Super Rugby: Friday preview

Date published: July 6 2012

The race for places in the top six is still wide open as the penultimate round of Super Rugby action kicks off on Friday.

The race for places in the top six is still wide open as the penultimate round of Super Rugby action kicks off on Friday.

Eight teams are still in the running, three are on 49 points, and there are just two exciting weekends remaining before cut-off.

With a number of teams all vying for a play-offs spot at the conclusion of the regular season, this is one of the tightest finishes we've had in years.

Chiefs vs Crusaders
Waikato Stadium, Hamilton

Round 17 starts with arguably the pick of the week's games as a showdown of incredible importance will be played out between the Chiefs and Crusaders.

Dave Rennie's side are currently ten points clear of their nearest New Zealand conference rivals, with the Hurricanes a further three behind.

However, with the 'Canes guaranteed four points this weekend and then returning to face the outfit from Waikato in the final round, this group keeps on giving.

Few would bet against the Chiefs not finishing top of their conference as it would take back-to-back week implosions to allow the Crusaders to end up flying high at the summit. In our eyes we can see it being a straight shootout between the latter side and Hurricanes for second spot in the last week.

And so we arrive at this week's clash in Hamilton, with both franchises bringing in a handful of new starters that were not in the respective XV last time out.

The Chiefs have handed Sam Cane, Sona Taumalolo, Alex Bradley and Andrew Horrell a spot while Todd Blackadder is boosted by the comeback of Israel Dagg, Kieran Read and Dan Carter.

It is good to see the aforementioned Taumalolo once again handed a start as it had seemed like ever since his move to Perpignan was announced, his 1 jersey at the Chiefs had been switched for 17.

But cometh the key hours cometh the big Tongan, with Hamilton supporters hoping he continues his fine scoring form going into the business end. It doesn't bare thinking about what each-way bookies price one would have picked up for that pre-tournament.

Speaking of a punt, the betting shops cannot split these two teams on Friday which is a touch surprising following the recent hot and cold form of the visitors.

However, what impact the return of Read, Dagg and Carter will have cannot be underestimated. That trio ooze class and presence in big games. But despite the form of Ryan Crotty last week, it seems the Crusaders have missed the presence of Sonny Bill Williams, who could hurt his former side to set up what would be the unthinkable – a first Super Rugby knockout for eleven years that does not comprise of the men in red and black.

Prediction: A tough one to call but we fancy the hosts to sneak it by five!

The teams:

Chiefs: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Andrew Horrell, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Alex Bradley, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (c), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Toby Smith, 18 Romana Graham, 19 Tanerau Latimer, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Jackson Willison, 22 Lelia Masaga.

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Adam Whitelock, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Owen Franks.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Tom Donnelly, 19 Matt Todd, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tom Taylor, 22 Sean Maitland.

Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)

Reds v Highlanders
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

The Reds late push for a finals spot continues on Friday when the defending champions take on the Highlanders at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium.

After a slow start to the season it's been a case of so far so good for Queensland, who have now notched up four wins on the trot in their bid to keep themselves in the play-offs frame.

Currently locked in a five-way battle for the last two finals spots, the seventh-placed Reds (49 points) can't afford to take their foot off the gas as a loss to either one of the Highlanders or Waratahs over the next fortnight will bring their title defence to an end.

The next two matches in the Sunshine State will therefore be treated as knockout matches by Ewen Mckenzie's troops, who have the eighth-placed Sharks (also on 49 points) breathing down their necks.

“Last week's result against the Rebels has put us in a good space so it's important we build from that to put in another strong performance against the Highlanders on Friday,” said McKenzie.

“It has been seven weeks since we were last at Suncorp Stadium so we won't be lacking motivation with the result crucial to our finals fate. It's an exciting period of the season and we've proven in the past that we're a team that can step-up in the big games.

Indeed, Reds fans will be bouyed by the fact that their team have lost just one game at home all year (against the Stormers), so they'll feel confident of knocking over a Highlanders team desperate to finish their season with a bang.

The Dunedin-based side were all but knocked out of the play-off race after the 27-21 loss to the table-topping Chiefs last Friday and have a final-round bye next week.

The loss to the Chiefs has left the Highlanders – who started the season with plenty of promise – four points in arrears of the Hurricanes, Sharks and Reds and it would take something miraculous for the southerners to come back into contention.

In 2011, the Highlanders also fell flat when it counted – losing their final four matches which ruled them out of a finals spot. Fast forward a year later and Jamie Joseph's men are once again left with only pride to play for as they look to avoid three defeats on the bounce.

Prediction: The Highlanders have suffered six losses this season and all have been against teams who sit above them on the overall standings which doesn't bode well considering the Reds are four points ahead of them at the moment. They've also never won at Suncorp… Reds by six!

The teams:
Reds: 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Anthony Faingaa, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Chris F'Sautia, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Jake Schatz, 5 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Greg Holmes.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Radike Samo, 19 Jarrad Butler, 20 Ben Lucas, 21 Ben Tapuai, 22 Nick Frisby.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Mike Delany, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 James Haskell, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Nick Crosswell, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (capt).
Replacements: 16 Jason Rutledge,