PREVIEW: Super Rugby, Round 14 - Part One
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY: The opening salvos in this week's fixtures will pit title contenders against no-hopers.
The Hurricanes, one of two runaway leaders, are at home to the rabble Reds - the latter one of three teams from the Australian teams that occupy the last three places on the standings.
That is followed by an encounter between the Sunwolves, who scored their first win of the season last week and still stuck at the bottom, and the Stormers - the latter a team who still believe they can make the play-offs.
There will be a lot more spice in the nest match, but still features a Blues that is third from bottom, going up against the top of the table Crusaders.
We take a look at the weekend's first three matches!
Friday, May 18:
Hurricanes v Reds
(Westpac Stadium, Wellington - Kick-off: 19.35; 17.35 AEST; 07.35 GMT)
A look at their positions on the table and a glance at their recent track records will suggest it is going to be one-way traffic.
The Hurricanes are on a nine-match winning streak, having lost only their opening match of the season - 19-21 to the Bulls in Pretoria.
In stark contrast the Reds became the first victims of the Sunwolves this season, going down 28-62 in Tokyo, and have won just once since mid-March.
Given that no Australian team has beaten a rival from across the Tasman Sea since May 2016, a 39-match losing streak, you could forgive the bookmakers if the odds are heavily stacked against the Reds.
There would be nothing sweeter for the players to cross the Tasman and become the ones who end the New Zealand sides' winning run against all Australian teams.
Tall ask? For sure, but not one that is beyond the realms of impossible.
Hurricanes scrumhalf Thomas Perenara, who has taken over the captaincy from Brad Shields for the match, spoke of how dangerous the Reds could be if afforded too many opportunities.
While the Reds have been struggling in some areas, their line-out, and the work they do off it, has been largely impressive.
What the Hurricanes will want to do is impose themselves relatively early, especially up front where the forwards took the lead against the Blues last week.
The Hurricanes remain totally focussed on finishing on top of the table at the end of the round robin and know they can go a long way to doing that by winning their three remaining games before the June international window.
Assistant coach John Plumtree spoke of the Hurricanes track record at home - where they have lost just once in their last 20 outings.
"We haven't been beaten at home for a fair while [June last year]," Plumtree said.
"We've got a proud home record so we talk about the things that make us proud of what we do, not too much about them."
2017: Hurricanes won 34-15, Brisbane
2016: Hurricanes won 29-14, Wellington
2015: Hurricanes won 35-19, Brisbane
2014: Hurricanes won 35-21, Wellington
2013: Reds won 18-12, Brisbane
Prediction: The Hurricanes have won 13 of their last 15 games against the Reds, including their last four on the bounce. The Canes have won their last nine consecutive games at home against the Reds, despite trailing at half-time in two of their last four such fixtures. The Hurricanes have won 19 of their last 20 games on home soil, including their last seven on the bounce; the last time they lost to an Australian team at home was in Round 10, 2015. The Reds have finished their last two games without losing a scrum, as many times as they had in their 11 games prior. Jordie Barrett has made 19 offloads this campaign, the second most of any back - he's made nine in his last two starts. Can the Reds win? Yes! Is it worth putting any money on? No! The Hurricanes to win by 20 points or more.
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Peter Umaga-Jensen, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Thomas Perenara (captain), 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Michael Fatialofa, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 James O'Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Brad Shields, 21 Jamie Booth, 22 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 23 Julian Savea.
Reds: 15 Hamish Stewart, 14 Filipo Daugunu, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Duncan Paia'aua, 11 Jordan Petaia, 10 Jono Lance, 9 Ben Lucas, 8 Scott Higginbotham (captain), 7 George Smith, 6 Angus Scott-Young, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 Jean-Pierre Smith.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Ready, 17 Sef Fa'agase, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Harry Hockings, 20 Liam Wright, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Izaia Perese, 23 Aidan Toua.
Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: James Doleman (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Saturday, May 19:
Sunwolves v Stormers
(Mong Kok Stadium, Hong Kong - Kick-off: 13.15; 05.15 GMT; 07.15 SA time)
Many pundits have said it is just a matter of time before the Sunwolves win their first match and throw off the shackles.
They broke their duck last week and may just play with more freedom.
The Stormers, in contrast, have been urged to be 'more conservative' if they are to keep their diminishing play-offs hopes alive.
It is expected that temperatures will soar into 30 degrees centigrade, with a very high level of humidity.
South African teams struggle with these conditions and the Stormers may be tempted to play without the ball and rely on their defence.
"The Sunwolves have been playing well the whole season and have been unlucky at times," assistant coach Paul Treu said.
"They will be confident after their win [against the Reds].
"They play a hard, physical and intense game, and I think we are going to see a lot of rugby played.
"We need to be smart about how we approach the game and how we are going to play it."
Stormers' coach Robbie Fleck added that there is no chance of "arrogance" or overconfidence from his side.
"I think the last two years when we have come over [to Asia], we have been a little bit, dare I say, arrogant," Fleck said.
"We thought it would be one of those things where we work through the game and we win it," he added.
"But we understand that they are very much a different side and they are a difficult opposition.
"The way the Sunwolves have played in their last two games certainly shows how far they have come.
"They have only won one game but they are a better side than they were in the last two years.
"There is a lot of respect there and we are going to have to be very smart in the way we play against them."
2017: Stormers won 52-15, Cape Town
2017: Stormers won 44-31, Singapore
2016: Sunwolves and Stormers drew 17-all, Singapore
2016: Stormers won 46-19, Cape Town
Prediction: The Stormers are undefeated in their four previous meetings with the Sunwolves, including a 52-15 win when they last met - the biggest win in the short history of the fixture. The Sunwolves will be hunting for back-to-back Super Rugby triumphs for the first time after blowing away the Reds 63-28 in Round 13, their biggest ever win in the competition. The Stormers have lost their last six games outside South Africa; the last time they won outside their home nation was in Round 5, 2017 against the Sunwolves. The Japanese club has a line-out success rate of just 82 percent this campaign, the lowest of any team in the competition. Damian de Allende has made 143 carries this campaign, the second most of any player and the most of any back, while only Akira Ioane (55) has beaten more defenders than the Stormers centre (48). The Stormers received their wake-up call against the Chiefs last week and should be too good for the Sunwolves - winning by about 15 points.
Sunwolves: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Kenki Fukuoka, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Michael Little, 11 Akihito Yamada, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Willem Britz, 7 Edward Quirk (captain), 6 Michael Leitch, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Takuma Asahara, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Shintaro Ishihara.
Replacements: 16 Jaba Bregvadze 17 Craig Millar, 18 Hencus van Wyk, 19 Uwe Helu, 20 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 21 Yutaka Nagare, 22 Yu Tamura, 23 Jason Emery.
Stormers: 15 Sarel Marais, 14 Seabelo Senatla, 13 Johannes Engelbrecht, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Cobus Wiese, 6 Kobus van Dyk, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Chris van Zyl (captain), 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Ramone Samuels, 1 Jacobus Janse van Rensburg.
Replacements: 16 Siyabonga Ntubeni, 17 Carlu Sadie, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Jan de Klerk, 20 Siyamthanda Kolisi, 21 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 22 Paul de Wet, 23 EW Viljoen.
Referee: Nicholas Berry (Australia)
Assistant referees: Shuhei Kubo (Japan), Tasuku Kawahara (Japan)
TMO: Minoru Fuji (Japan)
Blues v Crusaders
(Eden Park, Auckland - Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT)
The Crusaders are heavily favoured by bookmakers, but Crusaders assistant coach Ronan O'Gara is not buying into that.
The former Irish international saw enough of the Blues in their loss to the Hurricanes last week to be wary of the team stuck at the bottom of the New Zealand conference.
Sonny Bill Williams made a massive impact on his return last week and O'Gara said there were 'certain things certain players could do', just as Israel Folau had done for the Waratahs against the Crusaders a week earlier.
The Crusaders received a timely boost with the return of All Black captain Kieran Read.
O'Gara said Read's arrival at practice this week was just a step along the road on his return to playing and there was no clear idea of when he would be available for selection.
"It's just a very slow burner at this stage," O'Gara said.
"There's a plan in place but with long-term injuries the plan has to be pretty flexible but I think [seeing him at training] it did give all the boys a bit of a lift," he said.
Blues coach Tana Umaga, who was reappointed for a further 12 months, felt his team is close to getting that big win.
"We are in the results business," Umaga said.
"Believe me, no-one at the Blues right now is happy with where we are at, but everyone has bought into our plan, believes in it and works so hard every day to perform.
"There are significant parts of every game where we are achieving that, and just a few basic things that let us down and convert those tight games into positive results."
2017: Crusaders won 33-24, Christchurch
2016: Crusaders won 26-21, Auckland
2016: Crusaders won 28-13, Christchurch
2015: Crusaders won 34-11, Auckland
2015: Crusaders won 29-15, Christchurch
Prediction: The Crusaders have won their last six games on the bounce against the Blues, the longest winning streak in the history of the fixture. Indeed, the Crusaders have won on their last two visits to Eden Park, having won there just once in their four visits prior. Each of the Blues' last five games has been won by the away team on the day, though the Auckland side has won just twice in that time. The Crusaders have missed the fewest tackles per game this season (19), and have the highest tackle success rate (86 percent). Akira Ioane has beaten 55 defenders in this campaign, more than any other player in the competition. It might be tighter than the 12-point handicap the bookies are giving the Crusaders. They should win, but only by seven points.
Blues: 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Orbyn Leger, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu (captain), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Dalton Papalii/Murphy Taramai, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Matiaha Martin, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ross Wright, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Ben Nee-Nee, 20 Murphy Taramai/Antonio Kiri Kiri, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Dan Kirkpatrick, 23 Michael Collins.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Cam Stone (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports