PREVIEW: Super Rugby, Round 13 - Part One
You have to take with a pinch of salt all the plaudits that have come South Africa's way in the wake of new reports that more teams from the Republic are casting an eye towards the lure of Europe.
Chiefs coach Colin Cooper had a slightly different take on the situation, telling South African media that their country's teams – and New Zealand especially – had benefited from their participation in Super Rugby.
Cooper said he couldn't imagine the competition without South Africa.
He admitted the travel factor was a "negative" in the competition, but was confident SANZAAR could organise it so that the travel was not so much of a factor.
"I think all the South African teams are playing a more balanced game," Cooper said.
"They are still using their set piece well, but there is also expansiveness now.
"I think South African rugby is looking good and exciting."
Cooper added that as well as being more expansive the South African teams were starting to travel better.
"We saw how the Sharks nearly beat the Hurricanes in Napier," he said.
"In the past, the travel factor has been a hindrance to South African teams, but they're getting better and better.
"However, their expansive game is the real edge that they are bringing now," he said.
There are two games where the New Zealand versus South African rivalry will be on display this week, both on Saturday – the Highlanders travelling back from South Africa after a big hiding to the Sharks, to host the Lions in Dunedin and Cooper's Chiefs travelling to South Africa to take on the Stormers in Cape Town.
But first, we have a few other games to look forward to.
We take a look at the weekend's first three matches!
Friday, May 11:
Blues v Hurricanes
(Eden Park, Auckland – Kick-off: 19.35; 7.35 GMT)
While the Blues are desperately hoping for another win, in what will be their first against New Zealand opposition in 2018, the Hurricanes unveiled their future – an excellent mix of continuity and fresh ideas in their coaching ranks for 2019.
Forwards coach Richard Watt and scrum coach Dan Cron have committed to the 2019 group, alongside next head coach John Plumtree and assistant Jason Holland.
Joining the quartet will be All Black Carlos Spencer, who will take on the role as assistant coach.
Plumtree was delighted to be able to lock in the coaching staff so early to enable them to concentrate on the remainder of the 2018 season and the work required to give the Hurricanes the best possible chance of winning the Super Rugby title.
He believed the work the coaching staff were doing at the moment would only be enhanced with Spencer's involvement.
"I've worked with Carlos in South Africa, when I was at the Sharks, and I was impressed with him from what I saw then," he said.
"He has carried on that good work, not only in South Africa but in Japan, and I really look forward to working with him again. Everyone that I've spoken to about Carlos and the way he operates has impressed me and he is really positive about joining the group and the franchise."
Spencer said he had long held an ambition to return to New Zealand and coach in a full-time capacity and was delighted to be afforded an opportunity with the Hurricanes.
"We are all moving in the same direction from the conversations I've had with Plum and I'm sure we will continue to reach and carry on the high standards the Hurricanes franchise demands."
Meanwhile, Blues coach Tana Umaga was pleased to welcome back Sonny Bill Williams, which allowed Rieko Ioane to move from the midfield back to his preferred position on the wing.
Right now the Blues need others to be working Ioane into space, not Ioane working others into space.
They need him free, unrestricted and playing on the wider reaches of the field rather than in the heavy traffic.
Ioane, being as gifted as he is, has made a reasonable fist of things at inside centre.
But that's the hallmark of hugely talented players with broad skill sets – they can be thrown almost any jersey and make a high impact contribution.
Ioane has shown that yes he can play the role of straight-running midfielder, but everyone is going to be a lot happier seeing him return to the more natural place of free-spirited wing.
2017: Hurricanes won 28-24, Auckland
2016: Hurricanes won 37-27, Wellington
2016: Hurricanes won 23-19, Auckland
2015: Hurricanes won 29-5, Auckland
2015: Hurricanes won 30-23, Palmerston North
Prediction: The Hurricanes have won their last five games against the Blues, three of those victories coming at Eden Park. The Canes have won their last four games against sides in the New Zealand conference, only once before have they won five such games on the bounce. The Blues are winless in 15 games against New Zealand-based opposition, although 10 of their defeats in that run have come by single-figure margins. The Blues enjoy 17 minutes and 27 seconds of time in possession per game this season, more than any other squad in the competition. Beauden Barrett has provided three try assists via kicks this season, more than any other player in the competition. The Blues' losing streak against Kiwi opposition looks set to continue – the Hurricanes to win by about 15 points.
Blues: 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Rieko Ioane, 13 Orbyn Leger, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu (captain), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ross Wright.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Ben Nee-Nee, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Jonathan Ruru/Sam Nock, 22 Dan Kirkpatrick, 23 Melani Nanai.
Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields (captain), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 James O'Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 Michael Fatialofa, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Thomas Perenara, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Jordie Barrett
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill & Paul Williams
TMO: Ben Skeen
Saturday, May 12:
Sunwolves v Reds
(Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo – Kick-off: 12.05; 13.00 AEST; 03.00 GMT)
The Sunwolves can't be blamed if they felt they have a chance to end their winless run this season.
There is little doubt the Reds have been more than just distracted by off-the-field developments – or rather the lack of developments in terms of their player resources.
Waratahs star Israel Folau and equally controversial Quade Cooper have been at the centre of the media headlines in Australia.
Folau has reportedly spoken with Reds coach Brad Thorn about a potential switch to the rival Super Rugby franchise next season.
The Reds boast a number of players not being used by Thorn, while triple-figure salaries that could accommodate a player of Folau's stature.
Quade Cooper, Karmichael Hunt and Nick Frisby are all contracted to the Reds at a high cost, while not currently part of Thorn's plans.
According to reports, the Reds are desperate to offload them to other teams to clear up some much-needed funds.
In a statement Reds coach Brad Thorn, who told Cooper at the start of the season he was not required to train with the main squad, said the 70-Test Wallaby was free to leave the franchise.
"If there was an opportunity for Quade at another Super Rugby franchise, we wouldn't stand in his way," Thorn said.
The problem is that Cooper has a six-figure a season deal with the Reds until 2019, meaning he is free to play club rugby on a franchise and Australian Rugby Union salary.
In short, he is on a paid holiday.
Thorn's decision to back no-name brand youngsters have been applauded, but has not brought many rewards… yet.
The Reds are in 12th place with four wins from nine starts.
The Sunwolves must feel they have a shot at breaking their 2018 duck.
2016: Reds won 35-25, Brisbane
Prediction: This will be just the second meeting between these sides and their first in Japan; the Reds won 35-25 at Suncorp Stadium in their previous clash. The Sunwolves are yet to win against Australian opposition, they're the only nation they're yet to beat in Super Rugby. The Reds have lost 20 of their last 22 games outside Australia, although one of their two victories in that run came earlier this season. The Sunwolves (8.7) and Reds (9.4) have conceded fewer penalties and free-kicks per game than any other teams so far this campaign. Filipo Daugunu has crossed for a try in three of his last four games away from home for the Reds. You almost wantn to back the Sunwolves, the obnly winless team in the competition. And they do have a realistic shot. But the Reds should win by eight points.
Sunwolves: 15 Semisi Masirewa, 14 Kenki Fukuoka, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Michael Little, 11 Hosea Saumaki, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Yutaka Nagare, 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Edward Quirk, 6 Michael Leitch, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Wimpie van der Walt, 3 Takuma Asahara, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Craig Millar.
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Shintaro Ishihara, 18 Hencus van Wyk, 19 Uwe Helu, 20 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Yu Tamura, 23 Jason Emery.
Reds: 15 Hamish Stewart, 14 Filipo Daugunu, 13 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 12 Samu Kerevi, 11 Jordan Petaia, 10 Jono Lance, 9 Ben Lucas, 8 Angus Scott-Young, 7 George Smith, 6 Adam Korczyk, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 James Slipper (captain).
Replacements: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Harry Hoopert, 18 Sef Fa’agase, 19 Harry Hockings, 20 Liam Wright, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Duncan Paia’aua, 23 Aidan Toua.
Referee: Egon Seconds (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Akihisa Aso (Japan), Kawara Tasuku (Japan)
TMO: Minoru Fuji (Japan)
Crusaders v Waratahs
(AMI Stadium, Christchurch – Kick-off: 17.15; 15.15 AEST; 05.15 GMT)
The word desperate is the epitome of the Waratahs – Australia's best team, who lost to New Zealand's lowest-ranked side last week.
Jason Ryan, Crusaders forwards coach, rather than looking at the three-year winless streak of Aussie teams against their counterparts across the Tasman Sea, feels that desperation will grow with every match.
He suggested that losing streak will be broken at some stage and he doesn't want it to be against his team this coming weekend.
"The media are not doing us any favours, writing them off," Ryan said, when asked about the Aussie teams' losing streak to Kiwi opposition.
He felt the Waratahs have a very good forward pack, one which could trouble the Crusaders.
"They bring huge physicality," he said, adding: "They have six Wallabies in their forward pack."
Waratahs flyhalf Bernard Foley said his side needed composure at crucial moments – something that was lacking against the Blues last week.
Success against the defending champions and competition front-runners on Saturday would require the Waratahs to be on top of their game, Foley told rugby.com.au.
"You know Kiwi sides are really dangerous in turnover and set piece [play]. They'll hurt you too, if you're not switched on," he said.
Facing the Crusaders would be a great challenge and the lesson of their respective losses to the Lions and the Blues was that they had to rise to the challenge.
"We know what's ahead of us and we've got to do the unthinkable," he said.
2017: Crusaders won 41-22, Sydney
2016: Crusaders won 29-10, Christchurch
2015: Waratahs won 32-22, Sydney
2014: Waratahs won 33-32, Sydney (Final)
2013: Crusaders won 23-22, Christchurch
Prediction: The Crusaders have won 13 of their last 15 games against the Waratahs, including eight wins in a row at home to the NSW outfit. The Crusaders have won 19 of their last 20 home games, including their last 13 in a row, their best run since winning 14 on the bounce from 2009 to 2011. The Crusaders' last four home defeats have all come against New Zealand opposition; they've lost just two of their last 69 at home against franchises from outside New Zealand. The Waratahs continue to boast the best goal-kicking accuracy in the competition, piloting 87 percent of attempts through the uprights. Taqele Naiyaravoro has scored three tries in his previous two encounters with the Crusaders. Can the Waratahs win? Yes! Will they win? NO! The Crusaders to win by as much as 20 points.
Crusaders: 15 George Bridge, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Manasa Mataele, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Pete Samu, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Donald Brighouse, 19 Mitchell Dunshea, 20 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Cam Clark, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Will Miller, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Ned Hanigan, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Shambeckler Vui, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Lalakai Foketi, 23 Bryce Hegarty.
Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports