JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first four matches in round 14 of the Super Rugby tournament.
BLUES vs CHIEFS (Friday, 09:35)
The Chiefs managed to claim a losing bonus point in the recent derby against the Crusaders. The Blues came away from the game against the Stormers in Cape Town with nothing.
Tana Umaga's side is unlikely to bounce back this Friday. The Blues have lost their last 11 games against the Chiefs by an average of eight points. They are yet to beat a New Zealand side in 2017. Overall, they've lost 20 of the last 21 New Zealand derbies.
Meanwhile, the loss to the Crusaders was the Chiefs' first defeat to a New Zealand team in 2017. According to Opta, the Chiefs have won three of their last four regular season away games against fellow New Zealand opposition. Three of those four games were won by the team trailing at half-time.
The Blues boast several dangerous attacking players. Akira and Rieko Ioane have already scored 12 tries between them this season.
However, the Chiefs have the joint best defence in the tournament. Dave Rennie's side has conceded only 22 tries in 11 matches.
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 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Subs: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Stephen Perofeta, 23 TJ Faiane.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Fa'auli, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 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 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Solomon Alaimalo, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
REDS vs FORCE (Friday, 11:45)
The Australian conference leaders, the Brumbies, currently enjoy a seven-point lead over the Reds and a 10-point lead over the Force. Yet, if the Brumbies slip up in the remaining rounds, they could be overtaken by one of these teams and ultimately denied a playoff place.
The result of the next game is crucial. The Reds will have the benefit of playing this game at home. That said, the Force have beaten the Reds in six of the last nine clashes, a record that includes victories in the last two games.
The big question is whether the Force can pick themselves up after sustaining a 55-6 defeat to the Highlanders in round 13. Dave Wessels' side leaked eight tries in that fixture.
The Reds are coming off a bye and should be the fresher of the two teams. They will hold no fear for a Force attack that ranks 17th or lower for metres made, clean breaks, defenders beaten, tries, and points per game in 2017.
Reds – 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Chris Kuridrani, 13 Samu Kerevi (c), 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 George Smith, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Lukhan Tui, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Sef Fa'agase.
Subs: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Kirwan Sanday, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Izack Rodda, 20 Adam Korczyk, 21 James Tuttle, 22 Jake McIntyre, 23 Lachlan Maranta.
Force – 15 Marcel Brache, 14 James Verity-Amm, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Bill Meakes, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Michael Ruru, 8 Isireli Naisarani, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Ross Haylett-Petty, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Matt Philip, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Heath Tessmann, 1 Francois van Wyk.
Subs: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Pek Cowan, 18 Tetera Faulkner, 19 Richie Arnold, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Mitchell Short, 22 Luke Burton, 23 Luke Morahan.
SUNWOLVES vs CHEETAHS (Saturday, 07:15)
Can the Sunwolves record their first-ever win against the Cheetahs? Earlier this season, they stunned the Bulls to claim their first South African scalp. While the Japanese side sit at the bottom of the South African group table, they will fancy their chances against a Cheetahs side ranked only one position higher (seventh).
The Cheetahs have sustained heavy beatings at the hands of the Blues (50-32) and Hurricanes (61-7) in recent weeks. They may well be physically and mentally spent ahead of a third tour fixture against the Sunwolves in far-flung Tokyo.
They could well sustain their 10th straight loss in 2017. Franco Smith's side has already made history by becoming the first Cheetahs side to lose nine straight games in a single season.
Their defence has been embarrassingly bad this season. No team has conceded more tries overall (65) or more tries in the second half of a contest (41) in 2017. Clearly fitness has been an issue for the Bloemfontein-based side.
That said, they could well bounce back in Tokyo. The Sunwolves haven't been much better on defence this season, conceding 64 tries (rank 17) and averaging 27.8 missed tackles per game (rank 18).
There will be opportunities for the Cheetahs to score, and it should also encourage them to know that they have an 87% goal-kicking record.
The Sunwolves may feel that they're in with a chance. The Cheetahs, however, should be desperate to snap their losing streak and climb the log ladder. This contest shouldn't be short on drama.
Sunwolves – 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Takaaki Nakazuru, 13 Derek Carpenter, 12 Harumichi Tatekawa, 11 Shota Emi, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 7 Shuhei Matsuhashi, 6 Malgene Ilaua, 5 Sam Wykes, 4 Kotaro Yatabe, 3 Takuma Asahara, 2 Yusuke Niwai, 1 Keita Inagaki.
Subs: 16 Takeshi Hino, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Yasuo Yamaji, 19 Hitoshi Ono, 20 Shokei Kin, 21 Keisuke Uchida, 22 Jumpei Ogura, 23 William Tupou.
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 William Small-Smith, 12 Clinton Swart, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Uzair Cassiem, 5 Carl Wegner, 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Ox Nche.
Subs: 16 Elandré Huggett, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Francois Uys, 20 Niell Jordaan, 21 Tian Meyer, 22 Junior Pokomela, 23 Fred Zeilinga.
HIGHLANDERS vs WARATAHS (Saturday, 09:35)
The Highlanders are big favourites ahead of this clash. They've won 10 of their last 11 games against Australian opposition, including each of their last five. They've also won 15 of their last 18 games at home, including each of their last four.
More specifically, they have beaten the Waratahs in the last three matches. It's been nine years since the Waratahs last won in Dunedin. Overall, the Waratahs have lost 12 of their last 14 matches in New Zealand.
The Highlanders are ranked first for kicks from hand in 2017. The Waratahs are ranked 14th in this category. We should expect a clash of styles at the Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday.
Despite their liberal use of the boot and high tackle count, the Highlanders rank in the top five for clean breaks, tries and points per match. The Waratahs have scored 12 tries across the three games played against New Zealand opposition in 2017, but have conceded 16.
The visitors' ability to deal with the Highlanders' high-ball tactics will be game-shaping. The Waratahs are ranked 17th in the tournament for turnovers conceded per match, and their handling has been poor.
The Highlanders shouldn't want for motivation. They need a bonus-point win this Saturday to keep the pressure on the likes of the Chiefs and Hurricanes, who they should be looking to surpass on the New Zealand conference log before the end of the regular season.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (co-c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Aki Seiuli.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon (co-c), 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Rob Thompson.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Cam Clark, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson.
Subs: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Angus Taavao, 19 David McDuling, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Irae Simone.
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images