PREVIEW: Super Rugby, Round 13 - Part Two
Earlier this week SANZAAR officials scrambled desperately to quell well-sourced reports that South African franchises are queuing up to make the great trek north and join a European competition.
Despite SANZAAR's best efforts to paint a picture of a 'happy family', discarded Australian Sevens coach Andy Friend has climbed on the bandwagon and criticised Super Rugby – describing it as "stale" and "tainted".
Friend, also a former Brumbies coach, was sacked after the Commonwealth Games and decided to get a few things off his chest about the Southern Hemisphere competition.
"I actually find it stale, to be honest," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"I can't understand the conference system.
"I can't understand how you can have a competition where you don't play everyone once and you can be the best of the worst, which is what we have in this country, yet you can still make a quarterfinal.
"Doesn't make sense to me… for me, it's tainted."
This comes ahead of a Saturday that will highlight the chasm in class between Australian teams and those from New Zealand and South Africa.
Part Two of our preview starts with the intriguing encounter between the Highlanders and the Lions.
That is followed by an all-Australian derby – the Brumbies and Rebels, expected to be the least entertaining fixture of the weekend.
Another intriguing and tantalising clash – between the Stormers and Chiefs – follow, before we end the weekend's action with the crucial South African derby, the Bulls and Sharks.
We take a look at the weekend's last four matches!
Saturday, May 12:
Highlanders v Lions
(Forsyth-Barr Stadium, Dunedin – Kick-off: 19.35; 09.35 SA time; 07.35 GMT)
The Lions, who have not won in Dunedin since their return to Super Rugby in 2014, will look to end a pretty miserable tour on a victorious note.
Most pundits think the Lions will have an advantage against the Highlanders, who travelled back from South Africa after a demoralising loss to the Sharks in Durban last week.
However, Lions coach Swys de Bruin has warned against expecting travel and jet lag to be a factor.
"Look at the first game [of our tour], when we travelled to the Waratahs [Sydney – a 29-0 win for the Lions]," De Bruin cautioned.
"You can never count on that [jet lag]. We are in week four [of our tour], but we have to be ready for them."
De Bruin said a win against the Highlanders will make it a very successful tour – which started with that win against the Waratahs, but was followed by defeats against the Reds and Hurricanes.
"It will mean a lot," the Lions mentor said, adding: "We haven't won in Dunedin in the new stadium."
He said the home team's 'spine' is very strong – with Ben Smith at fullback and Lima Sopoaga at flyhalf.
"They may not have the greatest record on the road, but at home, they are very tough to beat.
"We are not looking at what they are doing, because it takes your eye off the ball – we will focus on our own game."
The Highlanders received a handy boost this week with the news that one of New Zealand's brightest prospects will head south.
Promising flyhalf Bryn Gatland, the son of Wales and British and Irish Lions coach Warren, has signed for the Highlanders – who see enough potential in the 22-year-old to rate him as a possible replacement for the Wasps-bound Lima Sopoaga.
2016: Lions won 42-30, Johannesburg (semifinal)
2016: Highlanders won 34-15, Dunedin
2015: Lions won 28-23, Johannesburg
2014: Highlanders won 23-22, Dunedin
2011: Lions won 26-22, Dunedin
Prediction: The Highlanders have won five of their six home games against the Lions including their last two in a row; their solitary defeat came in 2011 at Carisbrook. The Highlanders have won their last 10 in a row at home, only once before have they gone on a longer such run (13 wins, 2000-2002). The Lions have lost their last two games, the last time they lost more was a three-game drought to open the 2015 campaign. Only the Crusaders (15) have scored more tries in the final quarter of games this campaign than the Lions (14); the Highlanders have scored just seven tries in this period. Ash Dixon has a throw success rate of 92 percent this campaign, the second best of any player to have made at least 30 throws this season. We agree with Lions coach Swys de Bruin – travel won't be a factor. The Highlanders to win by five points.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Tei Walden, 11 Tevita Nabura, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Sio Tomkinson.
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Albertus Smith, 7 Franco Mostert (captain), 6 Cyle Brink, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Johannes Jonker, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Dylan Smith.
Replacements: Jacques van Rooyen, Ruan Dreyer, Jacobie Adriaanse, Lourens Erasmus, Marnus Schoeman, Dillon Smit, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Sylvian Mahuza.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Rebels
(GIO Stadium, Canberra – Kick-off: 19.45; 09.45 GMT)
Rebels coach Dave Wessels wants his team to rediscover the attacking mojo that saw them dominate the Australian conference in the early stages of the season.
The Rebels travel to the nation's capital looking to avoid six straight defeats and will need to do so at a venue where they have won just once in five attempts.
But Wessels said he would urge his players to play with the freedom on display in the early-season run, and took some responsibility for how his players dealt with in-game adversity.
"One of the challenges for the group now is to move on from the sadness of the performance and probably being embarrassed about our performance against the Crusaders, and then being able to lift to a point where we know we can play well," Wessels said.
"It's just having the confidence in our performance is to go out there and have a go.
"One of the hallmarks of our performances earlier on was that we were prepared to be brave and prepared to make a few mistakes.
"For whatever reason, and partly because of my responses to some of those things, when we've made mistakes recently, we've gone a bit conservative.
"That wasn't the DNA we had early on. We've made a real effort to return to that this week, we want to go Canberra and have a real crack."
The Brumbies sit fourth (with a three wins and six defeats record) in the Australian conference, just six points off the Rebels in the second – making this clash all the more meaningful than just another Australian derby.
The Canberra side's three wins have come against the Sunwolves (Week Two), Sharks (Week Five) and Reds (Week Eight).
Since then it has been a difficult month for the Brumbies.
The rest of April saw a harsh defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin, and back-to-back close defeats to the Jaguares and the Crusaders, both in Canberra.
They host the Rebels off a bye and will be raring to have something to show for three consecutive home matches.
2018: Rebels won 33-10, Melbourne
2017: Brumbies won 32-3, Canberra
2017: Rebels won 19-17, Melbourne
2016: Brumbies won 30-22, Melbourne
2015: Rebels won 13-8, Canberra
2015: Brumbies won 20-15, Melbourne
Prediction: The Rebels have won three of the last five meetings between these sides, more than they'd managed in their previous nine. The Brumbies have won five of their six home games against the Melbourne side, those five wins coming by an average margin of 25 points. The Rebels' last six Australian derbies have all been won by the home side on the day. The Rebels have missed the most tackles (26) and conceded the most penalties and free kicks (13) per game of any team in this campaign. Henry Speight has scored four tries in his last four games against the Rebels, gaining in excess of 100 metres in a game twice in that time. Both teams are struggling for form – the Brumbies with four defeats (three on the trot) in their last five matches and the Rebels with six (five consecutive) defeats in their last seven matches. The Brumbies, at home, should be good enough to win by eight points.
Brumbies: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Andy Muirhead, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Rob Valetini, 7 Tom Cusack, 6 Lachlan Mccaffrey, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Folau Fainga'a, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Faalelei Sione, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Blake Enever, 20 Lolo Fakaosilea, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Jordan Jackson-Hope, 23 Lausii Taliauli.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Jack Maddocks, 14 Semisi Tupou, 13 Tom English, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Michael Ruru, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga'a, 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Adam Coleman (captain), 4 Geoff Parling, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Anaru Rangi, 1 Fereti Sa'aga,
Replacements: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Matt Philip, 20 Sam Jeffries, 21 Lopeti Timani, 22 Harrison Goddard, 23 Billy Meakes.
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Assistant referees: Will Houston (Australia), Jordan Way (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
Stormers v Chiefs
(Newlands, Cape Town – Kick-off: 15.05; 13.05 GMT; 01.05 NZ time Sunday, May 13)
The Stormers are looking to make it six straight wins at Newlands this season – following victories against the Jaguares, Blues, Reds, Rebels and Bulls.
Captain Siya Kolisi will lead a settled outfit, which features 12 players with more than 50 Super Rugby caps.
The Stormers face a Chiefs side that will be smarting from their surprise home defeat to the Jaguares.
Although All Black stalwart Sam Cane is rested at home with an abdominal strain, coach Colin Cooper has brought All Blacks Nathan Harris and Brodie Retallick.
They will be crucial if the Chiefs are to continue their good form in the fixture between the sides – the Kiwis having won five of the last seven meetings between the two teams.
"Losing Sam Cane is always going to be a loss for any team, but alongside Sam is the leadership group led by Charlie Ngatai," Cooper said.
"It has given an opportunity for a number of young men to step up and come into this contest in South Africa, which is exciting for them, and for us coaches to watch."
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said the Chiefs made a "major shift in their culture" and that made them a successful team.
"They play a certain way," Fleck said, adding: "They are an exciting team and a tough team to play against.
"The Stormers, currently fourth in the South African conference and ninth overall, have just five games left in a campaign that has stuttered along this season.
"We are in a situation where we need to win every game," Fleck said.
"We have to deliver our best performances every week.
"We are fighting hard to get back up there [in the play-off race]."
Cooper said he was taken big lessons from last week's loss to the Jaguares.
"We took a lot of learnings from the Jaguares, particularly on our attack," the Chiefs coach said.
"We know what to expect from the Stormers, and have been focussed this week.
"The team travelled smoothly and have come over here wanting to do really well.
2017: Chiefs won 17-11, Cape Town (preliminary play-off)
2017: Stormers won 34-26, Cape Town
2016: Chiefs won 60-21, Cape Town (preliminary play-off)
2015: Chiefs won 28-19, Cape Town
2014: Chiefs won 36-20, Hamilton'
Prediction: The Chiefs have won five of the last seven games between these sides, twice overturning a halftime deficit in that run. The Chiefs have lost just four of their last 27 games against South African opposition; the Stormers were responsible for two of those defeats. The Cape Town side has won nine of their last 11 regular season games when hosting New Zealand opposition, although those nine wins have come by an average margin of just eight points. The Stormers have booted 18 penalty goals this season, the equal most of any team in the competition. Damian McKenzie has made 15 break passes this season, more than any other player in the competition and six more than Stormers' best Damian Willemse (nine) and Sarel Marais (nine). Statistics suggest the Chiefs should. Fortunately for the Stormers, this game is played on grass and not paper. We feel the Stormers should with by 12 points.
Stormers: 15 Sarel Marais, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Johannes Engelbrecht, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Kobus van Dyk, 6 Siyamthanda Kolisi (captain), 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Chris van Zyl, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Ramone Samuels, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Siyabonga Ntubeni, 17 Jacobus Janse van Rensburg, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Cobus Wiese, 20 Nizaam Carr, 21 Paul de Wet, 22 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 23 Seabelo Senatla.
Chiefs: 15 Charlie Ngatai (captain), 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Tyler Ardron, 7 Liam Messam, 6 Luke Jacobson, 5 Michael Allardice, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Karl Tu'inukuafe.
Replacements: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Jesse Parete, 20 Pita Gus Sowakula, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Quinton Immelman (South Africa)
TMO: Willie Vos (South Africa)
Bulls v Sharks
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria – Kick-off: 17.15; 15.15 GMT)
Bulls coach John Mitchell said the clash with the Sharks is a "make-or-break" affair, as his team aim to end a two-match losing streak.
"We must win our remaining three home fixtures and also at least one on the road to have a chance of making the play-offs," stressed the former All Blacks coach.
Bulls are 11th on the combined standings, but only three points behind the Sharks, who occupy the last qualifying place – eighth.
Before losing to the Highlanders and Stormers, the Bulls thrashed the Sharks 40-10 in Durban – with fullback Warrick Gelant scoring a hat-trick.
"We found some consistency in the middle of the season, but lost a bit of that during the last two rounds," admitted Mitchell.
"We all know what is at stake here. We all understand the long-term vision and strategy, but short-term results are as important," Mitchell said.
"The Sharks have shown how good they can be in dismantling the Highlanders and will come for us, no doubt."
Sharks coach Robert du Preez also spoke about the need to win, given that both teams also have only six matches remaining.
"We want to play good rugby, but winning is important and we don't care how we win," Du Preez said.
"Every game is really important for us going forward and every game is massive for us.
"The pressure is just massive and the quality of the competition is much better than last year.
"Anything can happen on the day and you have to be on top of your game."
2018: Bulls won 40-10, Durban
2017: Bulls won 30-17, Durban
2016: Bulls and Sharks drew 16-all, Pretoria
2015: Bulls won 17-10, Durban
2015: Bulls won 43-35, Pretoria
Prediction: The Bulls are unbeaten in their last six games against the Sharks, restricting the Durban side to fewer than 20 points in five of those matches. The Sharks are winless in their last five trips to Loftus Versfeld, although each of those defeats has come by eight points or fewer. The Bulls have finished six of their last eight games with a 100 percent goal-kicking accuracy, missing just three of 29 attempts at the sticks in that time. The Bulls (164) have scored more first-half points this season than any other team in the competition. Robert du Preez has made eight try assists this campaign, the equal most of any player in the competition; the Sharks' flyhalf also leads the competition in total points scored (132). Probably the most difficult game of the weekend to predict. The Bulls have home ground advantage and desperate to end their losing streak. They should sneak by five points or less.
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain), 11 John-Ben Kotze, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Marco van Staden, 7 Jason Jenkins, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Rudolph Snyman, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Frans van Wyk/Nqobisizwe Mxoli, 18 Conraad van Vuuren, 19 Thembelani Bholi, 20 Nicholas de Jager, 21 Andre Warner, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Divan Rossouw.
Sharks: 15 Curwin Bosch, 14 Sibusiso Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Cameron Wright, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Jacques Vermeulen, 5 Ruan Botha (captain), 4 Tyler Paul, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Armand van der Merwe, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Mahlatse Ralepelle, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Stephan Lewies, 20 Wian Vosloo, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Marius Louw, 23 Lwazi Mvovo.
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
Assistant referees: AJ Jacobs (South Africa), Archie Sehlako (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Compiled by Jan de Koning, additional reporting by AFP
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports