PREVIEW: Super Rugby, Round Nine - Part One
Last week Blues captain James Parsons leapt to the defence of coach Tana Umaga.
This week Umaga put up his own defensive wall, in the wake of another defeat.
Umaga is the first to admit that the Blues are in a heap of trouble.
"It's not good enough," the coach said.
"We've got to make the playoffs – that's a bare minimum. That's what we're striving for and the sole measurement of success.
"We can't beat around the bush. We're going to develop players, and we know we've got some good pathways, but we want them coming into an environment that's all about success."
The calls for Umaga's head has developed into a mass choir.
Only victory will silence the lynch mob.
We take a look at the weekend's first three matches!
Friday, April 13:
Hurricanes v Chiefs
(Westpac Stadium, Wellington – Kick-off: 19.30; 07.30 GMT)
Both teams required late scores – the Hurricanes well into referee's additional time – to win last week.
The Chiefs got home with a late penalty try against the Blues, while the Hurricanes went deep into injury time to score their win over the Sharks.
Hurricanes assistant coach Jason Holland spoke of aspects of their game that were 'pretty average' against the Sharks.
The biggest problem was their inability to exit from their own half.
"I thought there were three or four key areas in the game where we couldn't get the rest of our game going, so we've reviewed all that and hopefully we'll get a better performance on Friday," he said.
Chiefs coach Colin Cooper spoke of the ability of senior players to remain calm under pressure as being key against them.
Cooper pointed to All Black Sam Cane as a key member of the leadership group.
"To me, that was the difference," he spoke of their ability to remain composed.
"I've got a bunch of leaders in the group that dig deep and their experience and their calmness really showed in that second half," he said.
"To see Sam in charge to bring the waka home, it was just a fantastic effort by the players," he Cooper added.
Cooper said that the team is in a good space.
"There is real clarity, consistency of game plan and of selection, and competition going on in the group. When you combine all of that with winning, it gives you confidence."
Cooper is aware of what the Hurricanes can bring.
"Strategically, we understand that they are very expansive, with a good kicking and running game.
"We need to have the confidence to play our game when we have the ball. It's important to do the work in the week and then when it comes to the game to be calm and controlled about it."
2017: Chiefs won 17-14, Wellington
2017: Chiefs won 26-18, Hamilton
2016: Hurricanes won 25-9, Wellington (semifinal)
2016: Chiefs won 28-27, Wellington
2015: Hurricanes won 21-13, New Plymouth
2015: Hurricanes won 22-18, Wellington
Prediction: Six of the last seven games between the Hurricanes and Chiefs have been decided by a margin of eight points or fewer, with the Chiefs picking up four wins in that time. The Chiefs are on the hunt for back-to-back away wins against the Hurricanes for the first time since a three-game run from 1997 to 2001. The Hurricanes have won 16 of their last 17 games on home turf, including each of their last four. Indeed, the Hurricanes have won seven of their last eight games at home against fellow New Zealand teams; however, their only loss in that time came against the Chiefs. The Chiefs have won their last three New Zealand derbies on the bounce; the last time they won more in succession was a four-game stretch across the 2014 and 2015 campaigns. The Chiefs have won their last two games away from home, the last time they won more was a five-game streak from February to April 2016. The Hurricanes have conceded just six tries within their opposition's opening three phases of possession this campaign, fewer than any other team. The Chiefs have made more carries (126), metres (533), and clean breaks (18) per game than any other team this season. Beauden Barrett has scored 10+ points in seven of his last nine games against the Chiefs, and has provided three try assists in his last four games against them. Solomona Alaimalo has made 20 clean breaks this campaign, five more than any other player in the competition (teammate Damian McKenzie – 15). Like most New Zealand derbies it is a massive gamble, no matter who your money is on. We are backing home ground advantage – the Hurricanes to win by a single score.
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Vince Aso, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Jamie Booth, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Sam Henwood, 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 Reed Prinsep, 21 Richard Judd, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Wes Goosen.
Chiefs: 15 Charlie Ngatai, 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Damian McKenzie/Marty McKenzie, 9 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 8 Taleni Seu, 7 Sam Cane (captain), 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Tyler Ardron/Michael Allardice, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta'avao-Matau, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Aidan Ross.
Replacements: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Karl Tu'inukuafe, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Luke Jacobson, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Marty McKenzie/Tiaan Falcon, 23 Alex Nankivell.
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe & Cam Stone
TMO: Glenn Newman
Saturday, April 14:
Sunwolves v Blues
(Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo – Kick-off: 12.05; 15.05 NZ time; 03.05 GMT)
Last year's historic 48-21 win by the Sunwolves is still fresh in the mind of most.
However, the talk has been about coach Tana Umaga.
Umaga is aware that his team is facing a massive challenge, despite letting a lead slip and suffering a 19-21 loss as a result of a penalty try.
"Anything less than our effort that we put in last week [against the Chiefs] and improvements in the areas we have been trying to improve on will not get us the result we want," Umaga said.
"We're under no illusions around what we need to do – both attitude-wise and performance-wise," he said.
The Sunwolves were not a side that could be taken lightly as they had shown this year and with their clever coaching group they would be looking at ways to change things up against the Blues.
"We can't take anything for granted, the way they play one week doesn't necessarily mean they will perform the same the next week," he said.
The Sunwolves worked hard to play to their specific strengths and looked to mount a lot of pressure all over the field.
"They will be relentless at the breakdown both on attack and defence. We were better at that area this weekend just gone so we've set the standard there and our expectations are that we just keep improving," he said.
However, their injury woes continue to make life less than easy with centre George Moala and flanker Jerome Kaino both out with injuries sustained against the Chiefs. They were also struggling with the depth of their resources in the outside backs and Umaga said they were trawling the country for outside backs.
2017: Sunwolves won 48-21, Tokyo
Prediction: The Sunwolves triumphed 48-21 when these teams met in Round 17 last season, their only previous encounter. That victory was one of the Sunwolves' three previous home games against New Zealand opposition, though they have lost the other two by margins of greater than 50 points. The Blues have lost their last three games in a row, the last time they lost more in succession was a nine-game drought across the 2014 and 2015 campaigns. The Sunwolves have conceded just seven penalties per game this season, fewer than any other team in the competition. Akira Ioane has scored six tries in as many games this campaign. The Blues won't be caught asleep this time around and should win by about 15 points.
Sunwolves: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Semisi Masirewa, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Michael Little, 11 Lomano Lava, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Yutaka Nagare (captain), 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 James Moore, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Craig Millar.
Replacements: 16 Jaba Bregvadze, 17 Shintato Ishihara, 18 Nikoloz Khataishvili, 19 Wimpie van der Walt, 20 Willem Britz, 21 Fumaiki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 William Tupou.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Jordan Hyland, 13 Orbyn Leger, 12 Rieko Ioane, 11 Matt Duffie, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ross Wright, 18 Mike Tamoaieta, 19 Ben Neenee, 20 Dalton Papali'i, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 TJ Faiane.
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Shuhei Kubo (Japan), Tasuku Kawahara (Japan)
TMO: Minoru Fuji (Japan)
Rebels v Jaguares
(AAMI Park, Melbourne – Kick-off: 15.15; 05.15 GMT; 02.15 Argentina time)
The Rebels, coming off a bye, will face an erratic Jaguares team – expecting the opposition to be all fire and brimstone.
With a loss to the Hurricanes heading into last week's bye, the Rebels are looking for a return to the winner's list before a two-week South African road trip to meet the Bulls and the Stormers.
And this Saturday against the South American visitors provides an opportunity for the Rebels to cement their position atop the Australian conference.
"What we want to do is continue to work on our game," Rebels forwards coach Joe Barakat said in an interview on the team website.
"We can easily be railroaded by thinking too much about our opponents. The common denominator that we can control is how we play.
"We expect them [the Jaguares] to come with a lot of emotional, South American, Latin blood.
"There are parts of their game we have to make sure we are able to control, and if we do that and play our football, the result will be pretty good."
After facing the Jaguares, the Rebels travel to South Africa to face the Bulls and the Stormers before returning home to tackle the challenging Crusaders.
"The win this weekend is quite crucial to us," Barakat said.
"It does begin to separate teams who could finish at the top of this competition.
"We feel this game is relatively crucial. If we play the way we want to play, the result will look after itself."
2017: Jaguares won 32-29, Melbourne
Prediction: The Jaguares picked up a 32-29 win in their only previous encounter with the Rebels in Round 17 last season. The Rebels have won three of their last four games at home, losing only the Hurricanes in that time. This will be the Jaguares third Super Rugby game in Australia, having picked up wins in Australia against the Waratahs and Rebels late last season. The Jaguares finished with a 100% scrum and line-out success rate in each of their previous two games in Australia. Will Genia has made six try assists this campaign, the second-most of any player behind Elton Jantjies (7). The Jaguars seldom travel well and at home the Rebels always raise their game. The Rebels win by eight points.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Tom English, 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Will Genia, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Richard Hardwick, 6 Ross Haylett-Petty, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Geoff Parling, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Anaru Rangi, 1 Tetera Faulkner.
Replacements: 16 Jordan Uelese, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Matt Philip, 20 Colby Fainga'a, 21 Lopeti Timani, 22 Michael Ruru, 23 Sefa Naivalu.
Jaguares: 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Ramiro Moyano, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Jeronimo De La Fuente, 11 Sebastian Cancelliere, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Martin Landajo, 8 Javier Ortega Desio, 7 Marcos Kremer, 6 Pablo Matera (captain), 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti Pagadizaval, 3 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 2 Julian Montoya, 1 Santiago Garcia Botta.
Replacements: 16 Agustin Creevy, 17 Javier Manuel Diaz, 18 Juan Pablo Zeiss, 19 Matias Alemanno, 20 Leonardo Senatore, 21 Gonzalo Bertranou, 22 Bautista Ezcurra, 23 Joaquin Tuculet.
Referee: Nicholas Berry (Australia)
Assistant referees: William Houston (Australia), Graham Cooper (Australia)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
Compiled by Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports