JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first four matches of round 13, including the Highlanders-Lions clash in Dunedin.
BLUES vs HURRICANES (Auckland, Friday, 9:35am)
The scrap at the top of the New Zealand conference looks set to continue this weekend. The Hurricanes will be favourites to beat the Blues at Eden Park, while the Crusaders should be good enough to down the Waratahs and extend New Zealand’s Super Rugby streak against Australia opposition.
The Hurricanes will put some pressure on the Crusaders if they claim a bonus-point win in Auckland on Friday. The Canes trail the Crusaders by two log points at this stage, but have a game in hand.
The Hurricanes are the form New Zealand side. Chris Boyd’s charges have beaten the Crusaders, Highlanders and Chiefs to date. However, it’s important to note that the Canes enjoyed home advantage in all three of those Kiwi derbies.
Friday’s match represents a chance for the Hurricanes to score their first away win in New Zealand this season. They should fancy their chances against a Blues defence that is missing one in five tackles every week. The Hurricanes’ attack averages more points scored (32.8) than any other side.
The Blues run the ball more than any other team in the tournament. They may struggle to breach the Hurricanes defence via this method, though, as the men from Wellington rank in the top five for tackle success rate and fewest missed tackles.
The Canes have conceded 19 tries thus far – fewer than any other side. The return of Sonny Bill Williams should lift the Blues. Whether it can inspire a big win over one of the tournament favourites is another story.
Stats and facts
o The Hurricanes have won their last five games against the Blues, three of those victories coming at Eden Park.
o The Canes have won their last four games against sides in the New Zealand conference, only once before have they won five such games on the bounce (in 2015).
o The Blues are winless in 15 games against New Zealand-based opposition (drawn one, lost 14), although 10 of their defeats in that run have come by single-figure margins.
o The Blues have enjoyed 17 minutes and 27 seconds of time in possession per game this season, more than any other squad in the competition.
o Beauden Barrett has provided three try assists via kicks this season, more than any other player in the competition.
Blues – 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Rieko Ioane, 13 Orbyn Leger, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu (c), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ross Wright.
Subs: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Ben Nee-Nee, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Jonathan Ruru/Sam Nock, 22 Dan Kirkpatrick, 23 Melani Nanai.
Hurricanes – 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder , 14 Julian Savea , 13 Matt Proctor , 12 Ngani Laumape , 11 Ben Lam , 10 Beauden Barrett , 9 Finlay Christie , 8 Gareth Evans , 7 Ardie Savea , 6 Brad Shields (c) , 5 Sam Lousi , 4 Vaea Fifita , 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen , 2 Ricky Riccitelli , 1 Toby Smith
Subs: 16 James O’Reilly , 17 Chris Eves , 18 Ben May , 19 Michael Fatialofa , 20 Blade Thomson , 21 TJ Perenara , 22 Ihaia West , 23 Jordie Barrett.
SUNWOLVES vs REDS (Tokyo, Saturday 5:15am)
Thinking of waking up for this one? Forget it. Hit the snooze button and sleep in.
The Reds have won four from nine. The Sunwolves have won zero from nine. The clash in Tokyo this Saturday sees the second-worst attacking side in the tournament taking on the worst.
The Reds have been a lot more pragmatic under new coach Brad Thorn. One would expect them to target the Sunwolves at the set pieces in order to generate some momentum. The Reds are ranked fifth for lineout success, while the Sunwolves are stone last in this department.
The Sunwolves will want a loose and unstructured contest. However, if the Reds punish the Sunwolves at the set pieces and resist the urge to play expansively, they will win this game by a comfortable margin.
Stats and facts
o This will be just the second meeting between these sides and their first in Japan; the Reds won 35-25 at Suncorp Stadium.
o The Sunwolves are yet to win against Australian opposition (lost eight); they’re the only nation they’ve yet to beat in Super Rugby.
o The Reds have lost 20 of their last 22 games outside Australia (won two), although one of their two victories in that run came earlier this season (against the Jaguares).
o The Sunwolves (8.7) and Reds (9.4) have conceded fewer penalties and free kicks per game than any other teams so far this campaign.
o Filipo Daugunu has crossed for a try in three of his last four games away from home for the Reds.
Sunwolves – 15 Semisi Masirewa , 14 Kenki Fukuoka, , 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Michael Little, 11 Hosea Saumaki, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Yutaka Nagare , 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Edward Quirk (c), 6 Michael Leitch, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Wimpie van der Walt, 3 Takuma Asahara, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Craig Millar.
Subs: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Shintaro Ishihara, 18 Hencus van Wyk, 19 Uwe Helu, 20 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Yo Tamura, 23 Jason Emery.
Reds – 15 Hamish Stewart, 14 Filipo Daugunu, 13 Chris Feauau-Sautia, 12 Samu Kerevi, 11 Jordan Petaia, 10 Jono Lance, 9 Ben Lucas, 8 Angus Scott-Young, 7 George Smith, 6 Adam Korczyk, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 James Slipper (c).
Subs: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Harry Hoopert, 18 Sef Fa’agase, 19 Harry Hockings, 20 Liam Wright, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Duncan Paia’aua, 23 Aidan Toua.
CRUSADERS vs WARATAHS (Christchurch, Saturday 7:15am)
The top-ranked New Zealand side will host the Australian conference leaders in Christchurch on Saturday. This game may serve to highlight the gap between the two countries.
The Hurricanes and others like the Lions will be hoping that the Waratahs can beat the Crusaders and compromise their position at the top of the overall standings. Every Australian side will be hoping that the Waratahs can end that incredible losing streak of 37 matches to New Zealand sides.
It’s unlikely to happen, though. The Waratahs lost to the bottom-placed Kiwi team, the Blues, in Auckland last week. They’ve shown nothing this season to suggest that they can outmuscle the Crusaders up front or penetrate them out wide.
To be fair, the Waratahs do boast some impressive attacking stats. They rank in the top five for metres made, defenders beaten, clean breaks, tries, and points. However, one needs to remember that they have only played one New Zealand side to date and are yet to come up against a strong defensive unit.
The Crusaders scrum will look to dominate that of the Waratahs. It’s interesting to note that the Crusaders don’t rank highly in categories such as carries, metres made, defenders beaten, and clean breaks, yet are right up there for tries (rank two) and points (rank three).
Their defence has leaked the fewest tackles to date, and is second in the competition for tackle-completion. The Crusaders are also one of the most disciplined sides in the tournament.
Stats and facts
o The Crusaders have won 13 of their last 15 games against the Waratahs (lost two), including eight wins in a row at home to the New South Wales outfit.
o The Crusaders have won 19 of their last 20 home games, including their last 13 in a row, their best run since winning 14 on the bounce from 2009 to 2011.
o The Crusaders’ last four home defeats have all come against New Zealand opposition; they’ve lost just two of their last 69 at home against teams from outside New Zealand (won 66, drawn one).
o The Waratahs continue to boast the best goal-kicking accuracy in the competition, piloting 87% of attempts through the uprights.
o Taqele Naiyaravoro has scored three tries in his previous two encounters with the Crusaders.
Crusaders – 15 George Bridge, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Manasa Mataele, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Pete Samu, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Donald Brighouse, 19 Mitchell Dunshea, 20 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Cam Clark, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Will Miller, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Ned Hanigan, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, Tom Robertson.
Subs: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Shambeckler Vui, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Lalakai Foketi, 23 Bryce Hegarty.
HIGHLANDERS vs LIONS (Dunedin, Saturday 9:35am)
This is a big match in the context of the New Zealand and South African conferences. The Highlanders, who are coming off a loss to the Sharks in Durban, need to win in order to keep the heat on the Crusaders and Hurricanes. The Lions, who have lost their last two tour fixtures, need a victory to maintain a healthy lead at the top of the South African standings.
Neither team will be at its best. The Highlanders may be tired after travelling back to New Zealand this week, while the coming game will mark the Lions’ fourth and final tour match in Australasia.
All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith has been rested for this clash. The Highlanders will still boast a strong side stacked with international stars. The Lions won’t have the same luxury.
Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx is the latest to join the Lions’ injury list. South Africa’s form team is currently without Boks such as Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel and Courtnall Skosan.
They desperately need a win at this stage of their campaign. One more loss and the Lions’ win record will drop to 50% for the 2018 season.
Wins by South African teams in New Zealand have been hard to come by over the past two seasons. The Sharks are the only South African side to win a Super Rugby match in this part of the world in 2018.
These two teams are poles apart in terms of approach. The Highlanders have kicked more than any other team from hand, while the Lions are ranked 14th in this department. We may well witness a clash of styles at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Can the Lions rattle the Highlanders at the scrums and lineouts – and indeed the breakdowns – without Marx in tow? The Highlanders have a powerful pack and will be mindful of what transpired in the Lions’ recent tour games.
While the Lions have impressed on attack, their defence has left a lot to be desired. It will be interesting to see how they deal with the Highlanders’ kicking game, and whether the defence can contain All Blacks such as Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith.
If all of the Lions’ Boks were fit and available, you’d back Swys de Bruin’s charges to beat a Highlanders team that is without Aaron Smith and has only recently returned from a South African tour.
It would surprise to see the Lions in their current guise scoring a win in Dunedin, though.
A Highlanders win would certainly suit the other teams in the South African conference. The Stormers and the winner of the Bulls-Sharks game could make a further dent in the Lions’ lead by the end of the round.
Stats and facts
o The Highlanders have won five of their six home games against the Lions, including their last two in a row; their solitary defeat came in 2011 at Carisbrook.
o The Highlanders have won their last 10 at home, only once before have they gone on a longer such run (won 13, 2000-2002).
o The Lions have lost their last two games, the last time they lost more was a three-game drought to open the 2015 campaign.
o Only the Crusaders (15) have scored more tries in the final quarter of games this campaign than the Lions (14); the Highlanders have scored just seven tries in this period.
o Ash Dixon has a lineout throw success rate of 92% this campaign, the second best of any player to have made at least 30 throws this season.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Tei Walden, 11 Tevita Nabura, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Sio Tomkinson.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrink, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Kwagga Smith, 7 Franco Mostert, 6 Cyle Brink, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Johannes Jonker, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Dylan Smith.
Subs: 16 Jacques van Rooyen, 17 Ruan Dreyer, 18 Jacobie Adriaanse, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images