JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first four matches of round 19, including the playoff-shaping fixtures in Hamilton and Melbourne.
CHIEFS vs HURRICANES, Hamilton, Friday 9:35am
The Hurricanes remain on track for a home quarter-final. It would take something special by the Chiefs this Friday – a 45-point victory – to boost them ahead of the Hurricanes in the overall standings.
That said, the Hurricanes have no reason to be complacent. There’s a good chance that these two teams will meet in the first round of the playoffs. Both sides should be looking to make a statement before then.
The Chiefs have started to hit some form. Colin Cooper’s charges have won three of their last four games. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have lost a bit of momentum, with a record of three defeats in their last four matches.
However, the Chiefs will go into this clash with a weakened lineup. Flank Sam Cane (concussion), utility back Sean Wainui (shoulder) and hooker Nathan Harris (thigh) will miss the game due to injuries. Star flyhalf Damian McKenzie and flank Luke Jacobson will be rested, while prop Karl Tu’inukuafe and Liam Messam will play from the bench.
Both sets of defences have been good this season as far as the stats on Opta are concerned. The Chiefs are ranked fourth in the tournament for tackle completion (84%), while the Hurricanes have been the best side in this area (85%).
It will be interesting to see how the respective teams go about things on attack. Both sides rank in the top five across the attacking categories, but both know how to use the boot to telling effect. The Chiefs are ranked fourth for kicks from hand, while the Hurricanes are ranked fifth.
Ngani Laumape starred for the Hurricanes in their most recent fixture against the Blues, scoring four tries. Laumape, the Barrett brothers, Nehe Milner Skudder and Ben Lam will test the Chiefs’ backline defence this week.
Stats and facts
- The Chiefs have won three of their last four regular-season games against the Hurricanes, though they slipped to a 25-13 defeat earlier this season.
- The Hurricanes have won just one of their last eight away games against the Chiefs (drawn one, lost six), scoring an average of just 16 points per game in that time.
- The Chiefs have kept their opposition scoreless in the opening half of each of their last two games, just the second team to do so this decade.
- The Chiefs have won four of their last six New Zealand derbies, with two of those four wins coming after having trailed at half-time.
- The Canes have won six of their most recent eight New Zealand derbies, including a 42-24 win over the Blues in round 18.
Chiefs – 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Charlie Ngatai (c), 11 Shaun Stevenson, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Jesse Parete, 7 Mitch Karpik, 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Tyler Ardron, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Liam Polwart, 1 Sam Prattley.
Subs: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Tiaan Falcon, 23 Johnny Fa’auli.
Hurricanes – 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Wes Goosen, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Sam Henwood, 6 Brad Shields (c), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Michael Fatialofa, 3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith.
Subs: 16 James O’Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 Gareth Evans, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Julian Savea.
REDS vs SUNWOLVES, Brisbane, Friday 11:45am
There’s not much to be gained by either side in this bottom-of-the-table clash. The Reds can’t finish any higher than fourth in the Australian conference, while the Sunwolves have already secured the overall wooden spoon.
That said, the Sunwolves are still looking for their first win away from home. They put the Waratahs under pressure in the first half of last week’s match in Sydney, but fell to pieces after conceding a red card.
The Sunwolves went down 77-25 in that fixture. One wonders if they will be up for this clash in Brisbane after suffering such a physical and mental hammering in Sydney.
Stats and facts
- Both of the two meetings between the Reds and Sunwolves have been won by the home team, with the Sunwolves picking up a 63-28 victory in their most recent encounter.
- The Reds are hunting back-to-back wins for the first time since round five after picking up a 37-23 win over the Rebels in round 18.
- There has been an average of 84 points scored per game over the Sunwolves’ last three fixtures, though only one of those games ended with a margin of greater than 10 points.
- The Sunwolves boast a goal-kicking success rate of 88% in this campaign, the best record of any team in the competition and 13% greater than that of the Reds.
- Of the three players to have attempted a drop goal this season, the Sunwolves’ Hayden Parker is the only player to have landed one.
Reds – 15 Jono Lance, 14 Filipo Daugunu, 13 Jordan Petaia, 12 Duncan Paia’aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Hamish Stewart, 9 Tate McDermott, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 Liam Wright, 6 Caleb Timu, 5 Lukhan Tui, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 JP Smith.
Subs: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Harry Hoopert, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Angus Blyth, 20 Angus Scott-Young, 21 Adam Korczyk, 22 Moses Sorovi, 23 Teti Tela.
Sunwolves – 15 Jason Emery, 14 Yoshikazu Fujita, 13 Michael Little, 12 Harumichi Tatekawa, 11 Akihito Yamada, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Yutaka Nagare (c), 8 Willie Britz, 7 Edward Quirk, 6 Michael Leitch, 5 Wimpie van der Walt, 4 James Moore, 3 Takuma Asahara, 2 Yusuke Niwai, 1 Craig Millar.
Subs: 16 Jaba Bregvadze, 17 Keita Inagaki, 18 Hencus van Wyk, 19 Kazuki Himeno, 20 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Rikiya Matsuda, 23 Ryoto Nakamura
HIGHLANDERS vs REBELS, Dunedin, Saturday 7:15am
The Sharks will be watching this match closely. A loss for the Rebels in Dunedin and a win for the Sharks – against the Jaguares in Durban – will see the latter team advancing to the knockout stage.
The Highlanders, on the other hand, don’t appear to be too bothered about the outcome of this game. Coach Aaron Mauger has made a host of changes, with All Blacks Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and Luke Whitelock, as well as flank Elliot Dixon and hooker Ash Dixon set to have a rest. Centre Rob Thompson is another who will sit out.
Will the Rebels make this chance count? They need a win on Saturday in order to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in their history. While they are yet to beat the Highlanders in Dunedin, they may be buoyed by the fact that the hosts are missing so many key players.
They will have to produce a more accurate performance on defence, though. They are currently ranked 14th in the tournament for tackle efficiency and dead last for discipline. New Zealand teams thrive off other sides’ mistakes, and will punish the Rebels if they continue to miss tackles and concede soft penalties.
Winger Waisake Naholo, centre Tei Walden and No 8 Liam Squire will be key for the Highlanders this Saturday. If these three can inspire a convincing win – by eight or more points – the Sharks will go into their clash against the Jaguares needing a straight victory to qualify.
Stats and facts
- The Highlanders have won five of their previous six games against the Rebels, including their last three on the bounce and a fixture-record 39-point win in their last meeting.
- The Highlanders are undefeated on home turf against the Rebels from three attempts, with 10 of their 16 tries in that time coming in the second stanza of games.
- The Highlanders have lost their last two games on the bounce (both 45-22); the last time they went longer without a win in a campaign was a three-game drought to see out 2014.
- The Highlanders have won their last nine games in a row when hosting teams from Australia, last losing such a fixture in round five, 2014 against the Force (31-29).
- The Rebels will be searching for back-to-back wins in New Zealand for the first time in Super Rugby after notching up a 20-10 win over the Blues in round 16.
Highlanders – 15 Josh Ioane, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 12 Tei Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Liam Squire, 7 James Lentjes (c), 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jackson Hemopo, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Aki Seuili.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Dillon Hunt, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Matt Faddes, 23 Josh McKay.
Rebels – 15 Jack Maddocks, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Tom English (c), 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Reece Hodge, 9 Michael Ruru, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Ross Haylett-Petty, 4 Matt Philip, 3 Sam Talaki, 2 Anaru Rangi, 1 Fereti Sa’aga Tetera Faulkner.
Subs: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Harrison Goddard, 22 Jack Debreczeni, 23 Lopeti Timani.
CRUSADERS vs BLUES, Christchurch, Saturday 9:35am
Scott Robertson has picked a strong side for the Crusaders’ last match before the playoffs. While the Cantabrians have already secured first place in the standings, they are clearly looking to maintain their momentum ahead of the knockout phase of the tournament.
To say they are favourites to win this Saturday is an understatement. No Blues side has won in Christchurch for 14 years, and one can’t see this outfit upsetting a Crusaders side that has dominated on attack and defence in 2018.
The Blues boast some big names in their backline and have attempted to play an attacking brand of rugby this season. Their attacking stats don’t make for good reading, though. While they have managed to hurt some teams by breaking the line and making metres, finishing has been an issue.
Will they trouble a Crusaders defence that has averaged fewer than 20 missed tackles per match (the best record in the tournament) and has conceded the fewest tries overall? One can’t see it happening.
In terms of attack, the Crusaders rank second for points scored and third for tries. They possess one of the tournament’s leading try-scorers in winger George Bridge (11).
It’s going to take something special to stop the Crusaders from winning the trophy from here.
Stats and facts
- The Crusaders have won their last seven games on the bounce against the Blues, a streak more than twice as long as any other by either team in the history of this fixture.
- The Blues haven’t won an away game against the Crusaders since 2004, losing 10 such fixtures in succession since that game.
- The Crusaders have won their last 16 home games in succession, trailing at half-time only twice in that time.
- The Crusaders have scored 20-plus points in the opening half of three of their last four New Zealand derbies, going on to win each of those four games.
- The Blues have won only one of their last 29 games against fellow New Zealand opposition (drawn one, lost 27), and are winless in their last 18 such fixtures (drawn one, lost 17).
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Quinten Strange, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Andrew Makali, 1 Tim Perry.
Subs: 16 Sam Anderson-Heather, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Donald Brighouse, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele.
Blues – 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Rieko Ioane, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu (c), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ben Nee-Nee, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 Matt Moulds, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Subs: 16 Ross Wright, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Jacob Pierce, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Tamati Tua.
Photo: Mark Tantrum/Getty Images