JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first three matches in round 13 of the Super Rugby tournament.
CHIEFS vs CRUSADERS (Friday, 09:35)
The Crusaders dominated the set-piece and gainline battles in the derby against the Hurricanes and went on to claim their 11th straight win in 2017. In the wake of that victory against the 2016 champs, many have asked the question: Will any side stop the Crusaders in the regular season?
The Chiefs have won their last four games against the Crusaders by an average margin of 14 points. According to Opta, they have not lost the first meeting between these teams in a season since 2011.
The Chiefs hold an unbeaten record against fellow New Zealand sides in 2017. They've lost just one of their 10 matches (to the Stormers). Their defence has been the source of their success, as no team has conceded fewer tries this season (19). The Chiefs are the only team in the competition to steal an average of two or more lineouts per game.
The Chiefs' set pieces and overall defence will have to be on point if the side is to withstand an assault from the Crusaders this Friday. Scott Robertson's team has averaged 38 points and five tries per game, and has beaten more defenders per match (26) than any other side. The Cantabrians have scored 23 of their 62 tries from first phase (only the Hurricanes, with 28, have scored more), a stat that points to the momentum generated by their scrums and lineouts.
Crusaders lock Sam Whitelock has made a timely return from suspension for what should be a game-shaping battle at the lineouts. The most significant change to the Chiefs' lineup sees All Blacks flyhalf Aaron Cruden reinstalled at No 10.
Neither team will have the benefit of home advantage, as this game will be played in Suva, Fiji.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Sam McNicol, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (co-c), 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richard Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Pete Samu, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele.
STORMERS vs BLUES (Friday (19:00)
The Stormers peaked with a resounding 34-26 victory against the Chiefs in round seven. The Cape side put four tries past a Chiefs defence that doesn't usually concede many. They managed to outmuscle the Chiefs upfront and then outlast the New Zealand side in the decisive fourth quarter.
Since then, the Stormers have slumped to four straight defeats. A loss to the Lions at Newlands was followed by three heavy defeats in New Zealand. The Stormers conceded 155 points on that tour.
Robbie Fleck's charges will host another New Zealand side this week. The Stormers have had a bye to reflect on their failures in New Zealand. However, they will go into the match against the Blues without several key players. A spate of injuries in the flyhalf position sees winger Dillyn Leyds starting at No 10.
The Blues are the lowest-ranked side in the New Zealand conference. Yet they have beaten every foreign side they have played in 2017.
No side has missed fewer tackles per match (15). While defence is certainly a strength, the Blues do boast some formidable attacking players. No 8 Akira Ioane and winger Rieko Ione scored three tries between them in the clash against the Cheetahs last week. All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams has been promoted to the starting line-up this week, and will be expected to make an impact against the inexperienced 10-12-13 combination of the Stormers.
The Stormers have conceded 44 tries in 10 matches. As many as 27 of those 44 were leaked in the four games against New Zealand opposition.
The Cape side has won four of its last five games against the Blues, and four of its five last matches at Newlands. Yet, based on their shocking defensive performances in New Zealand and the losses of key personnel, the Stormers will go into this clash as underdogs.
Stormers – 15 SP Marais, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Seabelo Senatla, 10 Dillyn Leyds, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Siya Kolisi (c), 6 Kobus van Dyk, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Oli Kebble.
Subs: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Ali Vermaak, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Jan de Klerk, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Jano Vermaak, 22 Brandon Thomson, 23 Damian de Allende.
Blues – 15 Melani Nanai, 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 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Subs: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Michael Collins.
HURRICANES vs CHEETAHS (Saturday, 09:35)
The Hurricanes will be hurting after their loss to the Crusaders. They failed to fire at the set pieces and collisions in that derby, and failed to score a single try.
Chris Boyd's side will be looking to prove a point when they host the Cheetahs this Saturday. The Hurricanes currently occupy third place in the New Zealand conference. They need a bonus-point win against the Cheetahs in order to close the gap between themselves and the Chiefs.
The Hurricanes have won their last 11 games at home. They've won six of the last eight clashes against the Cheetahs. According to Opta, no South African team has beaten the Hurricanes in Wellington since 2013.
The Cheetahs are in no position to score an upset this Saturday. They're the lowest-ranked South African side in the tournament. Their defence has been a shambles. They've missed the most tackles per match (27), conceded the second-most tries overall (56), and have the worst tackle completion (80%).
Not that their attack has been much better. The Cheetahs have only managed to make 439m with ball in hand (rank 12th), beat 18 defenders (15th), and score 2.9 tries (12th) per game.
Their recent record against New Zealand sides won't inspire confidence. The Cheetahs went down 41-27 to the Chiefs, 48-21 to the Crusaders, 45-41 to the Highlanders, and 50-32 to the Blues.
The Cheetahs have been especially weak in the second half of matches this season. No team has conceded more tries during this period (35), while only the Rebels (20) have leaked more tries than the Cheetahs (18) in the fourth quarter.
Hurricanes – 15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Wes Goosen, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Otere Black, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Vaea Fifita, 4 Sam Lousi, 3 Jeff To'omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ben May.
Subs: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Mike Kainga, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Jordie Barrett, 23 Ben Lam.
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 Clinton Swart, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Uzair Cassiem, 5 Carl Wegner, 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Elandre Huggett, 1 Ox Nche.
Subs: 16 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Francois Uys, 20 Niell Jordaan, 21 Tian Meyer, 22 Niel Marais, 23 Ruan van Rensburg
Photo: Thinus Maritz/Gallo Images