CRAIG LEWIS looks ahead to the first four matches in round seven of the competition.
HURRICANES vs WARATAHS (Friday 09:35)
The Hurricanes have enjoyed a comfortable start to their title defence, cruising to victories against the Sunwolves, Rebels, Highlanders and Reds, with their solitary loss coming against the Chiefs.
It’s been a very different story for the Waratahs, who have slumped to four defeats, and have looked nothing like the team that powered to the title just three short years ago.
The Canes have made four changes to their starting lineup, with South African-born Wes Goosen notably set to start on the left wing in place of Julian Savea, while the Waratahs have been boosted by the return of Wallabies flyhalf Bernard Foley and impressive winger Taqele Naiyaravoro.
Interestingly, the Waratahs have won on three of their last four visits to Wellington, but the Canes are unbeaten at home in their last eight games. This time around, expect the Canes to clinch a convincing bonus-point win.
Hurricanes – 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Wes Goosen, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Reed Prinsep, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeffery To'omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ben May.
Subs: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Toa Halafihi, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Vince Aso.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Cam Clark, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu,1 Paddy Ryan.
Subs: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Sam Needs, 18 David Lolohea, 19 David McDuling, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Andrew Kellaway.
SUNWOLVES vs BULLS (Saturday 07:15)
The Bulls displayed some encouraging fighting spirit during last weekend’s clash against the Chiefs, which saw them establish a surprise 9-3 lead after a dominant first-half performance.
Despite the fact they faded in the second half and ultimately succumbed to a fourth defeat of the season, the Bulls should still take some heart from their efforts against the Chiefs.
Having said that, the Bulls will go into this clash without Handré Pollard and Jesse Kriel, who have been rested as per SA Rugby's player management policy, while fellow Springbok Lood de Jager is out with an injury.
Although the absence of these three Boks will considerably weaken the Bulls side, the Sunwolves' lineup has also been disrupted by as many as eight changes to their starting XV.
The Bulls will recall that they only managed a three-point win the last time they were hosted by the Sunwolves, and cannot afford to rest on their laurels after three weeks on the road, but they should still to be too strong for the team from Japan.
Sunwolves – 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Takaaki Nakazuru, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Derek Carpenter, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Hayden Cripps, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 7 Shuhei Matsuhashi, 6 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Yasuo Yamaji, 2 Yusuke Niwai, 1 Koki Yamamoto
Subs: 16 Takeshi Kizu, 17 Keita Inagaki, 18 Heiichiro Ito, 19 Sam Wykes, 20 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 Yu Tamura, 23 Ryohei Yamanaka
Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Nic de Jager, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Lizo Gqoboko.
Subs: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Pierre Schoeman, 18 Martin Dreyer, 19 Jaco Visagie/Hendré Stassen, 20 Jacques Potgieter, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Francois Brummer, 23 Franco Naude.
HIGHLANDERS vs BLUES (Saturday 09:35)
This should be an intriguing encounter. The Blues and Highlanders may be dwelling at the bottom of the New Zealand conference, but both teams will come into this clash after securing back-to-back wins in recent weeks.
The Highlanders particularly picked up some momentum in their 51-12 win over the Rebels last weekend, while they have been boosted by the return of captain Ben Smith, while another All Black in Liam Squire bolsters the bench.
Yet there’s also a newcomer on the Blues bench who will grab many of the pre-match headlines, with superstar Sonny Bill Williams set to make his return to action after nearly nine months out with an Achilles injury. Meanwhile, Steven Luatua and Blake Gibson return to the starting lineup in a powerful loose trio.
Notably, the Blues have won just one of their last 22 away games in New Zealand, and while this should be a closely-fought affair, the Highlanders must be regarded as marginal favourites at home.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Tevita Li, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Blues – 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
BRUMBIES vs REDS (Saturday,11:45)
This is another one of those Australian derbies that will test the interest of even the most die-hard Super Rugby fans.
For what it’s worth, flanker Scott Fardy will lead out the Brumbies in the absence of regular skipper Sam Carter, while in the Reds camp, Lachlan Maranta is set to make his run-on debut at fullback, with Karmichael Hunt ruled out with concussion.
The Brumbies have won each of their last four games against the Reds, and the hosts should be expected to once again rely on their outstanding defence to lay the foundation for another victory that would keep their noses in front in the Aussie conference.
Brumbies – 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Tom Banks, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Jordan Smiler, 7 Chris Alcock, 6 Scott Fardy (c), 5 Blake Enever, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Robbie Abel, 1 Scott Sio.
Subs: 16 Saia Fainga'a, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 tom Staniforth, 20 Jarrad Butler, 21 De Wet Roos, 22 Andrew Smith, 23 James Dargaville.
Reds – 15 Lachlan Maranta, 14 Chris Kuridrani, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Jake McIntyre, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 George Smith, 6 Adam Korczyk, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 Sef Fa'agase.
Subs: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Kirwan Sanday, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Izack Rodda, 20 Hendrik Tui, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Izaia Perese.
Photo: Johan Rynners/Getty Images