PREVIEW: Super Rugby, Round 10 - Part One
Friday's action starts with an all-New Zealand derby, which pits the Blues against the Highlanders – the two lowest-placed teams in the New Zealand conference.
The Hurricanes top the Kiwi conference with 27 points, followed by the Crusaders (24), Chiefs (21), Highlanders (19) and Blues (12).
The Blues are out of the running, playing for pride only – unless something very dramatic happens. The Highlanders can still catch the leaders, but can't afford another defeat this weekend.
The other Friday match sees the Lions – neaten finalists the past two years – hot the road, a four-match tour that will define their season.
They start off against the Australian conference leaders, the Waratahs, in Sydney.
We take a look at the Friday matches!
Friday, April 20:
Blues v Highlanders
(Eden Park, Auckland – Kick-off: 19.35; 07.35 GMT)
The game starts a run of six games from seven for the Blues at Eden Park, with coach Tana Umaga wanting the team to take full advantage of being at home.
"We have been mostly on the road, with a tough two-game trip to South Africa and now a trip to Japan with a short turn-around," Umaga said of their first seven matches.
"But we are home at Eden Park in front of our fans and our families for the next few games.
"We want to make this our fortress in the coming weeks starting on Friday."
The Blues' depth has been tested this season, with 18 players out injured.
However, Umaga was adamant it should not be a factor.
"All of the teams have injuries and we are no different," the coach said.
"But it gives opportunities for other players to stand up and bring some real enthusiasm to our team.
"We have improved over the last two weeks and once again we have to step up again to another level in every facet of our game.
"Our record against other New Zealand team is well documented so we want to make to make our homecoming a special one."
The Highlanders are certainly wary of a side whose results are not a reflection of their capabilities.
"They're a good side, they've got some outstanding players," Highlanders assistant coach Glenn Delaney said if a team with just two wins in seven starts.
"Some of the results haven't necessarily gone their way, but it doesn't make them an easy proposition at all," he said.
"They've got threats across the park, they've got good structure, [Stephen] Perofeta has come back and is playing really well for them so they're a challenge and they're a team on their home patch you have to prepare very well and diligently for.
"We know it's going to be a hell of a task for us."
2018: Highlanders won 41-34, Dunedin
2017: Highlanders won 26-20, Dunedin
2017: Highlanders won 16-12, Auckland
2016: Blues won 33-31, Auckland
2015: Highlanders won 44-7, Auckland
2015: Highlanders won 30-24, Dunedin
Prediction: The Highlanders have won nine of their last 12 games against the Blues, including each of their last three on the bounce; never have they won four in a row against the Auckland club. Indeed, the Highlanders are looking for back-to-back away wins against the Blues for the first time in Super Rugby, after a 16-12 win at Eden Park last term. The Blues are winless in 14 New Zealand derbies. However, their last such win did come in a home game against the Highlanders (February 2016). The Blues have the best success rates at both the line-out (91 percent) and scrum (94 percent) this season, however, they also have the worst tackle success rate (81 percent). Three of the six players to make the most tackles this season play for the Highlanders; Luke Whitelock (90, third-most), Thomas Franklin (86, fifth) and Dillon Hunt (85, sixth). Yes, the Blues have a realistic chance, but don't your house on it. The Highlanders should win by 12 points.
Blues: 15 Stephen Perofeta, 14 Jordan Hyland, 13 Orbyn Leger, 12 Tinoai Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Dalton Papalii, 5 Jimmy Tupou, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu'ungafasi/Mike Tamoaieta, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds/Leni Apisai, 17 Ross Wright, 18 Mike Tamoaieta/Sione Mafileo, 19 Ben Neenee, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Tumua Manu, 23 Matt Duffie.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant referees: Angus Mabey, Mike Lash
TMO: Ben Skeen
Waratahs v Lions
(Allianz Stadium, Sydney – Kick-off: 19.45; 11.45 SA Time; 09.45 GMT)
The Waratahs are expecting a huge physical onslaught from the Lions, South Africa's premier team for the last three years.
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said that is the reason why he named six forwards and just two backs on the bench.
"The reasons for that is we see this game being extremely physical and we wanted to have some bigger bodies in our forward pack to cater for the big South African forward pack that will be presented on Friday," Gibson said.
"We see that while the Lions have a real strength in their scrum, we have also opted to cover some injury concerns going into this game with a bolstered [six forwards and two backs] bench.
"It's always a risk going six-two, because you're one short in the backs, but we are willing to take that risk in preparation to what we see is going to be a hugely physical encounter.
"While we are one of the smaller packs going around, we are punching above our weight and we have certainly cleaned up our vulnerabilities in terms of stopping line-out drives.
"We see that as a real strength the Lions possess, and something we are going to have to be very good in stopping on Friday,"
The visitors have won just one of their last three matches and are desperate to collect as many points as they can on the Australian leg of a road trip that will also see them take on the Reds, Hurricanes and Highlanders.
Lions coach Swys de Bruin said his charges are "fresh and ready to tour", after last week's bye.
"This year the tour is a bit more challenging," De Bruin said – comparing it to 2017 when they had a three-match tour to Australia, which started in Perth, and faced no New Zealand teams.
"There is also the additional two-hour timezone change, when we head to New Zealand."
The Lions, who travelled only on Tuesday and arrived in Sydney on Wednesday, did most of their preparation at home – in an attempt to beat the jet lag bug.
"The style they [the Waratahs] play is an all-round brand," Fe Bruin said.
"They have a good scrum. And, with the likes of [Bernard] Foley and that monster wing [Taqele Naiyaravoro], they have a balanced team.
"They have made the [step] up and it shows in their results."
2017: Lions won 55-36, Johannesburg
2015: Lions won 27-22, Johannesburg
2014: Waratahs won 41-13, Sydney
2011: Waratahs won 29-12, Sydney
2010: Waratahs won 73-12, Sydney
Prediction: The Lions have won their last two games against the Waratahs; they had won just one of eight meetings with the New South Wales side prior to that brace. The Waratahs are on a four-game winning run, the last time they went on a longer streak was a nine-game run which ended with victory in the 2014 Final. The Lions have won nine of their last 10 fixtures against Australian outfits, including their last six in a row. Taqele Naiyaravoro has the best average gain per carry (13 metres) of any player to make 25+ carries this season, crossing for seven tries across his last four outings. Malcolm Marx has won a competition-high 12 turnovers so far, 10 of which have been jackals. The Lions have an excellent chance to win – they have the talent and skills. However, their inconsistency this season – with their best performances coming against South African teams – suggest the vastly improved Waratahs will sneak a win, by seven points.
Waratahs: 15 Bryce Hegarty, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (Captain), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Tom Staniforth, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Nick Palmer, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Will Miller, 22 Nick Phipps, 23 Lalakai Foketi
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Madosh Tambwe, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Dillon Smit, 8 Hacjivah Dayimani, 7 Francois Mostert (captain), 6 Albertus Smith, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Jacobie Adriaanse, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Nicholas Groom, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Damon Murphy (Australia), Graham Cooper (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports