JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first four Super Rugby matches this weekend, including the Stormers and Bulls’ fixtures in Australasia.
HIGHLANDERS vs STORMERS (Dunedin, Friday, 08:35)
The Stormers leaked seven tries in their 45-28 loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch last week. They showed some fight in the second stanza of that clash, but were unable to prevent yet another heavy defeat on New Zealand soil.
The Cape side has suffered further personnel losses in the wake of that result. Eben Etzebeth and most recently JD Schickerling have been sidelined for extended periods. Pieter-Steph du Toit took a knock to the head in Christchurch and may not feature in Dunedin. Needless to say, the inexperienced Stormers lineout will be under pressure at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.
The Stormers will field a strong front row, with star loosehead Steven Kitshoff back in the starting side. The visitors will have their work cut out for them in this department, though, as the Highlanders have been one of the leading scrumming teams in recent times, according to Opta Stats.
The return of Damian Willemse at flyhalf should – in theory – lend the Stormers more options on attack. Whether Willemse and his backs will enjoy a steady supply of front-foot ball is another story.
Expect the Highlanders to implement their kick-chase game after winning the battles at the set pieces, collisions and breakdowns. Waisake Naholo has every reason to back himself with ball in hand against the defensively frail Raymond Rhule in that wider channel.
The latter player, as well as Dillyn Leyds, will be the target of an aerial assault. Ben Smith and Naholo are some of the finest aerial contesters on the planet.
The Highlanders won’t want for ball-in-hand options either. Whether they are launching from the set piece or running from broken field, Rob Thompson, Teihorangi Walden and the debutant Tevita Nabura – all 1.92m and 107kg of him – will cause the Stormers defence problems.
Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga will control the game from 9 and 10 and ensure that the bulk of the contest plays out in Stormers territory. It’s hard to see the visitors coming away from this game with a bonus point, let alone a win.
Stats and facts
- The Highlanders have won their last two games against the Stormers.
- The Highlanders have won their last seven games on home turf, scoring 40-plus points in all but one of those fixtures.
- The Stormers have now lost their last nine games in a row in New Zealand, losing by an average margin of 17 points in that time.
- The Highlanders have recorded a 100% scrum success rate in eight of their last nine home games, winning 63 of their 64 scrums in those nine games.
- Damian de Allende beat eight defenders in the last round, more than any other player and his most in a single game since beating 12 Brumbies’ defenders at the end of 2015.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Nabura, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Stormers – 5 SP Marais, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Kobus van Dyk, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Chris van Zyl, 4 Jan de Klerk, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Ramone Samuels, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Subs: 16 Dean Muir, 17 JC Janse van Rensburg, 18 Carlu Sadie, 19 Salmaan Moerat, 20 Pieter-Steph du Toit/George Whitehead, 21 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 22 Justin Phillips, 23 JJ Engelbrecht.
REBELS vs BRUMBIES (Melbourne, Friday, 10:45)
The Rebels sit at the top of the Australian conference after beating the Reds and Sunwolves in their first two matches. They could make a big statement this weekend with a win over last year’s Aussie conference winners, the Brumbies.
The Canberra-based side has started the 2018 season poorly. After scoring a narrow win over the Sunwolves, they stumbled to an 18-10 defeat to the Reds. They should be desperate for a win against the Rebels this Friday.
The Brumbies set piece has to fire for the visitors to secure a much-needed victory. They certainly have the players in Scott Sio, Sam Carter and Rory Arnold to make an impact. Collectively, they may battle to out-muscle the Rebels.
The Brumbies have the worst goal-kicking success rate (38%) in this year’s competition, while the Rebels are ranked 14th in this department. It will be interesting to see whether this influences the decision-making process in the early stages of the clash on Friday. It will also be interesting to see which side can hold its nerve in front of goal in the dying stages.
Stats and facts
- The Brumbies have won nine of the previous 13 encounters between these teams in Super Rugby history, though the Rebels picked up a two-point win in their last meeting in Melbourne.
- The Rebels will be looking for a third consecutive win for the first time in their Super Rugby history.
- The Brumbies have won one of their last four Australian derbies; they had previously won 10 such fixtures in succession.
- The Brumbies won 13 turnovers in their last game against the Rebels; only twice in the last six seasons have they won more in a single game (14 against the Waratahs in 2017 and 14 against the Cheetahs in 2016).
- Jack Maddocks has been directly involved in five tries this campaign (three tries, two assists), more than any other player in the competition.
Rebels – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Tom English (c), 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Sefa Naivalu, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Will Genia, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Angus Cottrell, 6 Lopeti Timani, 5 Ross Haylett-Petty, 4 Matt Philip, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Jordan Uelese, 1 Tetera Faulkner.
Subs: 16 Anaru Rangi, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Colby Fainga’a, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Michael Ruru, 22 Billy Meakes, 23 Marika Koroibete.
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 Lolo Fakaosilea, 6 Lachlan McCaffrey, 5 Sam Carter (c), 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Scott Sio.
Subs: 16 Folau Faingaa, 17 Faalelei Sione, 18 Leslie Leuluaialii-Makin, 19 Richie Arnold, 20 Tom Cusack, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Wharenui Hawera, 23 Andy Muirhead.
HURRICANES vs CRUSADERS (Wellington, Saturday, 08:35)
The Crusaders lapsed in the second half of last week’s clash against the Stormers, yet still managed to win 45-28. They should be aiming for a more convincing 80-minute performance against a Hurricanes side that has dominated this fixture in recent times.
The Hurricanes will also feel that they have a point to prove after losing to the Bulls in their first game of the season. With Beauden Barrett back as the starting No 10, they may fancy their chances of claiming another win against their rivals from across the Cook Strait.
Regular-season matches don’t get much bigger than this. The Super Rugby clash in the New Zealand capital promises to be one for the ages.
The Crusaders are the favourites on paper when one considers the experience of their tight-five and their form as a set-piece unit. Their defenders get off the line very quickly – perhaps too quickly at times, and it will be interesting to see how referee Brendan Pickerill manages that. In the past, the Crusaders have done well to limit the Hurricanes’ attacking space and nullify the running and cross-kicking threat of Barrett.
The halfback battle will be fascinating. TJ Perenara and Barrett have enjoyed success as a combination at Super Rugby and Test levels. Bryn Hall won the Super Rugby title with the Crusaders last year, but is yet to establish himself in the All Blacks squad. Hall will be looking to impress the national coaches with a dominant display in Wellington.
Stats and facts
- The Hurricanes have won their last four games at home against the Crusaders, previously they had won just two out of 10 home games against them.
- The Crusaders will be looking to avoid back to back losses on the road in the regular season for the first time since May 2015.
- The Hurricanes have conceded just 15 points per game this campaign, fewest of any team; the Rebels (18 points) are the only other team to have conceded fewer than 20 points per game.
- Julian Savea beat seven defenders last round, the equal second most of any player; the last time he made more in a single game was against the Rebels (eight) in 2017.
Hurricanes – 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Matt Proctor, 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 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Ricky Ricciteli, 1 Chris Eves.
Subs: 16 Asafo Aumua, 17 Fraser Armstrong, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Michael Fatialofa, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Richard Judd, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Vince Aso.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Chris King, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Billy Harmon, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mike Delany, 23 Manasa Mataele
REDS vs BULLS (Brisbane, Saturday, 10:45)
The Bulls were brought to earth with a thump last week. While they impressed at the breakdowns and in midfield – Handré Pollard had a big game playing at No 12 – they were completely outclassed at the scrums and lineouts.
Their discipline also let them down, as the Lions piled on the points when the Bulls had two men in the sin bin in the second stanza. They will need to be more accurate at the set pieces, and more discipline all round, if they are going to claim a rare win in Australasia this Saturday.
The Reds have had their own problems with discipline in recent times. They were one of the least disciplined sides in 2017, and began 2018 in the worst possible fashion when their skipper Scott Higginbotham was sent off for a reckless tackle.
The Reds went on to lose that game to the Rebels 45-19. While they beat the Brumbies 18-10 last weekend, nobody is about to talk Brad Thorn’s side up as title contenders. Indeed, it would surprise to see them qualify for the playoffs.
A loss to the Reds would be a setback for the Bulls, in the context of their tour and their season. They have to bank some log points this weekend before they head to New Zealand to battle the Chiefs and Crusaders.
The Bulls need to build up some confidence before the more testing encounters in Hamilton and Christchurch. A win will ensure that they stay in touch with the likes of the Lions on the South African conference log.
The forwards should be looking to prove a point after a poor set-piece performance against the Lions. Lood de Jager and RG Snyman may still be hurting. Expect to see a big response from the Bulls locks at the lineouts.
Coach John Mitchell has decided to move Pollard back to No 10 this week, with Johnny Kotze slotting in at 12. Warrick Gelant will start at fullback. The Reds will have a tough time keeping these players out if the Bulls forwards get onto the front foot.
Stats and facts
- Each of the last 11 meetings between the Reds and Bulls has been won by the home team; though, this will be the first meeting in Queensland since 2013.
- The Reds will be hunting for consecutive Super Rugby wins for the first time since May-June 2014.
- The Bulls have won just two of their last 19 games outside South Africa, with their last international win coming in round 10, 2016.
- The Bulls have won 16 lineouts per game with a lineout success rate of 94%, the best of any team in either category this campaign.
- Lukhan Tui has crossed for a try once in each of his last two games at home for the Reds.
Reds – 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Filipo Daugunu , 13 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 12 Samu Kerevi, 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 Duncan Paia’aua
Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Johnny Kotze, 11 Duncan Matthews, 10 Handré Pollard (c), 9 André Warner, 8 Nic de Jager, 7 Hanro Liebenberg, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Frans van Wyk, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Pierre Schoeman
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Jason Jenkins, 20 Marco van Staden, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, 23 Divan Rossouw
Photo: Martin Hunter/AFP Photo