JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first four Super Rugby matches of round 10, including the Lions’ clash with the Waratahs in Sydney.
BLUES vs HIGHLANDERS (Auckland, Friday, 09:35)
The Highlanders beat the Blues 41-34 earlier this year. They must be favourites to down the Auckland-based side this Friday and strengthen their bid for a playoff place.
The Blues boast the best set-piece success rate in the tournament. They rank first for carries, offloads and defenders beaten, and third for metres made.
There are other stats, however, which highlight the Blues’ attacking limitations and show why they have won two and lost five this season.
According to Opta, only one team – the Highlanders – has scored fewer tries from the first phase this season. The Blues rank eighth for tries scored and ninth for points scored per game.
Clearly, the Blues are struggling to breach defences after securing the ball at the scrum and lineout. Finishing is a burning issue. Tana Umaga’s charges are conceding 15 turnovers per match.
The Highlanders have employed a very different style of play. That said, the numbers suggest that they are the superior attacking side.
The Highlanders have made far fewer carries and metres than the Blues. And yet they have scored more tries and points overall. Their win-record (4-2) also suggests that they are doing something right.
The men from Dunedin have a habit of making their limited scoring opportunities count. They also rely heavily on their defence (the Highlanders are ranked first in the tournament with their tackle success rate of 86% as well as for their per-game tackle count of 151) and kicking game (they are ranked third with an average of 21.7 kicks from hand) to beat opponents into submission.
The Blues have the worst defensive record in the competition as far as tackle efficiency is concerned (81%). It will be interesting to see how they cope when the Highlanders deploy their powerful runners in midfield, and when the visitors kick for the likes of Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Tevita Li to chase.
All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith has been listed among the reserves. Nevertheless, the Highlanders should still be good enough to beat the Blues by a comfortable margin and bank the try-scoring bonus point.
Stats and facts
o The Highlanders have won nine of their last 12 games against the Blues, including each of their last three on the bounce; never have they won four in a row against the Auckland-based side.
o The Highlanders are looking for back-to-back away wins against the Blues for the first time in Super Rugby, after a 16-12 win at Eden Park last year.
o The Blues are winless in 14 New Zealand derbies (drawn one, lost 13); however, their last such win did come in a home game against the Highlanders (February 2016).
o The Blues have the best success rates at both the lineout (91%) and scrum (94%) this season, but they also have the worst tackle success rate (81%).
o Three of the six players to make the most tackles this season play for the Highlanders; Luke Whitelock (90, third most), Thomas Franklin (86, fifth) and Dillon Hunt (85, sixth).
Blues – 15 Stephen Perofeta, 14 Jordan Hyland, 13 Orbyn Leger, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Akira Ioane, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Dalton Papalii, 5 Jimmy Tupou, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi/Mike Tamoaieta, 2 James Parsons, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Matt Moulds/Leni Apisai, 17 Ross Wright, 18 Mike Tamoaieta/Sione Mafileo, 19 Ben Neenee, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Tumua Manu, 23 Matt Duffie.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolani, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
WARATAHS vs LIONS (Sydney, Friday, 11:45)
The Lions began the season well, winning four of their first five matches. Thereafter, they slumped to disappointing losses against the Jaguares and Crusaders.
Swys de Bruin’s charges bounced back from those defeats to score an emphatic 52-31 victory over the Stormers in round eight. They’ve had two weeks to prepare for the match against the Waratahs in Sydney, though, and the pressure to produce a positive result – and to build some momentum ahead of three more challenging tour matches – is significant.
The jury is still out on the Waratahs. They burgled a win against the Stormers and then snatched a draw against the Sharks in the early rounds. They lost to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, and then proceeded to beat the Rebels, Brumbies, Sunwolves and Reds in subsequent weeks.
The victory over the Rebels should be viewed as the most significant of the aforementioned results. No doubt the Waratahs will be looking to prove another point this week. A win against the Lions – the best South African side on show as well as finalists in the 2016 and 2017 tournaments – would do their campaign a world of good.
The Waratahs may be hard-pressed to keep the Lions at bay. No side has averaged more tries (five) and points (36) than the Lions in 2018.
The Lions like to keep the ball in hand. In fact, the stats show that the Lions have averaged the fewest kicks from hand in this year’s tournament.
Is such a one-dimensional approach a recipe for success, though? The Lions’ over-exuberance has backfired at times this season.
Defence has been another issue. While they were among the top defensive sides in 2016 and 2017, the Lions have disappointed with an 81% tackle success rate (rank 12th) this year. Only two teams have missed more tackles on average.
The stats suggest that the Waratahs have what it takes to ask questions of the Lions defence. The hosts won’t mind an open, less-structured game in Sydney on Friday.
The Lions would do well to avoid a loose contest, though. No team has scored more tries (19) from first phase in 2018. One would expect them to back their set-piece strengths this week, and to keep the ball a bit closer to the forwards in the latter phases.
Stats and facts
o The Lions have won their last two games against the Waratahs; they had won just one of eight meetings with the New South Wales side prior to that brace.
o The Waratahs are on a four-game winning run, the last time they went on a longer streak was a nine-game run that ended with a victory in the 2014 final.
o The Lions have won nine of their last 10 fixtures against Australian outfits, including their last six in a row.
o Wing Taqele Naiyaravoro has the best average gain per carry (13m) of any player to make 25-plus carries this season, crossing for seven tries across his last four outings.
o Malcolm Marx has won a competition-high 12 turnovers so far, 10 of which have been jackals.
Waratahs – 15 Bryce Hegarty, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Tom Staniforth, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damian Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson.
Subs: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Nick Palmer, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Will Miller, 22 Nick Phipps, 23 Lalakai Foketi.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Madosh Tambwe, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Dillon Smit, 8 Hacjivah Dayimani, 7 Franco Mostert (c), 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Jacobie Adriaanse, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Nic Groom, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.
CRUSADERS vs SUNWOLVES (Christchurch, Saturday, 09:35)
The Crusaders have plenty to play for this week in the context of the New Zealand conference. A big win over the Sunwolves could see them finishing round 10 at the top of the Kiwi standings.
The smart money is on the Cantabrians realising their goal. The Crusaders have played three New Zealand opponents, three South African sides, and the Jaguares from Argentina to date. Despite battling some of the top teams in the tournament, they have scored the second-most tries (32, only the Lions with 43 have scored more).
Meanwhile, the Sunwolves have leaked four tries or more in each of their seven matches this season. One can’t see the Japan side keeping the Crusaders honest this weekend.
Crusaders wing George Bridge goes into this round having scored seven tries in as many games. Bridge, who is at fullback this week, looks set to reduce the gap between himself and the tournament’s top try-scorer – Ben Lam of the Hurricanes has scored nine – when he goes up against a feeble Sunwolves defence.
Stats and facts
o The Crusaders ran out to a 50-3 victory in their only previous meeting with the Sunwolves, keeping the Japanese side scoreless in the second half.
o The Sunwolves have lost six of their seven previous games against Kiwi sides, only beating the Blues last year, thanks to 34 unanswered second-half points.
o On their 2017 tour to New Zealand, the Sunwolves failed to score a first-half try in any of their three games, scoring exactly three points in the first 40 minutes of each of those fixtures.
o The Crusaders have won 18 of their last 19 home games, the Hurricanes are the only side to pick up a win in that time (round 17, 2016).
o Conversely, the Sunwolves have lost 17 of 17 away games in their short Super Rugby history; a two-point loss to the Lions in their last such game was the closest they have come to victory.
Crusaders – 15 George Bridge, 14. Israel Dagg, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Manasa Mataele, 10 Mike Delany, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Ethan Blackadder, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Tim Perry.
Subs: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Chris King, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Jack Stratton, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Seta Tamanivalu.
Sunwolves – 15 William Tupou, 14 Hosea Saumaki, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Michael Little, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Pieter Labuschagne (c), 6 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 James Moore, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Jaba Bregvadze, 1 Craig Millar.
Subs: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Shintato Ishihara, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Sam Wykes, 20 Edward Quirk, 21 Yutaka Nagare, 22 Ryoto Nakamura, 23 Semisi Masirewa.
REDS vs CHIEFS (Brisbane, Saturday, 11:45)
The Chiefs should view this fixture as an opportunity to maintain the gap between themselves and the Highlanders in the New Zealand conference standings. One cannot see the Reds, the lowest ranked Australian franchise at this point, stopping the men from Hamilton.
The Reds have scored the fewest tries in the tournament (13). They’re unlikely to climb the try-scoring rankings when they front a Chiefs side that has missed only 20.7 tackles per match (ranked second).
The stats suggest that the Reds have been one of the better defensive sides in the 2018 tournament, with a tackle success rate of 85% (second-ranked). However, what’s interesting to note is that the Reds have achieved those numbers against Australian, South African and Argentinian opponents. They may find a New Zealand outfit tougher to repel.
The Chiefs have averaged the most metres and clean breaks this season, and are ranked second for defenders beaten and offloads.
They have a powerful scrum and will be favourites to dominate the collisions. With a steady supply of front-foot ball, the star-studded Chiefs backline will have ample chance to breach the Reds, cross the tryline, and steer the visitors to a resounding bonus-point win.
Stats and facts
o The Chiefs have won their last three games against the Reds, outscoring them 120-25 in that time.
o The Reds have lost their last eight games against New Zealand opposition, their last such victory coming against the Highlanders in April 2016.
o The Chiefs lost to the Hurricanes last time out but have not lost back-to-back regular-season games since May 2015.
o James Tuttle has landed 10 out of 10 penalty goals this season. No player has landed as many without missing at least one attempt.
o Solomona Alaimalo tops the charts for metres made (683) and clean breaks (24) this season, while no one has beaten more defenders than Damian McKenzie (42, also Akira Ioane of the Blues).
Reds – 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Filipo Daugunu, 13 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 12 Samu Kerevi, 11 Izaia Perese, 10 Jono Lance, 9 Ben Lucas, 8 Caleb Timu, 7 Liam Wright, 6 Angus Scott-Young, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 James Slipper (c).
Subs: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 JP Smith, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Harry Hockings, 20 George Smith, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Jordan Petaia.
Chiefs – 15 Charlie Ngatai (co-c), 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Fa’auli, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 8 Pita Gus Sowakula, 7 Sam Cane (co-c), 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Tyler Ardron, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Liam Polwart, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Subs: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Luke Jacobson, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Alex Nankivell.
Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix