CRAIG LEWIS looks ahead to the first four matches in round 10 of the competition.
HIGHLANDERS vs STORMERS (Friday, 09:35)
Just what is this Stormers team made of? Friday’s clash against the Highlanders should provide plenty of insight into precisely that.
Compliments have quickly made way for criticism as the Stormers’ six-match winning streak has recently been interrupted by back-to-back defeats. In particular, last weekend’s 57-24 thrashing at the hands of the Crusaders is a result that the Stormers will want to quickly forget.
On the plus side, the Stormers have been boosted by the return of captain Siya Kolisi and star fullback SP Marais, but they will once again field a new-look midfield after an injury to Dan du Plessis.
Make no mistake, a smarting Stormers side should produce a far more competitive showing against the Highlanders after a week of introspection, but it’s the home side that will be riding a wave of confidence after securing four successive wins in recent weeks.
As it is, the Stormers have lost their last six games in New Zealand, and it will be interesting to see whether the Cape-based team sticks steadfastly to its new attack-minded philosophy, or looks to embrace a more balanced brand of rugby for this crucial clash.
The Stormers’ discipline can also not afford to falter, with the Highlanders boasting an 89% goal-kicking success rate this season, while flyhalf Marty Banks has missed only one of his 25 attempts.
This should be a closely-fought affair, but the Highlanders will undoubtedly be favourites at home.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Gareth Evans, 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 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Stormers – 15 SP Marais, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Dan Kriel, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Jan de Klerk, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Oli Kebble.
Subs: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 JC Janse van Rensburg, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Kobus van Dyk, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Dewaldt Duvenage, 22 Shaun Treeby, 23 Bjorn Basson.
CHIEFS vs SUNWOLVES (Saturday, 09:35)
The Chiefs uncharacteristically had to rely on the boot of Aaron Cruden to secure an unattractive 16-7 win over the Force last weekend, but after three weeks on the road, they will be thrilled to be back home.
The Hamilton-based side is still very much in the running in the highly competitive New Zealand conference, and will be targeting a comfortable bonus-point win this weekend, although coach Dave Rennie has made a host of changes for this clash.
Notably, the Sunwolves are yet to win away from home in Super Rugby, with their 11 losses so far coming at an average margin of 30 points. One would expect another defeat of that nature to lie in store on Saturday.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Solomon Alaimalo, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Stephen Donald, 11 Sam McNicol, 10 Aaron Cruden (c-c), 9 Jonathan Taumateine, 8 Sam Cane (c-c), 7 Mitchell Karpik, 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Taleni Seu, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Sosefo Kautai, 19 Mitchell Brown, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Alex Nankivell, 22 Shaun Stevenson, 23 James Lowe.
Sunwolves – 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Teruya Goto, 13 William Tupou, 12 Derek Carpenter, 11 Yasutaka Sasakura, 10 Hayden Cripps, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Willie Britz, 7 Shunsuki Nunomaki, 6 Edward Quirk (c), 5 Sam Wykes, 4 Shinya Makabe, 3 Heiichiro Ito, 2 Takeshi Kizu, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Subs: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Uwe Helu, 20 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 Yu Tamura, 23 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi.
REDS vs WARATAHS (Saturday, 11:45)
This is another one of those Aussie derbies that will offer very little appeal to a neutral observer. Both teams have won just two games this season, with the Tahs having suffered a humiliating defeat to the Kings in Sydney last weekend.
Despite the Tahs' disappointing loss to the Kings, coach Daryl Gibson has resisted making wholesale changes, but looked to strengthen a malfunctioning lineout by installing Dave McDuling and Dean Mumm in the second row.
The Reds enjoyed a bye last weekend, and remarkably, will come into this fixture looking for consecutive wins for the first time since 2014, while they will also be aiming to break a six-match losing streak against the Tahs.
It’s a lottery as to what each team will dish up on the day, but the Reds may well just edge it at home.
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 Stephen Moore, 1 Sef Fa’agase.
Subs: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Kirwan Sanday, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Izack Rodda, 20 Leroy Houston, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Campbell Magnay.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Cam Clark, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Dean Mumm, 4 David McDuling, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Hugh Roach, 1 Tom Robertson.
Subs: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Angus Taavao, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Irae Simone, 23 Bryce Hegarty.
FORCE vs LIONS (Saturday, 13:15)
Not for the first time this season, the Lions relied on a never-say-die spirit to come away with a rather fortunate win against the Jaguares last weekend. Nevertheless, it was a result that enabled them to open up some daylight in the Africa 2 conference.
Last year’s runners-up now have a three-week tour of Australia to contend with, in what should shape up to be a decisive phase of their season.
Interestingly, the Force have won each of the last six games between these teams, with the Lions’ only victory coming in the first-ever meeting between these sides in 2007.
Both teams have recently suffered injury blows to key players, with the Lions having lost flanker Jaco Kriel to a knee injury, and the Force without influential fullback Dane Haylett-Petty.
It could be a competitive clash on Saturday, but expect the Lions to run away with the win in the end.
Force – 15 Marcel Brache, 14 James Verity-Amm, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Bill Meakes, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Luke Burton, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Brynard Stander, 5 Ross Haylett-Petty, 4 Lewis Carmichael, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Pek Cowan.
Subs: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Shambeckler Vui, 19 Onehunga Havilli, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Mitch Short, 22 Jono Lance, 23 Peter Grant.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Sylvian Mahuza, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Ruan Ackermann, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Jacques Nel, 23 Anthony Volmink.
Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images