JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to round 15 of the Super Rugby tournament.
BLUES vs REDS (Friday, 09:35)
The Blues have won six games this season. They've accumulated more log points (33) than the leaders of the Africa 1 (the Stormers – 30) and Australian (Brumbies – 28) conferences. Yet, with two games to play, they have no chance of qualifying for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Reds, with three wins and 16 log points after 12 matches, could still qualify for the playoffs. This tells you everything you need to know about the current Super Rugby format and qualification process.
Star centre Sonny Billi Williams (knee injury) will not feature in the coming fixture, which will be played in Apia, Samoa. One wonders if the Blues will be up for such a clash.
They may want to finish the season with a perfect record against Australian sides. The Blues have lost just one match against a foreign side (the Stormers) in 2017.
The Reds need to win this Friday, and then hope that the Rebels beat the Brumbies by seven points or more in Canberra. The Reds and Brumbies will meet in round 16.
Blues – 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Declan O'Donnell, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Sam Nock, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Alex Hodgman.
Subs: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Stephen Perofeta, 23 Jordan Trainor.
Reds – 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Chris Kuridrani, 13 Samu Kerevi (c), 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 George Smith, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Lukhan Tui, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Andrew Ready, 1 Sef Fa'agase.
Subs: 16 Alex Maf, 17 Kirwan Sanday, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Kane Douglas, 20 Adam Korczyk, 21 Caleb Timu, 22 Nick Frisby, 23 Jake McIntyre.
CRUSADERS vs HIGHLANDERS (Saturday, 04:35)
Lions fans should be watching this fixture with interest. The Lions currently trail the Crusaders by three points in the overall standings. They need to win their remaining two matches to increase their chances of finishing at the top of the Super Rugby pile. They also need the Highlanders, or the Crusaders' subsequent opponents, the Hurricanes, to hand the Cantabrians a loss.
In a New Zealand context, the former clash is more significant than the latter. Scott Robertson's side could claim their 14th straight win this Saturday and move to 63 log points. That result would hand them the New Zealand conference title.
The game in Christchurch should witness a clash of styles. The Highlanders are ranked first for kicks from hand this season. The Crusaders, who have opted to keep the ball in hand more often than not, are ranked 17th in this category.
That said, the Crusaders have relied heavily on their set pieces in 2017. The Highlanders will be hard-pressed to live with the Crusaders at the scrums and lineouts this Saturday.
The Highlanders are currently on a nine-match winning streak. They won the last time they faced the Crusaders in Christchurch.
However, they have never won consecutive away games against the Crusaders. They are unlikely to break that record when they come up against a Crusaders side in white-hot form.
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, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 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 Jed Brown, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mitchel Hunt, 23 Israel Dagg.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Richard Buckman, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon (cc), 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Matt Faddes.
CHIEFS vs WARATAHS (Saturday, 07:05)
The Chiefs have already qualified for the playoffs. Results in the next three fixtures against the Waratahs, Hurricanes and Brumbies will determine where they finish in the standings, and ultimately whether they have to travel in the playoffs or not.
The Waratahs need a big win against the Chiefs this Saturday to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. They're yet to beat a New Zealand team in 2017, but their recent record against the Chiefs – six wins in the last seven meetings – will encourage them ahead of the game in Hamilton on Saturday.
The Chiefs lost their most recent home game to the Crusaders. They will be determined to bounce back when hosting the Waratahs. They haven't lost back-to-back home matches in a single season since 2011.
The Waratahs have lost their last four games in New Zealand, three of those by 10 points or more. According to Opta, their tackle completion is 81% (rank 17) in 2017. They may battle to contain a Chiefs attack that ranks in the top five for offloads and tries, or indeed breach a Chiefs defence that has conceded the fewest tries (28).
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Stephen Donald, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 San Cane, 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Siegfried Fishi'ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Mitchell Karpik, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 Solomon Alaimalo.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Cam Clark, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 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 Jack Dempsey, 22 Matt Lucas, 23 Bryce Hegarty.
BRUMBIES vs REBELS (Saturday, 11:45)
The Brumbies could clinch the Australian conference title this weekend, and thus book a home playoff. They will need to beat the Rebels in Canberra this Saturday, and then hope that the Waratahs lose against the Chiefs. The latter seems likely, given that no Australian side has beaten a New Zealand team in 2017.
The Rebels will be looking for another upset. They beat the Brumbies earlier this season. That said, they’ve never won consecutive games against the Brumbies, losing eight of their 12 encounters overall.
The Rebels have lost their last five matches. The Melbourne side could suffer its sixth-successive loss this Saturday. The last time they endured more consecutive defeats was a run of 12 losses from 2011 to 2012.
The Brumbies are coming off wins against the Kings in Port Elizabeth and the Jaguares in Argentina. It will be interesting to see how the extensive travel impacts on their ability to perform in the latter stages of Saturday's match.
Brumbies – 15 Tom Banks,14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Aidan Toua, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Jordan Smiler, 7 Chris Alcock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Nic Mayhew.
Subs: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Faalelei Sione, 18 Leslie Leulua'iali'i-Makin, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Jarrad Butler, 21 De Wet Roos, 22 Andrew Muirhead, 23 Nigel Ah Wong.
Rebels – 15 Reece Hodge, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Tom English, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Ben Volavola, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Hugh Sinclair, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Steve Cummins, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith.
Subs: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Laurie Weeks, 19 Culum Retallick, 20 Will Miller, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 23 Jonah Placid.
FORCE vs HURRICANES (Saturday, 13:55)
The Hurricanes need the Highlanders to do them a favour earlier in the day. A win for the Highlanders over the Crusaders will keep the Hurricanes' chances of winning the New Zealand conference alive.
The Hurricanes should have no trouble picking up maximum points this Saturday. The Force have conceded 20 tries across the four matches played against New Zealand opposition this season.
The Hurricanes have won nine of the 10 games between these sides, including the last eight in a row by an average margin of 17.5 points. They have won their last 12 matches against foreign opposition.
Overall, the Hurricanes have averaged 43 points and six tries per match in 2017 (rank 1). No team has made more metres or clean breaks on average this season.
Force – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 James Verity-Amm, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Bill Meakes, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Michael Ruru, 8 Isi 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 Marcel Brache.
Hurricanes – 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Brad Shields, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Vaea Fifita, 4 Sam Lousi, 3 Ben May, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Loni Uhila.
Subs: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Photo: Dianne Manson/Getty Images