CRAIG LEWIS looks ahead to the first four matches in round eight of the competition.
CRUSADERS vs SUNWOLVES (Friday 09:35)
The Sunwolves enjoyed their finest moment in Super Rugby when they secured a memorable win over the Bulls last weekend, but the Japanese side should be brought back down to earth with a bump this Friday.
As it is, the Crusaders are one of only two unbeaten teams in the competition, while they will be well rested after last weekend’s bye.
The Crusaders have made a host of changes to the side that beat the Waratahs last time out, with only five players in the match 23 retaining their place, but they have been boosted by the return from injury of first-choice flyhalf Richie Mo'unga and All Blacks captain Kieran Read.
Notably, the Crusaders have won their last 14 regular season games against teams from outside New Zealand, scoring an average of 38 points per game across those victories. Another comfortable win can be expected against a new-look Sunwolves side on Friday.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Manasa Mataele, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Pete Samu, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Whetu Douglas, 21 Leon Fukofuka, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 George Bridge.
Sunwolves – 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Takaaki Nakazuru, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Derek Carpenter, 11 Teruya Goto, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, 7 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 6 Ed Quirk (c), 5 Sam Wykes, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Takuma Asahara, 2 Takeshi Kizu, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Subs: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Heiichiro Ito, 19 Shinya Makabe, 20 Yuhimaru Mimura, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 William Tupou, 23 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi.
REDS vs KINGS (Saturday 07:05)
This is one of those clashes between two bottom-dwelling teams that is difficult to make a judgement call on.
Both sides have won only a solitary game this season, but while the Reds have been on a downward spiral since round one, the Kings have shown consistently impressive fighting spirit.
Last weekend, the Kings were unfortunate not to overcome the Force during a contest where the lead repeatedly changed hands, and they may fancy their chances of causing an upset in Brisbane. Having said that, the Kings did suffer a blow this week when hat-trick hero Malcolm Jaer was ruled out with a knee injury.
The fact also remains that the Reds have won six of their last eight games at home against South African opposition, while they have been boosted by the return of key backs Quade Cooper and Karmichael Hunt. As a result, they should be regarded as marginal favourites to break a six-match losing streak.
Reds – 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Izaia Perese, 13 Samu Kerevi (c), 12 Duncan Paia’aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 George Smith, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Lukhan Tui, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Alex Mafi, 1 Sef Fa’agase.
Subs: 16 Andrew Ready, 17 Kirwan Sanday, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Kane Douglas, 20 Adam Korczyk, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Chris Kuridrani.
BLUES vs HURRICANES (09:35)
It’s been tricky to know just what to make of the Hurricanes’ title defence thus far this season. You can’t quibble with five wins out of six, but there is a sense that they haven’t quite hit top gear just yet.
After patchy performances against the Reds and Waratahs in recent weeks, the Hurricanes will be desperate to produce a more clinical all-round showing against the Blues, and will be strengthened by the return of the Savea brothers, Ardie and Julian.
The men from Auckland have also been a relative enigma this season, which has seen them mix moments of brilliance with periods of mediocrity, but this week they do welcome influential Sonny Bill Williams into the starting lineup at inside centre.
The Hurricanes have won their last four games against the Blues, and although Eden Park will be a hostile venue on Saturday, the defending champs should be expected to clinch a relatively comfortable victory.
Blues – 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 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 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 George Moala.
Hurricanes – 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Wes Goosen, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeff To'omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ben May.
Subs: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Cory Jane.
REBELS vs BRUMBIES (Saturday 11:45)
Last weekend, the Brumbies powered to a 43-10 victory over the Reds, and they should have little trouble in banking another bonus-point victory to further strengthen their position at the top of the underwhelming Aussie conference.
As it is, the Brumbies have welcomed regular skipper Sam Carter back from injury, but they will be wary of a well-rested Rebels side that enjoyed a bye last weekend.
Nevertheless, the Brumbies have won eight of their last 10 games against the Rebels, and should quite comfortably add another positive result to that impressive record on Saturday.
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.
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