JON CARDINELLI looks ahead to the first four Vodacom Super Rugby clashes in round one, including the big Kiwi derbies in Hamilton and Auckland.

CHIEFS vs HIGHLANDERS, Hamilton (Friday, 8:35am)

The upcoming World Cup will have an impact on Super Rugby team selections – especially in New Zealand. Players will be managed carefully to ensure that they peak at the business end of the Sanzaar tournament and at the World Cup itself.

One can only hope that the South African franchises follow suit and look after the Springbok players on Rassie Erasmus’ World Cup long-list.

The first fixture of the 2019 Super Rugby tournament will see several All Blacks missing from action and a couple of key Test players starting from the bench. The Chiefs are without their skipper Sam Cane – who is still recovering from a neck injury sustained in a Test against the Boks last year – as well as the mercurial utility back Damian McKenzie (ankle strain).

Lock Brodie Retallick will lead the team in Cane’s absence while flyhalf Orbyn Leger is one of four players set to debut for the Chiefs. The backline boasts a young look, but coach Colin Cooper may introduce the 35-year-old Stephen Donald – who famously kicked the winning penalty in the 2011 World Cup final – in the second stanza. Donald has rejoined the Chiefs due to the number of injuries they’ve suffered in the No 10 position.

Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger has omitted All Blacks Waisake Naholo and Liam Squire from the match 23 and opted to start Aaron Smith from the bench. Now that Lima Sopoaga is furthering his career in England, Mauger will have to settle on a replacement at flyhalf. Josh Ioane will start the game at No 10 while Bryn Gatland is likely to get some game time in the second stanza.

The Highlanders have a tough draw in the sense that they will play six New Zealand derbies in the first nine rounds. An away win in the opener would provide them with some momentum, and the fact that Cane and McKenzie are missing from the Chiefs lineup will help the visitors’ cause.

According to Opta, the Highlanders averaged 143 tackles per match last season in Super Rugby, the most of any team. They were less successful against the Chiefs, though, finishing the round 17 match with a 74% tackle success rate.

This promises to be a high-paced contest from start to finish. The Highlanders bench may prove the difference in the final 20 minutes, though.

Stats and facts

o The Chiefs have won their last three games against the Highlanders.

o The Highlanders have won on two of their last three visits to Waikato Stadium, picking up a losing bonus point in their only loss in that span.

o Each of the last 14 New Zealand derbies has been won by the team leading at half-time on the day, with each of the last six seeing the home team triumph.

Chiefs – 15 Shaun Stevenson, 14 Bailyn Sullivan, 13 Tumua Manu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Etene Nanai-Seturo, 10 Orbyn Leger, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Tyler Ardron, 7 Lachlan Boshier, 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Michael Allardice, 4 Brodie Retallick (c), 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Atu Moli.
Subs: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Jesse Parete, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Ataata Moeakiola.

Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (co-c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Thomas Umaga- Jensen, 11  Tevita Li, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Luke Whitelock (co-c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Jackson Hemopo, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Ayden Johnstone.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Dillon Hunt, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Patelesio Tomkinson.

ALSO READ: 15 Super Rugby backs to watch

BRUMBIES vs REBELS, Canberra (Friday, 10:45am)

Aussie derbies haven’t exactly set the rugby world alight in recent years. That said, both of the teams involved in this Australian conference opener will be desperate to bank four log points and build some momentum.

The Brumbies may feel that they have the set piece to trouble the Rebels. They certainly have the means to unsettle the Rebels at the breakdowns. David Pocock topped the jackal stats last year with 2.5 turnovers won per game – and was one of the few shining lights in an otherwise forgettable season for the Wallabies.

It will be interesting to see how the Brumbies respond if they don’t have everything their own way at the gainline and rucks. The Rebels come into this clash with a backline that boasts size and skill aplenty.

Quade Cooper has joined the franchise and reunited with Will Genia in the halfbacks. Cooper and Genia were at the centre of the Reds’ emphatic Super Rugby title triumph in 2011.

Stats and facts

o The Rebels have won four of their last six games against the Brumbies, including their last two on the bounce.

o The Brumbies have earned four wins in their last five games, more than they had accrued in their 14 games prior.

o The Rebels have won their season-opening fixture in five of their last six Super Rugby campaigns, their only blemish a 56-18 loss to the Blues in round one of the 2017 tournament.

Brumbies – 15 Tom Banks, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Irae Simone, 11 Toni Pulu, 10 Christian Lealiifano (c), 9 Joe Powell, 8 Lachlan McCaffrey, 7 David Pocock, 6 Rob Valetini, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 James Slipper
Subs: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Scott Sio, 18  Leslie Leuluaialii-Makin, 19 Blake Enever, 20 Peter Samu, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Wharenui Hawera, 23 Andy Muirhead.

Rebels – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty (c), 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Tom English, 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Richard Hardwick,  6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Matt Philip, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Anaru Rangi, 1 Tetra Faulkner.
Subs: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Matt Gibbon, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Esi Ha’angana, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Rob Leota, 22 Michael Ruru, 23 Semisi Tupou.

ALSO READ: 15 Super Rugby forwards to watch

BLUES vs CRUSADERS, Auckland (Saturday, 8:35am)

The Crusaders won the Super Rugby title three times in a row between 1998 and 2000. As a young loose forward, Scott Robertson was part of the side that lay the foundations for a dynasty, featuring in each of those successful campaigns.

Two decades later, and Robertson has the opportunity to coach the Crusaders to a third successive title. The Crusaders have been dominant across the past two seasons and will go into the 2019 tournament as favourites to win another trophy.

They’ll be up against the worst side in the New Zealand conference this Saturday. The Blues have not only battled against the Crusaders in recent years, but against Kiwi teams in general.

In fact, the Blues’ woeful defence was exposed by most teams as they finished the 2018 conference stage with 509 points and 66 tries conceded – the second worst defensive record in the 15-team competition.

The Crusaders were the best-balanced unit on show in 2018. One can’t see the Blues living with the Crusaders attack this Saturday – even though the Crusaders tend to start a campaign slowly and only really hit their stride mid-tournament.

The Crusaders scored the second-most points (542) and the joint-most tries (77) during the conference phase last season. They were especially clinical during the final quarter of matches, and it’s during this period where they may put the Blues to the sword and secure a valuable bonus-point win away from home.

Stats and facts

o The Crusaders have won their last eight games against the Blues, restricting the Auckland-based side to fewer than 20 points on five occasions in that time.

o The Blues have earned just one competition point from their last three home games against the Crusaders. Their last home victory against the Christchurch-based side was in February 2014.

o The Blues ran out to a 39-16 victory over the Reds in their final home fixture last year. They will be searching for back-to-back home victories for the first time since April 2017.

Blues – 15 Michael Collins, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Ma’a Nonu, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Otere Black, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (c), 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Subs: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Matt Matich, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.

Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Manasa Mataele, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Tom Sanders, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Will Jordan.

WARATAHS vs HURRICANES, Sydney (Saturday, 10:45am)

The Waratahs racked up some impressive attacking stats in 2018. The team scored the most points during the conference phase (557) while Bernard Foley made more clean breaks than any other flyhalf (19).

The numbers in the win and loss columns tell a story, though. The Waratahs won six and lost nine, the bulk of those wins coming against Aussie opposition.

The fourth-placed New Zealand side, the Highlanders, won 10 matches and finished on the same number of log points as the Australian conference winners.

The Waratahs ranked 10th for tries conceded last year. The Hurricanes will travel to Australia this week without All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett – who has been away on his honeymoon. Nevertheless, one would expect the Kiwi side to breach the Waratahs defence and come away with a win.

The Waratahs will need to unsettle the Hurricanes up front to have any chance of winning this clash. Foley, Karmichael Hunt and Adam Ashley-Cooper have the potential to hurt the Hurricanes defence if they receive a steady supply of front-foot ball.

Stats and facts

o The Hurricanes have won four of their last six games against the Waratahs, including their last two on the bounce.

o The Waratahs have won their last two games at home against New Zealand opposition – both against the Highlanders.

o The Hurricanes have won nine of their last 11 games in Australia. However, they’ll be aiming to avoid back-to-back defeats in the country for the first time since May 2014 after recording a 24-12 defeat to the Brumbies in their most recent fixture across the ditch.

Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Karmichael Hunt, 11 Curtis Rona, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Jack Dempsey, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Harry Johnson-Holmes.
Subs: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Rory O’Connor, 18 Chris Talakai, 19 Lachlan Swinton, 20 Will Miller, 21 Mitch Short, 22 Mack Mason, 23 Cam Clark.

Hurricanes – 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Vince Aso, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Fletcher Smith, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Ardie Savea
6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Liam Mitchell, 4 James Blackwell, 3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Chris Eves.
Subs: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Xavier Numia, 18 Ben May, 19 Isaia Walker-Leawere, 20 Du’Plessis Kirifi, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 James Marshall, 23 Wes Goosen.

Photo: Getty Images

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