A Barrett on the blindside, expectations around the Jaguares and Blues, plus questionable bye week timing for two top sides.
Here are some of the talking points to keep in mind going into Round 5 of Super Rugby.
1) Barrett at six
Not that one. And no, not that one either. Scott Barrett, often forgotten with the spotlight so often shifting to one brother (World Player of the Year, Beauden) and now a new flashy full-back brother (Jordie), has quietly started the season with conviction for the Crusaders after breaking through into the All Blacks set-up in 2016.
Now he gets a run at six, a position of course where Jerome Kaino rules the roost for the All Blacks but where the supporting cast behind feels a little thin; Liam Messam isn’t as good as a couple of years ago, Steven Luatua is too inconsistent, while Akira Ioane is still developing.
Barrett therefore might be the answer, and not just a lock stuck at six. Steve Hansen will be watching on eagerly as the Crusaders bid to not give their supporters another collective heart attack after a run of dramatic come-from-behind triumphs, hoping for smoother waters at home to the Western Force.
2) Jaguares building momentum
The excitement is quite rightly starting to build around the Jaguares as they bid for win number four out of five this Saturday at home to the Reds.
Two factors have certainly played in their favour; firstly the fact that the Lions, Cheetahs and now Reds have all sent weakened sides into the bear pit (or Jaguares pit), and also because this will be their third home game in a row, allowing the team to not only help build their fanbase but also instil plenty of confidence in what is a very talented squad.
You only have to look at the Jaguares’ bench for Saturday containing Guido Petti, Rodrigo Baez and Nicolás Sánchez to see how strong this side is, and if other teams continue to disrespectfully opt to not send their best XV down the gauntlet then the Jaguares will happily pick up the five match points and be on their way.
3) Dip in entertainment without Chiefs, Hurricanes
It is not exactly a stretch to bill the Chiefs and Hurricanes as Super Rugby’s most entertaining sides. Just think about the names on show – James Lowe, Beauden Barrett, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, TJ Perenara, Damian McKenzie, Julian Savea, Brodie Retallick, Ardie Savea… you get the picture.
But, with both of those two teams taking the weekend off the onus for entertainment falls on the rest of the 16 teams in action to deliver. Who then should we expect to pick up the baton? The Jaguares for one, also the Blues at home to the Bulls. The Crusaders possibly, despite still being hampered by injury. The Lions and Cheetahs shouldn’t be discounted.
It has to be said, having both the Chiefs and the ‘Canes on the same bye week does take away some of the fun though. Perhaps something for the SANZAAR fixture generator to consider for next season…
4) Time for the Blues to deliver
Speaking of the Blues, there was so much hype after their Round 1 clobbering of the Rebels that the following weeks (against must sterner opposition) have been disappointing.
A big defeat to the Chiefs and tight losses to the Highlanders and Crusaders have since followed, sucking the air out of the Blues’ balloon, but the visit of the Bulls to Auckland in Round 5 feels like the perfect chance to let loose. Charlie Faumuina’s return is of course a welcome sight, as much for his link play in attack as his scrummaging, but otherwise Tana Umaga has kept faith with the side who came so close to an upset in Christchurch.
Near misses will not be good enough if the Blues want to truly contend in the toughest Conference around, and if they can get the same stability off the lineout as last weekend, then the Bulls are in for a rough time. Also, pray for all live text and report writers everywhere trying to frantically write Blues and Bulls without confusing the two.
5) Kings capable of worrying the Lions?
Admittedly a long shot, but those not bothered by Ireland’s showdown with England in the Six Nations last weekend might have cast their eye to Durban, where the Kings were a Lionel Cronjé penalty miss away from stunning the previously high-flying Sharks.
Was this the sign of an off-day for the Sharks? Or is this the new Kings – a competitive outfit capable of making better-prepared sides sweat through hard work upfront and a normally reliable goalkicker?
Irné Herbst, the top tackler in Round 4, and Chris Cloete have brought plenty of bite to the Kings’ pack – not the kind related to George North – and the return of prop Schalk van der Merwe can only be a good thing. The Lions surely have too much firepower to be troubled though. At least, that was what we thought last week about the Sharks.
6 Highlanders chance to respond
It almost feels like a prank that after four rounds the Highlanders currently sit on the same number of points as the Force (five), with the Australian franchise having played one game fewer.
There was plenty of expectation around the Highlanders in pre-season but the wheels have come off since that Round 1 defeat at home to the Chiefs when the Highlanders seemed to repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot, before Seta Tamanivalu broke their hearts a week later for the Crusaders.
Patrick Osborne is back this week but there is still no Waisake Naholo and Lima Sopoaga, with both nursing hamstring injuries, handing opportunities to young wing Patelesio Tomkinson and once again Fletcher Smith at number ten, who completes a Smith triumvirate alongside more established namesakes Aaron and Ben.
Travelling to Canberra is no picnic of course, with the Brumbies stubbornly battling their way to victory over the Waratahs last weekend, but the Highlanders are too good a side to keep on occupying the bottom spots of the table. Time for a breakthrough.