in Wellington.
The Chiefs have won four of their last six games against the Brumbies, and four of the most recent clashes against the Canberra-based side in Hamilton.
The Chiefs haven't lost to an Australian side at home since 2014. Meanwhile, the Brumbies have lost on their last eight visits to New Zealand by an average margin of 15 points.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Solomon Alaimalo, 13 Alex Nankivell, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Lachlan Boshier, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Mitchell Brown, 4 Michael Allardice, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Tom Sanders, 20 Mitchell Karpik, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Brumbies – 15 Jordan Jackson-Hope, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Nigel Ah Wong, 12 Andrew Smith, 11 James Dargaville, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Tomas Cubelli, 8 Lolo Fakaosilea, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy (c), 5 Blake Enever, 4 Tom Staniforth, 3 Leslie Leulua'iali'i-Makin, 2 Robbie Abel, 1 Nic Mayhew.
Subs: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Ben Hyne, 20 Tom Cusack, 21 Jordan Smiler, 22 Ryan Lonergan, 23 Tom Banks.
Photo: Johan_Pretorius/Gallo Images