Super Rugby preview: Friday

Date published: March 23 2012

We're into the fifth round of Super Rugby and only two teams remain unbeaten in what has been a tight tussle between the fifteen teams.

We're into the fifth round of Super Rugby and only two teams remain unbeaten in what has been a tight tussle between the fifteen teams thus far.

The top three teams on the overall ladder are made up of the undefeated Highlanders and Stormers, with the Reds in third after suffering their first loss of the season against the Sharks.

Only the Rebels remain winless, however have managed to avoid last place thanks to picking up two losing bonus points and four more points thanks to an early bye.

Occupying last spot are the Force, who will be looking to trade places with their Aussie rivals on the ladder when the two teams go head to head in Melbourne.

But before the battle Down Under commences, All Blacks Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu face their old team-mates for the first time in Auckland when the Blues host the Hurricanes.

The Chiefs have a bye this weekend.

Blues v Hurricanes
Eden Park, Auckland

There will be plenty of pride at stake when these two sides clash in their Kiwi derby this weekend.

Both teams are exponents of the running game and will be determined to come out on top in this battle between two of the powerhouses of New Zealand rugby.

The Blues are already at the crossroads at this early stage of the competition after some indifferent performances in their previous matches of the campaign.

The Aucklanders – who were amongst the favourites to lift the trophy at the start of the competition – have made a poor start with only an away win against the Bulls in Round Three to show for their efforts.

They started the tournament with defeats to the Crusaders and Chiefs before the win against the Bulls but last weekend they suffered another defeat against the Stormers in Cape Town.

One thing is certain. The Blues cannot give a repeat of their lacklustre performance from last week when they face this Hurricanes team, who have surprised most rugby enthusiasts with their exciting style of play this season.

Blues coach Pat Lam has been unlucky with injuries and will be without the services of captain Keven Mealamu, who left the field with a calf strain against the Stormers, as well as fellow All Blacks Jerome Kaino (shoulder), Isaia Toeava (hip) and Anthony Boric (neck).

Lam suffered another setback when flanker Luke Braid was banned for three weeks for striking Stormers youngster Nizaam Carr last weekend while another All Black, Rene Ranger is serving the second week of a two-match suspension.

The Hurricanes were amongst the favourites to finish with the wooden spoon at the start of the tournament after several high-profile players left the franchise for greener pastures.

But coach Mark Hammet's charges have surprised so far and were competitive in their opening defeat to the Stormers before registering impressive away wins over the Lions and Western Force, which made other teams in the competition sit up and take notice.

And last weekend they were desperately unlucky not to register their third successive victory when they lost narrowly to the table-topping Highlanders in Wellington.

Amongst the high-profile players who have left the Hurricanes are World Cup-winning All Blacks duo, Ma'a Nonu and Piri Weepu who will both be in the Blues' starting line-up. Nonu was surplus to Hammett's requirements at the Hurricanes and when he made the move to Auckland his good friend Weepu decided to follow him.

Plenty will be expected from them against their old team-mates and the Hurricanes will be on a high alert against their former stalwarts.

Prediction: Although both sides come off defeats, the Hurricanes are in the better position as they played their last match in Wellington while the Blues arrived in Auckland earlier this week after a strenuous journey from Cape Town. This could swing things in the visitors' favour. Hurricanes by five!

The teams:

Blues: 15 Lachie Munro, 14 David Raikuna, 13 Benson Stanley, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Rudi Wulf, 10 Piri Weepu, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Brad Mika, 7 Daniel Braid (c), 6 Chris Lowrey, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Tevita Mailau, 18 Filo Paulo, 19 Sean Polwart, 20 Gareth Anscombe, 21 Michael Hobbs, 22 Hadleigh Parkes.

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 Jack Lam, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben May/Michael Bent.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Michael Bent/Tristan Moran, 18 James Broadhurst, 19 Brad Shields, 20 Chris Eaton, 21 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 22 Charlie Ngatai.

Kick-off: 19:35 (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)

Rebels v Western Force
AAMI Stadium, Melbourne

The Rebels will be aiming to get their first win under their belts when they face a resurgent Force side in this Australian derby.

The Melbourne-based franchise are still winless after four rounds of the competition although they came desperately close to breaking their duck against the Cheetahs last weekend.

They lost that fixture 33-26 after the South African side scored a try in the dying moments of the match and will now target their clash with the Force to register their first win of the season.

The pressure is building on the tournament's newest franchise to get that elusive win or else their campaign could go from bad to worse as they still have several stronger sides to face later in the season.

A lot will depend on the form of James O'Connor, who contributed 21 points in the defeat to the Cheetahs.

The Wallaby utility back made the move to Melbourne from Perth during the off-season and will be highly motivated to do well against his former side.

O'Connor and fellow new recruit and former Waratahs star Kurtley Beale were expected to be the Rebels' saviours but things haven't panned out as many rugby enthusiasts expected.

Beale has been struggling with a leg injury and only played in one match in the campaign so far.

The Rebels have the ability to compete with the top teams, as they showed in their 11-6 defeat to the Reds two weeks ago, but failure to convert try-scoring opportunities have cost them dearly up to now. If they want to beat the Force, this is an area of their game which they must improve.

The Force surprised most enthusiasts when they beat the Waratahs 21-20 in Sydney last week to get their show on the road.

With their first win out of the way, the Perth-based franchise will be keen to repeat last week's performance to build momentum ahead of their matches against the high-riding Reds and Chiefs, which takes place on successive weekends in Perth after this encounter.

New full-back David Harvey made an impressive debut in their win at the Waratahs, contributing 16 points. And he will