CRAIG LEWIS looks ahead to this weekend’s matches, which include two big New Zealand derbies.
HIGHLANDERS vs HURRICANES (Dunedin, Friday, 9:35am)
In order for the Hurricanes to stay in the hunt for top honours in the New Zealand group, they will know that this is virtually a must-win match.
The Canes’ loss to the Crusaders last weekend enabled the latter to open a five-point lead in the Kiwi conference, although the defending champs have played the extra game.
The Hurricanes should be especially motivated in what will be captain Brad Shields’ 100th match for the Wellington-based side, although the Highlanders have named an All Blacks-laden team.
Notably, the Hurricanes have conceded the fewest metres of any side this season, allowing their opponents just 348m with ball in hand, while they’ve also missed the least number of tackles of any side (19.6 per game).
The Highlanders are sure to be tested by the Canes’ oppressive linespeed, with the latter likely to be slight favourites in a match that should be decided by the smallest of margins.
Stats and facts
- Each of the Highlanders’ last eight games at home against the Hurricanes has been decided by a margin of seven points or fewer, although the Dunedin-based side has picked up just three wins in that time (lost five).
- The Highlanders have won nine of their last 11 New Zealand derbies when playing as hosts, including wins in their last three such fixtures.
- In fact, the Highlanders have won their last 11 games in succession at home; the last and only time they won more was a 13-game streak from 2000 to 2002.
- Rob Thompson has assisted six tries this season. Two of those assists have come via kicks; only Beauden Barrett (three) has set up more tries with the boot this campaign.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (co-c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Kalolo Tuiloma, 2 Ash Dixon (co-c), 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Richard Buckman.
Hurricanes – 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Jodie Barrett, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields (c), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Michael Fatialofa, 3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith.
Subs: 16 James O’Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 Vaea Fifita/Murray Douglas, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Wes Goosen.
BLUES vs REBELS (Auckland, Saturday, 7:15am)
This is certainly not a match-up that will have many fans altering their Saturday plans to catch every minute of what is likely to be an uninspiring affair at Eden Park.
For what it’s worth, though, the Blues will be continuing on their quest to restore some dented pride in a season that has yielded just three wins, while the Rebels will be determined to remain firmly in the running for Australian conference honours.
The Rebels are coming off back-to-back wins over the Brumbies and Sunwolves, but they are now set to face a different challenge from the ever-dangerous and unpredictable Blues, who expect to have Sonny Bill Williams back in the starting lineup.
If the Blues can improve their finishing, which has been a perennial problem all season, they should have enough firepower to claim a much-needed win at home.
Stats and facts
- The Blues have won four of the previous six games between these teams in Super Rugby, including each of their last two and a 38-point win in their last meeting – the biggest win in the history of the fixture.
- The Blues are undefeated in their last 11 games against Australian opposition (won 10, drawn one), although eight of those 10 wins came by single-figure margins.
- The Rebels head into this fixture on the back of consecutive victories and have now won six games this campaign. A seventh victory would equal their most wins in a single Super Rugby season.
- The Blues average a competition-high 124 carries per game this season. However, they’ve made fewer than 100 carries in four of their last seven games.
- Amanaki Mafi has made 185 carries this season, more than any other player, while he’s gained 1,005m, almost twice as many as any other forward (Kwagga Smith is next on 524m).
Blues – 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Orbyn Leger, 12 Sonny Bill Williams/Terrence Hepetema, 11 Tumua Manu, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu (c), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Matiaha Martin, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 Matt Moulds, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Subs: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Ben Nee-Nee, 20 Sione Havili, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 TJ Faiane/Hepetema.
Rebels – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Tom English, 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Reece Hodge, 9 Michael Ruru, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Adam Coleman (c), 4 Matt Philip, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Anaru Rangi, 1 Fereti Sa’aga.
Subs: 16 Jordan Uelese, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Ross Haylett-Petty, 21 Harrison Goddard, 22 Tayler Adams, 23 Lopeti Timani.
CHIEFS vs CRUSADERS (Hamilton, Saturday, 9:35am)
Even if there are those who might be a little wary of Super Rugby after 15 straight weeks of action, this remains a match that should not be missed.
The Chiefs have made more metres (496) and more clean breaks (15) per game than any other team so far this season, but it’s the well-rounded Crusaders who have lost a mere two matches this year and look destined to finish at the summit of the overall standings.
However, the Crusaders will be wary of slipping up just before the June international break, and will have noted that the Chiefs are on an 11-match winning streak at their home ground in Hamilton.
It should all make for a fascinating contest, with the flair of the Chiefs set to be juxtaposed against the unrelenting consistency of the Crusaders, who welcome back All Blacks Joe Moody, Israel Dagg and Jordan Taufua to the starting lineup.
Stats and facts
- The Chiefs have won four of their last five games against the Crusaders at Waikato Stadium, including a 24-point win when they last faced off at the venue (round three, 2015).
- The Crusaders have won 10 of their last 13 New Zealand derbies, with four of their last five wins in such fixtures coming by margins of more than 10 points.
- The Chiefs have made more metres (496) and more clean breaks (15) per game than any other team so far this campaign.
- Richie Mo’unga has won 18 of his last 19 Super Rugby games, including his last five in a row against New Zealand opposition – he was missing for each of the Crusaders’ last two Super Rugby defeats.
Chiefs – 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Charlie Ngatai (c), 11 Sean Wainui, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Mitch Karpik, 6 Luke Jacobson, 5 Michael Allardice, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Subs: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Jesse Parete, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Donald Brighouse, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Ethan Blackadder, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Jone Macilai.
REDS vs WARATAHS (Brisbane, Saturday, 9:35am)
The Tahs hold a tenuous lead at the top of the Australian conference, and will know that they cannot afford to slip up against a Reds side that has mustered just four wins all season.
Although the Reds are on a three-match losing streak, they have produced competitive performances against both the Highlanders and Hurricanes in recent weeks, and it’s the reason coach Brad Thorn has opted to make minimal changes to his side.
The inclusion of Jed Holloway at lock is the only change to the Waratahs’ starting lineup, with the team from Sydney searching for a ninth successive win over the Reds.
In terms of per-game stats, the Waratahs are ranked second for metres made (486.4) and clean breaks (14), and one would expect them to have too much attacking strength for an inconsistent Reds side.
Stats and facts
- The Waratahs have won their last eight games on the bounce against the Reds by an average margin of 19 points per game. However, they had lost their five meetings prior to that run.
- The Reds have won their last two Australian derbies when playing as hosts. The last time they won more was a five-game streak from 2012 to 2013.
- The Waratahs have won seven of their last eight away games against teams currently in the Australian conference, including wins in their last two such fixtures.
- Only the Crusaders (four) and Hurricanes (six) have conceded fewer tries in the final quarter of games than the Waratahs (seven) this campaign.
Reds – 15 Jono Lance, 14 Izaia Perese, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Duncan Paia’aua, 11 Jordan Petaia, 10 Hamish Stewart, 9 Moses Sorovi, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 George Smith, 6 Angus Scott-Young, 5 Kane Douglas , 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 JP Smith.
Subs: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Sef Fa’agase, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Harry Hockings, 20 Caleb Timu, 21 Liam Wright, 22 Ben Lucas, 23 Jayden Ngamanu.
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 (c), 6 Will Miller, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway , 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson.
Subs: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Shambeckler Vui, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Lalakai Foketi, 23 Bryce Hegarty.
BRUMBIES vs SUNWOLVES (Canberra, Sunday, 8:05am)
The Brumbies dwell in 12th place on the overall standings, while the Sunwolves are rooted to the bottom of the log. It’s not a match likely to conjure a big following on a Sunday.
Nevertheless, the Brumbies will be determined to back up last weekend’s impressive win over the Bulls with another morale-boosting victory.
When these two teams met earlier this season, the Brumbies only managed a seven-point victory, but back at their Canberra base, they will be firm favourites to claim a bonus-point win over a Sunwolves outfit that is still searching for their maiden Super Rugby triumph away from home.
Stats and facts
- The Brumbies have won each of the previous two games between these teams, winning by 61 points in round 14, 2016, but by just seven points in round two this season.
- The Brumbies will be looking for back-to-back wins in Super Rugby for the first time in exactly one year.
- The Sunwolves remain on the hunt for their maiden Super Rugby win away from home, having lost their previous 20 away games by an average margin of 29 points per game.
- The Brumbies have two penalty goals scored against them per match this season, more than any other team in the competition, while the Sunwolves (0.5) have had the fewest slotted against them.
Brumbies – 15 Tom Banks, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Andy Muirhead, 10 Christian Lealiifano (co-c), 9 Joe Powell, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 David Pocock, 6 Lachlan Mccaffrey, 5 Sam Carter (co-c), 4 Blake Enever, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Connal Mcinerney, 1 Scott Sio.
Subs: 16 TBC, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Richie Arnold, 20 Tom Cusack, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Wharenui Hawera, 23 Andrew Smith.
Sunwolves – 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Semisi Masirewa, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Harumichi Tatekawa, 11 Sione Teaupa, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Keisuke Uchida, 8 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 7 Edward Quirk, 6 Willie Britz, 5 Sam Wykes, 4 James Moore, 3 Hencus van Wyk Jiwon Koo, 2 Atsushi Sakate , 1 Craig Millar (c).
Subs: 16 Jaba Bregvadze, 17 Keita Inagaki, 18 Nikoloz Khatiashvili, 19 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 20 Fetuani Lautaimi, 21 Kaito Shigeno, 22 Gerhard van den Heever, 23 Kai Ishii.
Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images