JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first three Vodacom Super Rugby matches of round seven, including the Blues-Stormers clash in Auckland.
HURRICANES vs CRUSADERS, Wellington (Friday 8:35am)
The Crusaders suffered their first defeat since 2017 when they went down to the Waratahs in Sydney last week. It’s been an emotional fortnight for Scott Robertson’s men in the wake of the terror attacks in Christchurch, and one could forgive them for letting their standards slip during this difficult time.
That said, it needs to be remembered that Robertson fielded a largely inexperienced combination against the Waratahs. The side selected to front the Hurricanes at the Cake Tin boasts a more seasoned and formidable look.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read will play his first game in four months this Friday. Flyhalf Richie Mo’unga and lock Scott Barrett are two other returnees that will lend the Crusaders some clout.
The Hurricanes rested a number of senior players for the fixture against the Stormers last week. Centre Ngani Laumape, who has already scored five tries in 2019, has been reinstated ahead of the clash with the Crusaders, as has scrumhalf TJ Perenara.
The Hurricanes will be without All Blacks hooker Dane Coles, though. The Hurricanes pack as a collective may battle to match that of the Crusaders.
The Crusaders have scored 14 of their 25 tries from first phase this season. This stat points to the strength of their scrum and lineout.
It will be interesting to see how the Hurricanes defence copes with the assault by the Crusaders. A lot of All Blacks will be involved in this fixture, and I’m sure that Steve Hansen – as well as a few other international coaches such as Bok mentor Rassie Erasmus – will be watching.
The battle between the halfbacks promises to be a classic.
Beauden Barrett has the ability to ignite his team’s attack, whether he’s running at the line, putting a teammate into space, or finding his winger with a pinpoint kick-pass.
Mo’unga has been Barrett’s understudy at international level for the past season or so. The two-time Super Rugby winner may be determined to prove a point when master and apprentice meet this Friday.
If the Crusaders pack fires, Bryn Hall and Mo’unga should have more opportunities to pressure that Hurricanes defence.
Stats and facts
– The Crusaders have won their last three games against the Hurricanes. The last time either side won more successive iterations of this fixture was a seven-game stretch for the Crusaders from 2005 to 2008.
– The Hurricanes have won their last five games at home against the Crusaders.
– The Crusaders are undefeated in their last 10 New Zealand derbies. Their last derby defeat was in round five last year, against the Highlanders.
– The Hurricanes have beaten 30 defenders per game in 2019, more than any other team.
– The Crusaders have made 14 clean breaks per game this Super Rugby season, more than any team.
– Hurricanes wing Ben Lam has scored five tries in five games against the Crusaders, including three in his last two and one when he was playing for the Blues.
Hurricanes – 15 Chase Tiatia, 14 Jordie Barrett, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Reed Prinsep, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Liam Mitchell, 4 James Blackwell, 3 Ben May, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Fraser Armstrong.
Subs: 16 Asafo Aumua, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Isaia Walker-Leawere, 20 Du’Plessis Kirifi, 21 Richard Judd, 22 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 23 Wes Goosen.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Braydon Ennor, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Whetukamokamo Douglas,. 5 Samuel Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Harry Allan.
Subs: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 George Bower, 18 Oli Jager, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Brett Cameron, 23 Will Jordan.
WARATAHS vs SUNWOLVES, Newcastle (10:45am)
What can we expect from the Waratahs this week? They were lucky to beat the Sunwolves in Tokyo earlier this season. We’ve seen them lose to the Brumbies, but we’ve also seen them beat the Crusaders.
Coach Daryl Gibson has opted to use the coming fixture to give Mack Mason an opportunity at No 10. Bernard Foley, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Jack Dempsey will not feature against the Sunwolves.
Gibson has still picked a powerful side, though. The Waratahs should be looking to bank a bonus-point victory and consolidate their position at the top of the Australian conference log.
The hosts would do well to target the Sunwolves at the set piece, and keep the contest as structured as possible in the early stages. The Sunwolves were hammered by the Lions at the scrums last week, and also battled to win clean ball at the breakdowns.
Stats and facts
– The Waratahs have won each of their previous four games against the Sunwolves by an average margin of 30 points per game. However, their most recent encounter saw them win by a margin of just one point.
– The Waratahs have won five of their last seven games at home, including their last two on the bounce.
– The Sunwolves have led at half-time in each of their last two games against Australian opposition. However, they have lost their last six games against Australian teams.
– The Sunwolves have gained an average of 493m per game this season, more than any other team in the competition.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Cam Clark, 13 Karmichael Hunt, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Curtis Rona, 10 Mack Mason, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper, (c), 6 Lachlan Swinton, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Ned Hanigan, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Harry Johnson-Holmes.
Subs: 16 Andrew Tuala, 17 Rory O’Connor, 18 Chris Talakai, 19 Ryan McCauley, 20 Tom Staniforth, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Lalakai Foketi, 23 Alex Newsome.
Sunwolves – 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Harumichi Tatakawa, 11 Semisi Masirewa, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Kaito Shigeno, 8 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, 7 Dan Pryor (captain), 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Grant Hattingh, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Jaba Bregvadze, 1 Pauliasi Manu
Subs: 16 Nathan Vella, 17 Masataka Mikami, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Takuya Yamasawa, 23 Hosea Saumaki.
BLUES vs STORMERS, Auckland (Saturday, 8:35am)
The Stormers were breached by the Hurricanes far too often in the outside channels last week. They lost the battle at the gainline, even though the Hurricanes have been poor in this area in 2019, and were missing one of their best ball-carriers in Ngani Laumape – and spent much of the game on the back foot.
With that in mind, it isn’t surprising to see a few changes this week ahead of the clash against the Blues. Damian Willemse will start at No 15, Dillyn Leyds has moved to the left wing and SP Marais – one of the chief culprits at the Cake Tin – has dropped to the bench.
Will the Stormers regroup this week and end their 11-game losing streak in New Zealand? It won’t be easy, given the number of individual stars in the Blues lineup.
Wing Rieko Ioane has proved to be one of the All Blacks most dangerous weapons, and has found form for the Blues in recent weeks. Sonny Bill Williams will make an impact from the bench.
Eden Park may witness a clash of styles this Saturday. According to Opta, the Blues rank first in the competition for carries and 14th for kicks from hand. The Stormers, however, are as low as 11th for carries and first for kicks from hand.
Intent aside, these teams have failed to implement their respective game plans with any great accuracy or success. They’ve both struggled to score tries, with the Blues ranking 13th and the Stormers dead last in this category.
It would be wrong to say that the Blues have been too expansive or that the Stormers have been too conservative. The attitude at the gainline and the overall accuracy – of the kicks as well as the passes – has been found wanting on several occasions thus far.
The Stormers need to take the fight to the Blues at the set pieces and collisions this Saturday. They have to slow the Blues down at the breakdown.
The Blues have the best ruck win-rate in the tournament. They’ve looked dangerous when they’ve been allowed to play the game at a high tempo.
When the forwards have been nullified, however, those classy backs have battled to get into the game.
The return of Eben Etzebeth and the decision to start with Jaco Coetzee at No 8 may pay dividends. Etzebeth lent the Stormers plenty of grunt in the fixture against the Sharks, while Coetzee was one of the standouts in the loss against the Hurricanes.
Stats and facts
– The Stormers have won six of their last seven games against the Blues, including their last three on the bounce. Neither team has ever won more than three successive games in the history of this fixture.
– The Blues have won their last two games on the bounce. The last time they won more was a three-game stretch in April-May 2017.
– The Blues have won 14 of their last 17 games at home against teams visiting from outside New Zealand.
– The Blues have missed just 16 tackles per game in 2019, fewer than any other team. They are, however, the only side to average fewer than 100 completed tackles per game too.
– Stormers flank Pieter-Steph du Toit made 30 tackles in round six – the joint-most of any player in a single round in the last nine seasons. Du Toit’s season tally is a joint competition-high 83.
Blues – 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Tanielu Tele’a, 13 TJ Faiane, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Otere Black, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson (co-c), 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (co-c), 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Subs: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Dalton Papalii, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Stormers – 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Daniel du Plessis, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Jaco Coetzee, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Chris van Zyl, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Subs: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Cobus Wiese, 20 Juarno Augustus, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 Josh Stander, 23 SP Marais.
Photo: Craig Morrison /www.photosport.nz