JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the last three matches in round eight of the competition.
CHEETAHS vs CHIEFS (Saturday 15:05)
It's all looking rather ominous for the Cheetahs. The Chiefs haven't recorded back-to-back defeats in South Africa since 2008, and haven't lost to the Cheetahs since 1997.
While the Chiefs went down 34-26 to the Stormers in round seven, they certainly didn't play badly. Toni Pulu's first score will be a contender for try of the tournament. The buildup to that try highlighted the counter-attacking threat of the Chiefs.
Following the result in Cape Town, Dave Rennie's side has dropped to third in the New Zealand conference. They will go to Bloem this Saturday with the goal of claiming five log points.
Interestingly, the Cheetahs boast some impressive attacking stats. According to Opta, the central South African franchise is ranked higher than the Chiefs for carries, clean breaks, defenders beaten and passes.
Yet there are other stats that highlight the Chiefs' superior potency and all-round efficiency. The Chiefs have scored more points and tries than the Cheetahs. On defence, the New Zealand side has conceded 17 tries fewer than the Cheetahs after six games.
The Cheetahs will look to take the game deep. They have a goal-kicking success rate of 91%, the best in the tournament. The Chiefs have converted a mere 75% of their shots on goal.
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 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 Ox Nche.
Subs: 16 Elandre Huggett, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Francois Uys, 20 Niell Jordaan, 21 Junior Pokomela/Luther Obi, 22 Tian Meyer, 23 Fred Zeilinga.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 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 Mitchell Brown, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Taleni Seu, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Sosefo Kautai, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Alex Nankivell, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
STORMERS vs LIONS (Saturday 17:15)
This promises to be the biggest and most exciting clash between two South African teams in the conference stage. The Lions have been playing a fast-paced brand of rugby for some time, while the Stormers have found their attacking mojo in recent months.
Can anything be read into the recent records of the respective teams? The Stormers made a big statement with their win over the Chiefs in round seven, and remain unbeaten after six matches. The Lions have lost just one match, although many continue to wonder what may have transpired if a full-strength side was selected for the game against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
There's not much between the two sides as far as stats are concerned. The Stormers have averaged 39.8 points and the Lions 37.5.
There's no significant gap in average carries (128.7 vs 120.8), metres made (599.8 vs 534), clean breaks (14.6 vs 13.3), defenders beaten (24.8 vs 25.2), offloads (15 vs 13.3), kicks from hand (22.7 vs 20.7) and penalties conceded (8.7 vs 8.7).
There should be an interesting contest at the set pieces. The Lions have faired better on their own ball, while the Stormers are ranked 16th in the tournament in this department. The Lions have the joint-top lineout poacher in Franco Mostert (five steals). However, the Stormers have the other top lineout-stealer in Pieter-Steph du Toit, while Eben Etzebeth (three) has also been prominent in this area.
The Stormers defended well during the final 20 minutes of the match against the Chiefs. Overall, they have scored nine tries and conceded only three in the fourth quarter this season. This record sees them among the best 'finishing teams' in the tournament.
The Lions are also in that bracket. They've scored the equal most tries during the fourth quarter (11) and conceded three. It will be interesting to see which side will win the fourth quarter at Newlands this Saturday, and what impact this will have on the final scoreline.
How much kicking will we see on Saturday? The stats suggest the Lions will need to kick accurately against this dangerous counter-attacking Cape side. The Stormers have scored the most tries from kick returns this season (seven).
Home advantage may give the Stormers the edge in this clash. The Stormers have won 25 of their last 30 home games against South African opposition. The last match between these two sides at Newlands was in 2015, and ended in a 19-19 draw.
Stormers – 15 SP Marais, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Dan du Plessis, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Siya Kolisi (c), 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Subs: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Jan de Klerk, 20 Johan du Toit, 21 Goldlen Masimla, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Dan Kriel.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Madosh Tambwe, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnal Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Ruan Ackermann, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Harold Vorster, 23 Sylvian Mahuza
BULLS vs JAGUARES (Saturday 19:30)
The Bulls have returned to South Africa after a tour that witnessed three straight losses. Last week, the Bulls became the first South African side in history to lose to the Sunwolves.
The pressure is building on Nollis Marais and his young side. A few key players such as Handré Pollard will return this week. Bulls fans will hope that this makes all the difference to the performance and result.
The only previous meeting between the Bulls and the Jaguares saw the Argentinian side claiming a 29-11 victory in Buenos Aires. The Jaguares have won five of their last seven games against South African opposition, and have taken a losing bonus point from both defeats in that run.
The Bulls have won their last seven games at home to teams visiting from outside South Africa, winning by an average margin of 19 points in that period. Perhaps that record will give them some hope of a victory against a much-improved Jaguares side.
The Bulls are ranked in the bottom half of the tournament across every category, bar the lineout. They should be looking to harness this strength on Saturday when they meet a Jaguares side that is ranked 17th in the tournament for lineout wins.
The Jaguares have won four from six this season, but have continued their poor run of discipline. Only one team averages more penalties (11) per game and the Jaguares have already conceded eight yellow cards, more than any other side.
The Bulls will be desperate to atone for their poor tour performances. That desperation, along with the advantage of playing at altitude, may be the difference.
While their defence in the second half hasn't been great, the Bulls have managed to score seven tries in the fourth quarter. By comparison, the Jaguares have scored only four during this period. Only two teams have scored fewer tries at the business end of a match.
If the game is in the balance in the final quarter, the Bulls should do enough to emerge victorious.
Bulls – 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Nick de Jager, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 RG Snyman , 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Subs: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Martin Dreyer, 19 Jason Jenkins, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Warrick Gelant.
Jaguares – TBC
Photo: Shaun Roy/Gallo Images