JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first three Super Rugby matches this weekend, including the clashes involving the Bulls and Sharks in Australasia.
CHIEFS vs BULLS (Hamilton, Friday 08:35)
The Bulls are coming off a disappointing 20-14 loss to the Reds in Brisbane. Given their current form as well as their horrific record in New Zealand, one cannot see them bouncing back against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday.
The Chiefs copped a 45-23 hiding at the hands of the Crusaders in their season-opener in Christchurch. They went on to beat the Blues 27-21 in Auckland before enjoying a bye.
The Chiefs should be wary of a Bulls side coached by a New Zealander in John Mitchell, especially at the breakdowns and collisions. The performances of openside flankers Sam Cane and Roelof Smit will, however, be shaped by the respective sides' scrum and lineout showings.
According to Opta, the Bulls have the best attacking lineout in the competition (in terms of lineouts won). The visitors may feel that they have an edge in this department, given that the Chiefs are ranked 11th at this set piece.
The Bulls have had significant problems at the scrum, though, and are likely to be targeted in this area on Friday. The Chiefs boast one of the better scrums in the tournament.
No doubt Mitchell has had a word with his charges about their defensive failings in recent games. The Bulls are ranked 13th in the tournament for missed tackles (23.7 per game) and tackle efficiency (82%).
One struggles to see how they will repel a Chiefs outfit that boasts All Blacks like Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown. Sean Wainui may also prove a handful on the right wing.
The Chiefs attack currently averages 12 clean breaks (rank two in the competition) and 23 defenders beaten (rank four) per game.
Stats and facts
o The Chiefs are undefeated in their last four games against the Bulls, turning around a four-game losing streak against them prior to that run.
o The Chiefs have won their last eight games at home against teams visiting from outside New Zealand, their longest ever winning streak in such fixtures.
o The Bulls have won only one of their last 12 games in New Zealand, with their last victory coming against the Blues in 2013.
o The Chiefs haven’t lost a scrum on their own feed at home since round three last season.
o Roelof Smit has won eight turnovers so far this campaign, more than any other player. All of those have been jackals.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Fa'auli, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Tiaan Falcon, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Mitchell Brown, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Aidan Ross.
Subs: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Karl Tu'inukuafe, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Luke Jacobson, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Declan O'Donnell.
Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal (c), 11 Divan Rossouw, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 André Warner, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Thembelani Bholi, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Conraad van Vuuren, 19 Jason Jenkins/Tim Agaba, 20 Marco van Staden, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Johnny Kotze.
HIGHLANDERS vs CRUSADERS (Dunedin, Saturday 08:35)
The Crusaders forwards were out-muscled by their more determined and accurate Hurricanes counterparts in Wellington last week. They also missed Richie Mo'unga, who has been sidelined with a jaw injury, at No 10.
We're in for another physical battle this week between two Kiwi sides stacked with All Blacks. Scott Robertson's side will be out to prove a point in the wake of their recent loss.
The stats suggest that the Highlanders are in better shape up front. They boast a 100% scrum success rate at this stage, and are ranked second in the tournament for lineout and ruck success.
The tackle stats also tell a story in terms of how they like to play. The Highlanders average more tackles than any other team (a whopping 152 per game) yet still boast a good tackle efficiency rate (87%, the third highest in the tournament).
They average 25 kicks from hand (rank two). How often have we seen Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga probing for territory or launching a contestable kick? Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo are some of the best kick-chasers and aerial contesters in the business.
The Crusaders are at the other end of the spectrum as far as kicking is concerned. They average just 16 kicks from hand per game. Their defence, which helped them win the tournament in 2017, has let them down in the early rounds of this year's competition.
The winner of this match will finish the round at the top of the New Zealand conference. The current Kiwi log leaders, the Hurricanes, are enjoying a bye this weekend, and will be overtaken by at least one of these teams in the standings.
Stats and facts
o The Crusaders have won nine of their last 11 games against the Highlanders, including each of their last three meetings.
o The Highlanders have won their last eight games on home turf; the last time they won more in succession at home was a 13-game glut from 2000 to 2002.
o The Crusaders will be out to avoid consecutive losses in the regular season for the first time since April 2015.
o The Highlanders have made 15-plus offloads in four of their last five games on home turf, making an average of 16 offloads per game in that time.
o Waisake Naholo has scored eight tries in his last five games against the Crusaders, with each coming in the form of a brace.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Tei 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 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Aki Seiuli.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 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 Bryn Hall, 22 Mike Delany, 23 Manasa Mataele.
BRUMBIES vs SHARKS (Canberra, Saturday 10:45)
The Brumbies are there for the beating. They failed to impress in their narrow win over the Sunwolves in round two, and delivered abject showings in subsequent defeats to the Reds and Rebels.
The Sharks may feel that they have a point to prove, though. While they thrashed the Sunwolves 50-22 last week, they were outplayed – first by the Lions and then by a limited Waratahs side – in the preceding games.
The Sharks simply have to make this opportunity count. The game in Canberra marks the first of a four-game tour to Australasia. A convincing win against the Brumbies will ensure that the Sharks take some momentum into the more challenging encounters against the Rebels, Blues and Hurricanes.
All eyes will be on the respective packs. The Brumbies haven't fired at the set pieces in 2018. The Sharks, with Thomas du Toit at tighthead, are ranked 13th in the tournament for scrum success (79%).
Both teams boast some firepower out wide. The Brumbies have Wallabies such as Henry Speight, Tevita Kuridrani and Christian Lealiifano in their attacking ranks. The Sharks have a good combination of strength and skill with André Esterhuizen, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi and Curwin Bosch in the starting backline.
The Sharks have to make an early statement at the set pieces and collisions. They have to ensure that their backs receive a steady supply of front-foot ball. The Brumbies have only missed 17 tackles per game, and may be difficult to breach.
One would expect the Sharks to prevail if the game is in the balance in the dying stages. The Brumbies come into this game with a 30% goal-kicking record – the worst success rate in the tournament.
Stats and facts
o Three of the last four games between these teams has seen the away side emerge victorious, including a 27-22 win to the Sharks in their last meeting.
o The Brumbies haven’t won a home game against a team from outside Australia since round 14, 2016 (against the Sunwolves), losing six such games since.
o The Sharks have left with log points from all but one of their last seven games in Australia, picking up four wins and two losing bonus points in that time.
o The Sharks have made 18 clean breaks per game this season, more than any other side in the competition; only two players have made more clean breaks than Makazole Mapimpi (eight) this season, who has played just twice.
o Only Damian de Allende (55) has made more carries this season than the Brumbies’ Isi Naisarani (48).
Brumbies – 15 Andrew Muirhead, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Lausii Taliauli, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Tom Cusack, 6 Lachlan McCaffrey, 5 Blake Enever, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Folau Faingaa, 1 Scott Sio
Subs: 16 Connal McInerney, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Leslie Leuluaialii-Makin, 19 Richie Arnold, 20 Lolo Fakaosilea, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 James Dargaville, 23 Tom Banks.
Sharks – 15 Curwin Bosch, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Rob du Preez, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Tera Mtembu, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 6 Wian Vosloo, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Ruan Botha (c), 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Akker van der Merwe, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 John-Hubert Meyer, 19 Tyler Paul, 20 Jean-Luc du Preez, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Marius Louw, 23 Lwazi Mvovo.
Photo: Lukas Coch/BackpagePix