CRAIG LEWIS looks ahead to the final four matches in round 17 of the Super Rugby competition.
HURRICANES vs CRUSADERS (Saturday, 09:35)
This is a clash that the Lions and their supporters will be watching very carefully. As it stands, the undefeated Saders are just two log points ahead of the Lions, and look set to earn the right to host a possible final.
However, the Crusaders first have to get past the defending champions on Saturday, and it’s a result that certainly won’t just be handed to them without a fight.
Victory for the Canes would enable them to make the relatively comfortable journey across to Canberra to face the battling Brumbies, while a defeat would mean they need to travel all the way to Cape Town to face the Stormers.
With plenty to play for, the Canes have named their strongest possible side for the clash, with All Blacks TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett and Ardie Savea returning to the starting XV.
The hosts’ chances of victory have also been strengthened by the fact that the Crusaders have opted to rest their All Blacks front row for this encounter as a result of the heavy workload they carried against the British & Irish Lions.
This could well provide the Canes with the opportunity to achieve parity up front, and then unleash their dangerous backline, with this clash undoubtedly shaping up to deliver a result that could go either way.
Hurricanes – 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ben May.
Subs: 16 James O'Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Reed Prinsep, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22Wes Goosen, 23 Cory Jane.
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 David Havili, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Sean Wainui.
FORCE vs WARATAHS (Saturday, 11:45)
After what should be a humdinger in Wellington, the Force and Waratahs will face off in a contest that is set to determine which side finishes second in the Australian conference.
With the Reds likely to suffer a defeat against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday, the onus will fall on the Force to ensure that they secure second spot in the Aussie conference and make another case for continued inclusion in Super Rugby.
The Australian Rugby Union has yet to decide whether the Force or Rebels will be cut from the competition, but based on results this season, the team from Perth has made a far stronger case for inclusion, as they come into this season finale with five wins to their name.
Both teams have made minimal changes for this clash, but expect the Force to provide retiring club legend Matt Hodgson with a triumphant send-off.
Force – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Marcel Brache, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Bill Meakes, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Michael Ruru, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Matt Hodgson, 6 Ross Haylett-Petty, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Matt Philip, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Pek Cowan.
Subs: 16 Anaru Rangi, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Shambeckler Vui, 19 Lewis Carmichael, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Jono Lance, 23 James Verity-Amm.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Ron Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Cam Clark, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 Dean Mumm, 4 Ned Hanigan, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson.
Subs: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 David Lolohea, 18 Angus Taavao, 19 David McDuling, 20 Ryan McCauley, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Mack Mason, 23 Andrew Kellaway.
BULLS vs STORMERS (Saturday, 15:05)
The Stormers clinched important wins over the Cheetahs and Sunwolves in their last two games, but basic errors have still blighted these performances, with coach Robbie Fleck admitting that vast improvement will be required if they hope to successfully compete in the playoffs.
It makes Saturday’s clash against the Bulls especially important as the Stormers look to find the necessary balance to their play that will stand them in good stead during the knockout stage.
For the Bulls, they will just want a horror season to come to an end so that they can consign this campaign to the history books and begin to plot a productive pathway forward.
New executive of rugby John Mitchell is set to join the Bulls soon, and a major shake-up will take place once the New Zealander begins to crack the whip.
As it is, the Bulls will be mindful of the fact that should the Cheetahs beat the Kings, and they suffer another defeat against the Stormers, the Pretoria-based side would then shockingly finish as the worst-placed South African side.
Meanwhile, the Stormers will be determined to rediscover the sort of patience and clinical edge on attack that has enabled them to score a competition-high 15 tries after maintaining possession for seven or more phases.
The Stormers have been bolstered by the return of Boks Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Juan de Jongh and Sikhumbuzo Notshe, and should adopt a more pragmatic approach as they successfully go in search of a morale-boosting win ahead of the playoffs.
Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Duncan Mathews, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Nick de Jager, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Shaun Adendorff, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Conraad van Vuurren, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Pierre Schoeman. Subs: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 John-Roy Jenkinson, 19 Ruben van Heerden, 20 Ruan Steenkamp, 21 Piet Van Zyl, 22 Tony Jantjies, 23 Burger Odendaal.
Stormers – 15 Dillyn Leyds, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Seabelo Senatla, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth , 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Subs: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 Juan de Jongh, 23 Dan Kriel.
SHARKS vs LIONS (Saturday, 17:15)
This will be a particularly intriguing contest on Saturday. Should the Crusaders overcome the Hurricanes earlier in the day, the Lions will know that the best they can do is finish second in terms of overall points.
A second-place finish overall is likely to set up a quarter-final against the Highlanders at Ellis Park, but should the Saders slip up, the Lions will then have a golden opportunity to finish top of the pile and put themselves in line for a possible home final.
There are also a couple of permutations at play for the Sharks, who could face a rematch against the Lions in the quarter-finals, or quite possibly have to head over to Christchurch, where a loss would surely lie in store against the Crusaders.
The good news for both teams is that this is the final game of the weekend, and so they will know exactly where they stand heading into this contest.
As it is, the Sharks and Lions have named their strongest possible lineups, and indications suggest that they will put any playoff possibilities out of mind and simply aim to finish the conference stage on a winning note.
This clash should also present an interesting contrast in style as the Lions’ freestyling approach is pitted against the more pragmatic defence and kick-orientated propensity of the Durban-based side.
Whatever the circumstances may be, all signs suggest that the Lions should have little trouble in running away with what would be a 12th successive win of the season.
Sharks – 15 Lwazi Mvovo, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Sbusiso Nkosi, 10 Garth April, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Philip van der Walt (c), 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Subs: 16 Stephan Coetzee, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Jean Droste, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Curwin Bosch, 23 Jeremy Ward.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Kwagga Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.
Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix