JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first four Super Rugby matches of round three, including the Stormers' clash with the Crusaders in Christchurch.
BLUES vs CHIEFS (Auckland, Friday, 08:35)
The Blues played well in patches against the Highlanders last week, but failed to obtain the desired result. They've lost their last 12 matches against New Zealand opposition.
But for some poor discipline and game management in the second half of last week's contest, they may well have scored an upset win against the Highlanders. Their chances of beating the Chiefs this Friday, and ultimately snapping that losing streak against Kiwi teams, will hinge on a more clinical showing in the latter stages.
Blues No 12 Sonny Bill Williams will miss this fixture due to a knee injury. The Blues are in better shape than the Chiefs, however, as the latter side is missing as many as 15 players due to various ailments and niggles.
The Chiefs are coming off a heavy loss to the Crusaders. They certainly had the opportunity to make an impression on attack in that match, considering that the Crusaders lost two men to the sin bin in the first half. They only managed to score two tries in 80 minutes, though.
The Blues scrum was good last week, and the backs made the most of that platform. Expect Tana Umaga's side to target the Chiefs at the set pieces this Friday, and for scrumhalf Augustine Pulu and the Ioane brothers to make inroads into the defence.
Stats and facts
- The Chiefs are undefeated in their last 12 games against the Blues, though the Blues picked up a draw against their domestic rivals when they last met.
- The Chiefs will be looking for a 13th consecutive game without a loss against the Blues, setting the record for the longest unbeaten run of any team against another in Super Rugby history.
- Though the Blues are winless in their last six home games against the Chiefs, they've picked up competition points in all but one of those games.
- The Blues have won only one of their last 23 games against fellow New Zealand opposition, though only once last season were they defeated by their countrymen by a double-digit margin.
- Rieko Ioane has scored four tries in his last three games on home turf for the Blues.
Blues – 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Augustine Pulu (c), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Michael Tamoaieta, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Jerome Kaino, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 23 Michael Collins.
Chiefs – 15 Shaun Stevenson, 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Taleni Seu, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Michael Allardice, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Aidan Ross.
Subs: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Mitchell Brown/Luke Jacobson, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Tiaan Falcon, 23 Bailyn Sullivan/Declan O’Donnell.
REDS vs BRUMBIES (Brisbane, Friday, 11:00)
Where do these two teams stand? It's hard to say after witnessing their respective performances in round two.
Skipper Scott Higginbotham was sent off early in the first half of the game in Melbourne, and the Reds went on to lose 45-19 to a Rebels side that is still trying to find its feet after an influx of Force players. The Brumbies were anything but convincing in their 32-25 victory over the lowly Sunwolves.
The Reds will be without Higginbotham, whose reckless actions in Melbourne have earned him a three-week suspension. They may be hard-pressed to outmuscle a Brumbies pack that has, in past tournaments, proved efficient at the set pieces.
Don't hold your breath for a spectacle. The Reds will be desperate to record any sort of win after the Melbourne mauling, while the Brumbies may be happy to bank the four points and strengthen their position on the Aussie conference.
Stats and facts
- The Reds picked up a one-point win against the Brumbies in their most recent encounter, snapping a five-game losing streak against them in which time they conceded an average of 37 points per game.
- The Reds will be looking for consecutive home wins against Australian opposition for the first time since round two, 2013.
- The Brumbies have won three of their last five games away from home, with two of those wins coming after they had trailed at half-time.
- Each of the last five Australian derbies in Super Rugby have been won by the home team.
- Six of the Reds' last eight tries against the Brumbies at home have been scored by forwards.
Reds – 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Jono Lance, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Caleb Timu, 7 Liam Wright, 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 JP Smith, 18 Sef Fa'agase, 19 Harry Hockings, 20 Angus Scott-Young, 21 Tate McDermott, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Filipo Daugunu.
Brumbies – 15 Tom Banks, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Chance Peni, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Tom Cusack, 6 Lachlan McCaffrey, 5 Sam Carter (c), 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Ben Alexander.
Subs: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Les Leuluaialii-Makin, 19 Blake Enever, 20 Lolo Fakaosilea, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Wharenui Hawera, 23 Lausii Taliauli.
SUNWOLVES vs REBELS (Tokyo, Saturday, 06:15)
The Sunwolves were competitive in last week's 32-25 loss to the Brumbies in Tokyo. They may fancy their chances of claiming a victory against the Rebels – a side with a new coach and a host of new players this season – in the Japanese capital on Saturday.
That said, the Rebels enjoyed a great opportunity to gel in last week's game against the Reds. The game was effectively over as a contest when Reds captain Scott Higginbotham was shown a red card in the 10th minute. The Rebels took some time to build a lead and eventually finished with a 45-19 bonus-point win.
The Rebels pack may face a sterner challenge this weekend. The Sunwolves boast a couple of South Africans in their starting lineup – Willie Britz and Lappies Labuschagne – and should be competitive at the collisions and breakdowns.
The Japan-based side battled to maintain their intensity in the second half last week, and the Brumbies scored a late try to seal the result. The Rebels may consider themselves favourites to win if the game is still in the balance after 60 minutes.
Stats and facts
- The Rebels came away with a 35-9 victory when these teams met in March 2016, the only previous meeting between them.
- The Sunwolves have now earned competition points in each of their last two games; never before have they earned points in three consecutive fixtures.
- The Rebels will be looking to open their Super Rugby campaign with consecutive wins for the first time in their history.
- The Sunwolves managed a tackle success rate of 90% in their opening game, while their rate last season overall was just 80% – the joint lowest.
- Will Genia provided three try assists last weekend, the first time a Rebels player had made three in a single game since James O’Connor did so against the Highlanders in July 2013.
Sunwolves – 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Akihito Yamada, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 William Tupou, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Yutaka Nagare (c), 8 Ed Quirk, 7 Lappies Labuschagne, 6 Michael Leitch, 5 Willie Britz, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Ho Shota Horie, 1 Craig Millar.
Subs: 16 Atsushi Sakate, 17 Keita Inagaki, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 James Moore, 20 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Harumichi Tatekawa, 23 Ryuji Noguchi.
Rebels – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Tom English, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Sefa Naivalu, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Will Genia, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Angus Cottrell, 6 Lopeti Timani, 5 Adam Coleman (c), 4 Matt Philip, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Jordan Uelese, 1 Tetera Faulkner.
Subs: 16 Anaru Rangi, 17 Fereti Sa'aga, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Ross Haylett-Petty, 21 Colby Fainga'a, 22 Michael Ruru, 23 Billy Meakes.
CRUSADERS vs STORMERS (Christchurch, Saturday, 08:35)
The Stormers blew a great opportunity to secure a win against the Waratahs in Sydney last week. They may be short of confidence, and personnel, coming into this clash against the reigning champions in Christchurch.
Flyhalf Damian Willemse sustained a leg injury in the loss to the Waratahs, and will be replaced by utility back Dillyn Leyds this week. With Robert du Preez returning to the Sharks at the end of last season, and Jean-Luc du Plessis battling with a long-term injury, the Stormers are desperately thin at No 10.
History is certainly against the Stormers (see stats and facts below). They may be encouraged by the fact that it's still early days as far as the season is concerned. That big Crusaders engine is still warming up.
This may seem an outrageous statement when one considers last week's scoreline. The Crusaders scored seven tries in their 45-23 win over the Chiefs.
The champs' discipline was a concern, though, as they conceded two yellow cards. They missed a total of 29 tackles and only managed an 81% completion rate.
Flanker Matt Todd sustained a thumb injury in the win against the Chiefs and will be sidelined for the next month or so. The Crusaders are already missing injured All Blacks such as Kieran Read, Israel Dagg and first-choice props Joe Moody and Owen Franks.
That being said, the Stormers are missing several internationals of their own. Springboks Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Jano Vermaak and Bongi Mbonambi will play no part for the Cape side on this tour.
The Stormers scrum has impressed in the first two rounds of this year's tournament. The Cape pack will face a different sort of challenge in Christchurch, though.
It is surprising to see that Steven Kitshoff has been listed among the reserves and not in the No 1 position. Perhaps coach Robbie Fleck realises that the Stormers will need to keep some quality in reserve. New Zealand teams have proved more potent in the latter stages of these contests, and the Crusaders were among the best finishers across the 2017 tournament.
It's hard to see the Stormers outlasting the Crusaders, though. While the Cape side has made an impression with ball in hand thus far, their defence has been less than convincing.
Stats and facts
- The Crusaders have won 14 of their last 16 games against the Stormers, including each of their last six.
- The Crusaders have never been defeated by the Stormers when playing at home, scoring an average of 31 points per game across that time.
- The Crusaders have won their last 12 games at home against teams from outside New Zealand; their last such loss came in the opening round of the 2015 campaign against the Rebels.
- The Stormers haven’t won in New Zealand since an 18-16 win over the Hurricanes in round 11, 2013; they’ve lost eight games there since then.
- George Bridge has scored six tries from his four previous games against South African teams, including a hat-trick in his only previous encounter with the Stormers.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Peter Samu, 5 Samuel Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Chris King, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele.
Stormers –15 SP Marais, 14 Seabelo Senatla, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Dillyn Leyds, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Cobus Wiese, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 JD Schickerling, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Ramone Samuels, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Subs: 16 Dean Muir, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Carlu Sadie, 19 Jan de Klerk, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Kobus van Dyk, 22 Justin Phillips, 23 George Whitehead.
Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images