JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the final four matches in round 11 of the Super Rugby tournament.
WARATAHS vs BLUES (Saturday, 11:45)
The Waratahs represent Australia's best chance of a win against New Zealand opposition in round 11. The Chiefs will face the Reds in Hamilton in the only other trans-Tasman clash of the weekend, and will be favourites to claim a bonus-point victory.
As it stands, the Australian collective has lost 15 consecutive matches against Kiwi opposition in 2017. Last week, the Blues (the fifth-placed side in the New Zealand conference) beat the Brumbies (the first-placed side in the Australian conference) to highlight the gap that exists between the two countries.
Can the Waratahs succeed where the other Aussie sides have failed? Form suggests not.
Daryl Gibson's side has been poor on attack and defence in 2017. The Waratahs' once feared set piece is now a shambles. The back row no longer commands respect when one considers that the franchise is ranked 16th for turnovers made and 17th for ruck success.
The Blues have been more disciplined (they currently boast the best disciplinary record in the tournament, having conceded the fewest penalties per game) and pragmatic this season. That said, they have racked up some impressive attacking numbers, and are ranked in the top five for carries, defenders beaten, metres made and offloads.
The Waratahs can forget about taking the Blues on via direct approach. The men from Auckland boast the fourth-best tackle efficiency (86%) and have leaked the fewest tackles on average (16 per game). The hosts will also be without one of their strike weapons, namely winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, who is out with injury, for this clash.
The pressure is on the Waratahs to deliver, regardless of their win over the Reds last week. In the absence of Naiyaravoro, Israel Folau will have more responsibility at the gainline. The Wallabies fullback hasn't had a great season, though, having gone six games without scoring a try.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Cam Clark, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Jed Holloway, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 David McDuling, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson.
Subs: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Angus Taavao, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Michael Wells, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Irae Simone.
Blues – 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Leighton Price, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Melani Nanai.
SHARKS vs FORCE (Saturday, 15:05)
Neither of these teams has enjoyed a great deal of attacking success in 2017. The difference between the Sharks and the Force on this point, however, is that the Sharks have placed an emphasis on their defence and kicking game, while the Force have simply been poor in a largely ball-in-hand approach.
The visitors will battle to breach the black and white wall at Kings Park on Saturday. The Sharks have the second-best tackle success in the tournament (87%) and have missed an average of 16 tackles per game (they are second only to the Blues in this respect).
A weakened Sharks side enjoyed success in the recent clash against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. Coach Robert du Preez has recalled a couple of stars for the match against the Force as the Sharks look to consolidate their position (third, a qualifying position) on the South African group log.
The Force have been the least disciplined side in the tournament to date, averaging 11.6 penalties per game. The Sharks should look to capitalise on Force mistakes and infringements this Saturday, and should be confident that Curwin Bosch, one of the most accurate goal-kickers in the competition, can make the most of his kicking chances.
Ultimately, the Sharks will be hunting a try-scoring bonus point. They scored three tries against the Jaguares last week. They will need to replicate that performance when they host the Force and keep the Aussie side – which hasn't scored many tries this season – in check.
Sharks – 15 Rhyno Smith, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Jeremy Ward, 11 Sbu Nkosi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Philip van der Walt (c), 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coeni Oosthuizen, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Subs: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Beast Mtawarira, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Stephan Lewies, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Johan Deysel.
Force – 15 Marcel Brache, 14 James Verity-Amm, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Jono Lance, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Isireli Naisarani, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Brynard Stander, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Ross Haylett-Petty, 3 Tetara Faulkner, 2 Tatafu Polata-Nau, 1 Pek Cowan.
Subs: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Francios van Wyk, 18 Shambeckler Vui, 19 Lewis Carmichael, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Mitchell Short, 22 Luke Burton, 23 Peter Grant
BULLS vs CRUSADERS (Saturday, 17:15)
This used to be a highly anticipated clash on both sides of the Indian Ocean. As things stand, though, the Crusaders are widely expected to bank a bonus-point win against one of the worst Bulls sides in recent years.
Much has changed since the Bulls last faced the Crusaders in 2015. On that occasion at Loftus Versfeld, the Bulls pack fired and Handré Pollard produced a commanding showing at flyhalf to power the hosts to a 31-19 win.
After 10 rounds in this year's competition, the Bulls are ranked lower than the Lions, Stormers, Sharks, and even the Kings in the South African group. Meanwhile, the Crusaders, are the only unbeaten side in the tournament and have accumulated 41 out of possible 45 log points.
Earlier this year, the Bulls lost to the Chiefs and Blues on their tour to New Zealand. Their defence will battle to live with the attack of the Crusaders, a side that boasts superior attacking stats to the Chiefs and Blues in almost every department.
Crusaders captain Kieran Read has been ruled out with a thumb injury, and lock Sam Whitelock has been suspended following an incident against the Cheetahs last week. The two All Blacks have key roles to play at the Crusaders set-pieces, and may be missed.
No team has won more ball at its own lineout than the Bulls have in 2017 (with a success rate of 92%). Their scrum has been vulnerable, though, and it is here where the Crusaders, through All Blacks powerhouses like Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks, and Joe Moody late in the game, will look to inflict damage.
While the game will be played at altitude, and while the Bulls are coming off a bye, the visitors will be favourites to set the pace over the course of the 80 minutes. The Crusaders have scored more tries in the second half (27) than they have in the first (24) over their nine matches in 2017. The Bulls have scored a paltry 19 overall (only the Force and Rebels have scored fewer).
Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Renaldo Bothma, 7 Jacques Potgieter, 6 Nick de Jager, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Subs: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Jacobie Adriaanse, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Jannes Kirsten, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Francois Brummer, 23 Jan Serfontein.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Pete Samu, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Ryan Crotty.
JAGUARES vs SUNWOLVES (Saturday, 23:40)
The Sunwolves were competitive in their recent clash with the Chiefs, and managed to claim a bonus point for finishing within seven points of the victors. Meanwhile in Buenos Aires, the Jaguares were beaten by a weakened Sharks, a result that marked their fourth-consecutive defeat.
Can the Sunwolves inflict a fifth-straight loss on the Jaguares this week? The plucky men from the Far East recorded a 36-28 win when the sides last met in 2016.
A Sunwolves win this Saturday seems unlikely, though, given that the Japanese franchise is coming off a taxing tour to New Zealand. The extensive travel schedule from Australasia to South America should further hamper their cause.
Attack should hold sway over defence in this clash. Both teams are ranked in the bottom three for tackle completion.
We should expect to see a series of missed tackles in Buenos Aires this Saturday as well as a number of tries. The Jaguares will be desperate for a try-scoring bonus point while the Sunwolves will, as has been the case all season, endeavour to be positive.
Jaguares – 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Santiago Cordero, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Santiago González Iglesias, 11 Emiliano Boffelli, 10 Juan Martín Hernández, 9 Felipe Ezcurra, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Rodrigo Baez, 6 Tomás Lezana, 5 Marcos Kremer, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy, 1 Santiago Garcia Botta.
Subs: 16 Roberto Tejerizo, 17 Lucas Noguera Paz, 18 Enrique Pieretto Heilan, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Juan Manuel Leguizamón, 21 Martín Landajo, 22 Nicolás Sánchez, 23 Matias Moroni.
Sunwolves – 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Shota Emi, 13 Will Tupou, 12 Timothy Lafaele (c), 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Yuki Yatomi, 8 Willie Britz, 7 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 6 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Yasuo Yamaji, 2 Yusuke Niwai, 1 Koki Yamamoto.
Subs: 16 Takeshi Hino, 17 Keita Inagaki, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Shinya Makabe, 20 Ed Quirk, 21 Keisuke Uchida, 22 Jumpei Ogura, 23 Ryohei Yamanaka.
Photo: Gallo Images