CRAIG LEWIS looks ahead to the final three Vodacom Super Rugby matches of round 10, including the game between the Stormers and Brumbies.
HIGHLANDERS vs BLUES, Dunedin, (Saturday, 9:35am)
The Highlanders’ season has completely derailed in recent weeks. The Dunedin-based side is currently on a five-match losing streak, and the fact remains that they haven’t lost more than five games in a row since an 11-game slump that extended from 2012 into 2013.
Although the Highlanders have been competitive in patches in 2019, this latest run of poor results has seen them slip to 14th on the overall standings, and so there will be a real sense of desperation as they get set to host the Blues.
By contrast, the Auckland-based side has enjoyed quite a resurgence over the past few weeks, with a narrow defeat to the Chiefs last weekend bringing an end to a four-match winning streak.
Understandably, the Blues have made minimal team changes for this clash, while the Highlanders have been boosted by the return of Aaron Smith on the bench.
It says a lot about the Blues’ progression this year that they will be considered favourites for this encounter, but the Highlanders cannot be written off at home.
Stats and facts
o The Highlanders have won 10 of their last 14 matches against the Blues in Super Rugby (lost four), but succumbed to defeat in their most recent encounter (33-26).
o The Blues haven’t visited another New Zealand team and come away with the victory since round two, 2013 (lost 22). They haven’t beaten the Highlanders on their own track since round 11, 2011 (losing six since that occasion).
o The Highlanders have produced three straight Super Rugby games of 100% goal-kicking (13/13) since 2011. The only other time they have achieved this was from round nine to 12 in 2014 (they had a bye in round 10).
o Blues wing Rieko Ioane has made 18 clean breaks so far this season, more than any other player. The All Blacks star scored a brace against the Highlanders back in round six.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (co-c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Sio Tomkinson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Luke Whitelock (co-c), 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Thomas Umaga-Jensen.
Blues – 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Caleb Clarke, 13 TJ Faiane, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Otere Black, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (c), 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Subs: 16 Leni Apisa, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Josh Goodhue, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Matt Duffie.
WARATAHS vs REBELS, Sydney, (Saturday, 11:45am)
Seven log points separate the Tahs and Rebels in the top two spots of the Australian conference, but the former do have a game in hand. It’s with this in mind that the Waratahs will know Saturday’s clash is really a must-win encounter if they hope to remain in the running for conference honours.
The Tahs have been haunted by inconsistency this season, but a recent bye will have provided an opportunity for some important introspection, after a memorable win over the Crusaders was followed by two disappointing defeats to the Sunwolves and Blues.
Adding to the Tahs’ woes is the absence of star fullback Israel Folau, who has been stood down in the wake of his disciplinary saga, with Kurtley Beale starting in the No 15 jersey as a result.
However, the Waratahs have been bolstered by the return of captain Michael Hooper, while by contrast, the Rebels have lost their second captain of the season to injury after Angus Cottrell was ruled out.
If the Rebels can rectify their woeful defence from last weekend’s loss against the Stormers, they should be confident of coming up trumps, but this is another very difficult game to call.
Stats and facts
o The Waratahs have won 13 of their 15 Super Rugby meetings with the Rebels, with the squad picking up four wins on the bounce against the Melbourne-based side most recently.
o The Rebels are searching for a third consecutive victory on the road against fellow Australian teams, only once before have they won three such games on the bounce (February-July 2016).
o The Waratahs have averaged 39 points scored against Australian sides from their last five home games in Super Rugby, including scores of 50 and 51 against the Rebels.
o The Rebels completed just 64% of their tackles in the last round against the Stormers, their lowest-ever rate in a Super Rugby match.
o Michael Hooper (Waratahs, 102) and Luke Jones (Rebels, 94) have made more tackles than anyone else in Super Rugby so far this season.
Waratahs – 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Cam Clark, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Karmichael Hunt, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Harry Johnson-Holmes.
Subs: 16 Andrew Tuala, 17 Rory O’Connor, 18 Chris Talakai, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Will Miller, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Lalakai Foketi, 23 Curtis Rona.
Rebels – 15 Reece Hodge, 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Tom English (c), 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Richard Hardwick, 6 Luke Jones, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Matt Philip, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Anaru Rangi, 1 Matt Gibbon.
Subs: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Ross Haylett-Petty, 20 Rob Leota, 21 Michael Ruru, 22 Campbell Magnay, 23 Sione Tuipulotu
STORMERS vs BRUMBIES, Cape Town, (Saturday, 3:05pm)
The Stormers produced their best performance of the season in last weekend’s comfortable win over the Rebels. It’s a result that has seen the Cape-based side move up to eighth on the overall standings, and reinvigorated their playoff ambitions.
Understandably, then, coach Robbie Fleck has looked to make relatively limited changes to the side. Pieter-Steph du Toit returns to the back row, and while Siya Kolisi is also back in the match 23, he will have to make do with a role off the bench.
Damian de Allende has been rested for this encounter, but what should not be overlooked is the selection of Josh Stander at flyhalf.
It’s the first start of the season for the 25-year-old, who has shown impressive form in recent weeks, and he will need to add direction to a backline that has lacked dynamism at various stages of the campaign.
For really the first time this season, though, the Stormers should head into Saturday’s clash with real confidence after claiming their first win overseas in two years.
The Stormers are now back at home where they have been unbeaten in 2019, and they should look to target a Brumbies defence that has been particularly porous this season (83.3% tackle success).
Although the Brumbies did claim a well-deserved victory over the Lions last weekend, they are still without influential skipper David Pocock, and will face up to a Stormers side riding a wave of confidence.
Considering that the Stormers can now look forward to a sequence of home games, this is an ideal opportunity for Fleck’s charges to change the complexion of their campaign considerably.
Stats and facts
o The Stormers have won four of their last five at home against the Brumbies in the Super Rugby regular season (lost one).
o The Brumbies have won five of their last seven games in Super Rugby in South Africa (lost two), scoring 25 points or more in four of those wins.
o The Stormers have won eight of their last 10 at home in Super Rugby (lost two), a run dating back to the start of the 2018 campaign.
o In their last Super Rugby match (vs Lions), the Brumbies beat 41 defenders as a collective, their highest tally recorded since 2011, their previous best was 35 at home to the Chiefs in round 20, 2014.
o Stormers centre Damian de Allende has scored a try in each of his last two matches; he has achieved this once before in Super Rugby (round 15-16, 2015) but never posted three tries in as many matches.
Stormers – 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Dan Kriel, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Josh Stander, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Kobus van Dyk, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Ernst van Rhyn, 5 Cobus Wiese, 4 Salmaan Moerat, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff (c).
Subs: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Neethling Fouché, 19 Johan du Toit, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 JJ Engelbrecht, 23 Seabelo Senatla.
Brumbies – 15 Tom Banks, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Tom Wright, 11 Toni Pulu, 10 Christian Lealiifano (c), 9 Joe Powell, 8 Pete Samu, 7 Jahrome Brown, 6 Tom Cusack, 5 Sam Carter, 4. Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Folau Faingaa, 1 Scott Sio.
Subs: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 James Slipper, 18 Les Makin, 19 Darcy Swain, 20 Murray Douglas, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Wharenui Hawera, 23 Andy Muirhead.
Photo: EPA/Daniel Pockett