JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first three Super Rugby matches in round 12 of the competition.
BLUES vs CHEETAHS (Friday, 09:35)
The South African collective has lost nine out of 10 matches against New Zealand opposition in 2017. The Stormers conceded more than 150 points on their recent tour to New Zealand. The Bulls leaked 10 tries in their 62-24 defeat to the Crusaders in Pretoria in round 11.
The Cheetahs were outlasted in each of their three home fixtures against Kiwi teams. Few – if any – punters will be betting on the Cheetahs to win or claim a losing bonus point in the coming matches against the Blues and Hurricanes on New Zealand soil.
Defence and fitness have been problem areas for the Cheetahs in 2017. The Sunwolves (58) are the only side to leak more tries than the Cheetahs (48), while the Rebels (19) are the only side to concede more tries than the Cheetahs (17) in the fourth quarter.
The Cheetahs have lost their last 10 games on the road, and have never beaten the Blues in Auckland. Meanwhile, the Blues have won four of their last five matches against South African opposition.
The Blues have played better rugby than their position (sixth) in the Australasian group suggests. In fact, if log points dictated log position, the Blues would be ranked higher than the Brumbies and would sit in a qualifying position.
No doubt Tana Umaga's side will view a home game against the struggling Cheetahs as an opportunity to bank five valuable log points. The Blues have scored most of their tries (13 out of 29) in the fourth quarter of matches this season. As mentioned above, the Cheetahs have made a habit out of capitulating at the business end of a contest.
Blues – 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Declan O’Donnell, 13 George Moala, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Michael Collins.
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 William Small-Smith, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Niell Jordaan, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Tom Botha, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Charles Marais.
Subs: 16 Elandre Huggett, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Johan Coetzee, 19 Armandt Koster, 20 Uzair Cassiem, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Niel Marais, 23 Clinton Swart.
BRUMBIES vs LIONS (Friday, 11:45)
The Lions have already claimed bonus-point wins against the Force and Rebels on their current tour to Australia. The third and final game of the sojourn promises to be the toughest and will provide a new test for their admittedly outstanding fitness levels.
The Brumbies are yet to beat a foreign side in 2017. They have lost three out of five matches at home, and look to be on the verge of their fourth-straight defeat.
The Lions have conceded just one loss this season (coach Johan Ackermann fielded a second-string side in that fixture against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires). Overall, they have won nine out of 10 matches and currently top the South African group.
The Lions' attacking stats are up there with the better New Zealand sides. Ackermann's charges rank among the top three teams in the tournament for metres made and defenders beaten. Only the Hurricanes (63) and Crusaders (61) have scored more tries than the Lions (48).
The Lions' superior fitness has set them apart from other South African teams. Indeed, the stats from Opta show how the Lions have maintained their attacking and defensive effort in the decisive fourth quarter this season. The Lions have scored the most tries during this period (17). They have also conceded the fewest (three).
How will their fitness hold up at the end of a three-game tour to Australia? One also needs to remember that the Lions were involved in an especially taxing physical encounter against the Stormers on the eve of the tour.
The Lions should do enough to score a convincing win against the battling Brumbies on Friday. That said, it will be interesting to see how they fare in the final 20 minutes of this contest and whether they have what it takes to finish with yet another try-scoring bonus point.
Brumbies – 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 James Dargaville, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Jordan Smiler, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter (c), 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Ben Alexander.
Subs: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Leslie Leulua’iali’i-Makin, 19 Blake Enever, 20 Ben Hyne, 21 De Wet Roos, 22 Jordan Jackson-Hope, 23 Tom Banks.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Sylvian Mahuza, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Ruan Ackermann, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Johannes Jonker, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Corné Fourie.
Subs: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Robert Kruger/Cyle Brink, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Jacques Nel, 23 Anthony Volmink.
CRUSADERS vs HURRICANES (Saturday, 09:35)
Can any team stop the Crusaders, a side that's romped to 10-straight wins and has accumulated 46 out of a possible 50 log points? We will find out when Scott Robertson's charges meet Chris Boyd's Hurricanes in Christchurch on Saturday.
The Crusaders scored 10 tries in the 62-24 hammering of the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld last week. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes fired late to bury the Stormers 41-22 in Wellington.
The clash between the Crusaders and the Hurricanes (a side that's won nine out of 10 this season) promises to be the game of the conference stage. On form, one might be inclined to install the Crusaders as favourites. The Cantabrians will enjoy the benefit of playing this derby at home.
However, one needs to remember that the Crusaders travelled back to New Zealand from South Africa earlier this week. They are still without All Blacks such as Kieran Read and Israel Dagg (both injured) as well as Sam Whitelock (suspended). It could be said that the absence of the trio wasn't felt in the recent clash against the Bulls. And yet, it needs to be pointed out that the Hurricanes will demand more of the Crusaders at the collisions, scrums, and in the air.
The Crusaders and Hurricanes have employed different styles this season. While the Cantabrians have looked to keep ball in hand as much as possible (a strategy that has, at times, compromised their defence), the Hurricanes have used the boot to find space and set up players in the wider channels for linebreaks and tries. No team has kicked more than the Hurricanes in 2017, and no flyhalf has kicked more out of hand than Beauden Barrett.
It will be interesting to see how the Crusaders manage that threat on Saturday. Barrett's ability to hurt opposition defences with his direct running is well documented. That said, those accurate kick-passes and grubbers have been devastatingly effective in 2017. The Crusaders back three will have their work cut out defending an inevitable assault.
These clashes tend to be decided by seven points or fewer. It may take more than tries to secure victory on this occasion.
Can either goal-kicker produce the goods under pressure? The Crusaders (67%, rank 16th) and Hurricanes (68%, rank 15th) are among the worst goal-kicking sides in the tournament.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 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 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele.
Hurricanes – 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Vaea Fifita, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeffery To'omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Chris Eves.
Subs: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Ben May, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Toa Halafihi, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Wes Goosen.
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images