With four rounds left before the tournament takes a wee break, teams will be looking for winning momentum ahead of the June Tests.
It's Week 11 of Super Rugby and with four rounds left before the tournament takes a month's break, teams will be looking for winning momentum ahead of the June window.
The Blues – 27 competition points behind the table-topping Chiefs – travel to the New Zealand capital for their return clash against the Hurricanes in Friday's opening fixture.
The Aucklanders are winless since their third-round 29-23 win over the Bulls in Pretoria and desperate for victory as they battle to salvage a season in which they are running last. The Hurricanes are 10th and looking to turn around back-to-back losses to the Crusaders and Chiefs in their past two starts.
Back from a bye, the Rebels then have a tough task against the Bulls in Melbourne. The visitors have been impressive so far this season, sitting high in the overall standings and South African conference. They are also coming off a bye last week, freshening them up ideally for their trip to AAMI Park.
Hurricanes vs Blues
Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Round 11 kicks off in Wellington for an all-New Zealand clash that sees the Hurricanes looking to return to winning ways against the Blues.
The home side will wonder how they ended up losing by 19 points at the Chiefs last week as it wasn't like they had a terrible day at the office. Credit must therefore go to the men from Waikato, who were this week given a further boost to their season with the news that Wayne Smith is staying.
Smith's franchise are New Zealand's pace-setters right now and it's up to the Hurricanes to make sure there are no slip-ups against the basement boys.
The 2012 record is dismal reading for the Aucklanders as they have now lost eight out of their first nine games, with a bottom-of-the-table clash with the Lions coming up next weekend set to be a possible make-or-break game for the coaching future of Pat Lam.
Defeat would surely see a coaching change.
Lam has made a few tweaks to his arsenal for the trip to the bottom of the north island and that sees Benson Stanley reinstated to his centre position following the news he will leave for France at the end of the season. That move means Rene Ranger is back out to wing after an indifferent couple of showings in the midfield alongside Ma'a Nonu.
But the most notable switch comes at fly-half where Michael Hobbs is preferred to Gareth Anscombe after Hobbs' strong efforts off the bench in recent weeks. Let's face it, Anscombe has struggled to back-up his 29-point haul at Loftus Versfeld on March 10.
For the Hurricanes there is a sense of getting back on the horse after that defeat in Hamilton, where it was no disgrace losing to a franchise on top of their game right now. And that is why Mark Hammett has resisted making changes to his side as he wheels out the same XV for this one at Westpac Stadium.
We don't feel it will be a runaway win for the hosts, however, as Hobbs is a strong general and should combine well with Nonu and Stanley. What will be key to the Blues cause is how their pack, in particular the back-row, fairs against the 'Canes. An improved line-out would also be a major plus for Lam.
Prediction: It looks like it could be another painful defeat for the Blues. Hurricanes to get back to winning ways with a seven-point success!
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben May.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Reg Goodes, 18 Jack Lam, 19 Brad Shields, 20 Chris Eaton, 21 Charlie Ngatai, 22 Alapati Leiua.
Blues: 15 Hadleigh Parkes, 14 Rene Ranger, 13 Benson Stanley, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 George Moala, 10 Michael Hobbs, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Chris Lowrey, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Filo Paulo, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Tevita Mailau.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Angus Ta'avao, 18 Liaki Moli, 19 Daniel Braid, 20 Alby Mathewson, 21 Lachie Munro, 22 David Raikuna.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Melbourne Rebels vs Bulls
AAMI Park, Melbourne
There promises to be a new look and new style to the Rebels' back-play when they take on the refreshed Bulls in Melbourne.
Coming off a bye week after overcoming the Brumbies at Loftus, the rest will have been the perfect tonic for the South African conference hopefuls. However, they will meet a franchise that will be experimenting with Kurtley Beale at fly-half following the premature departure of Danny Cipriani.
Spectators of Super Rugby will have seen what a boost Beale gave the Rebels last time out when he moved from 15 to 10 in place of a poor Cipriani. Returning to England for another shot at the international 10 jersey seems unlikely to eventuate for the soon-to-be Sale Shark as he hasn't covered himself in glory in Australia. Indifferent performances have meant the Rebels have not put up much of a fight to halt his path out of the AAMI door.
The facts are that the Rebels are missing an injured James O'Connor so had they been desperate to keep their playmaker, they possibly could've done.
The Melbourne outfit, who also come off a bye week, do have Stirling Mortlock back albeit on the bench. Having the former Wallaby star back is a big boost for the hosts, who's casualty list continues to grow with the aforementioned O'Connor sidelined along with Jarrod Saffy.
Without O'Connor, Beale is set to kick for goal and it should be a real boost to their attacking options.
Consistency in selection and a moving exit door is not an issue for the visiting Bulls though as they arrive in Melbourne with a system they know and trust to the maximum. What that gives them as a squad is massive confidence and the return of Flip van der Merwe is just another string to their bow.
With the bye-week Stormers guaranteed their four points this week, Frans Ludeke will be looking to close the gap on the conference leaders to three points courtesy of a bonus-point win and with players returning to form like Morne Steyn and Francois Hougaard while CJ Stander continues to impress, victory should be theirs.
The Bulls are also given a fillip that the in-form Dean Greyling has recovered from his bruised shoulder to return at prop.
Greyling will look to get amongst Rodney Blake early on and if both he and Werner Kruger can get the upper hand at scrum-time – with Juandre Kruger alongside Van der Merwe in the engine room – that will free up space for Pierre Spies and company while giving Hougaard and Steyn good front-foot ball.
Prediction: The visitors have been looking like their old selves lately, which is a daunting prospect for the Melbourne Rebels. Bulls by 14!
Rebels: 15 Julian Huxley, 14 Mark