Super Rugby preview: Friday

Date published: June 29 2012

It's Round 16 and after a three-week break, Super Rugby is set to start up again as we enter the final stretch towards the play-offs.

It's Round 16 and after a three-week break, Super Rugby is set to start up again as we enter the final stretch towards the play-offs.

The tournament resumes at a crucial time with just three rounds left to play and a somewhat congested looking table, leaving a handful of teams fighting it out for a place in the top six.

The Chiefs (58 points), Stormers (54) and Crusaders (51) look to have all but secured their spots, while the Australian team that tops their conference will automatically qualify and the Bulls (49) should grab the fifth spot.

That leaves the Hurricanes, Sharks and Highlanders, plus the lower qualifier of the Reds and Brumbies to battle it out for the final spot.

Highlanders v Chiefs
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin

The Chiefs will try consolidate their position at the top of the Super Rugby standings when they head south to Dunedin for Friday's derby clash with the Highlanders.

The tournament leaders have lost just twice this season, and one of those defeats was to the southerners (23-19) in the opening round way back in February. The Chiefs recovered to go on a nine-match winning streak before eventually losing to the Reds, but bounced back with two wins on the trot before breaking for the June Tests.

Dave Rennie's troops will now look to dust off the cobwebs and pick up where they left off as the visitors chase a hat-trick of wins and exact revenge on their Kiwi rivals at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Another Chiefs win will secure them a play-offs spot, but they need to get past the Highlanders, Crusaders or Hurricanes over the next three rounds to make this possible – not easy when their upcoming opposition all still stand a chance of finishing in the top six.

For the Highlanders, it's do or die. Even though they remain only a point out of the play-off mix, they must overcome a red-hot Chiefs outfit and then travel to Brisbane to tackle the Reds who were beginning to find their stride in the weeks prior to the break.

They finish with a bye, a guaranteed four points which could be crucial, but it will require more than this for the Highlanders – who were smashed by the Crusaders in their last outing – to make their first play-off appearance since 2002.

Though both outfits have some fatigued All Blacks returning, the rest of their players have had three weeks to refresh – so expect plenty of energy from both sides. The two Kiwi teams have also been positive on attack all year, so expect plenty of running rugby under a closed roof.

Prediction: The Highlanders will be happy to be at home where they've won five from seven this season, however the Chiefs know how to win away from home. This will be close… Chiefs by four!

The teams:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Tim Boys, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Nick Crosswell, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (c).
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Chris King, 18 Josh Bekhuis, 19 James Haskell, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Mike Delany, 22 Buxton Popoali'i.

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

Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)

Melbourne Rebels vs Reds
AAMI Park, Melbourne

Defeat is non-negotiable for the Reds as they embark on the final stage of their Super Rugby title defence when they tackle the Rebels.

The defending champs are currently riding a three-match winning streak, and need to win their remaining matches for a chance to reach the play-offs – one slip-up will see them miss out.

They are clear second in the Australian conference on 44 points and ninth overall. To make the 2012 finals, the Reds will need to see off the Rebels (away), Highlanders (home) and Waratahs (home).

Ewen McKenzie's men have already excelled against their interstate rivals this season in Round Three, but were made to work overtime for a close 11-6 victory in Brisbane.

At home, the Rebels have proved to be a tough team to beat and their upset victory over the Crusaders in Week 11 is proof they're capable of beating anyone on their day.

Melbourne are currently fourth on the local ladder and out of the running for finals but they are looking to farewell their retiring skipper Stirling Mortlock with a win in his last home match.

So there will be plenty of emotion and they certainly won't be lacking motivation. But whether it's enough to lift the Rebels to another major upset remains to be seen.

Prediction: Both sides have been boosted by the return of key players – James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale for the Rebels, Quade Cooper and a host of other Wallabies for the Reds. On paper, it's hard to pick a winner. On form, we have to back the visitors. Reds by five!
The teams:

Melbourne Rebels: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Mark Gerrard, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Stirling Mortlock (c), 11 Cooper Vuna, 10 James O'Connor, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Gareth Delve, 7 Hugh Perrett, 6 Tom Chamberlain, 5 Hugh Pyle, 4 Cadeyrne Neville, 3 Jono Owen, 2 Adam Freier, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Rodney Blake, 18 Al Campbell, 19 Tim Davidson, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 Lachlan Mitchell, 22 Julian Huxley.

Reds: 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Anthony Faingaa, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia (c), 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Liam Gill, 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 Beau Robinson, 20 Ben Lucas, 21 Chris F'Sautia, 22 Nick Frisby.

Referee: Keith Brown (New Zealand