Super Rugby preview: Friday

Date published: April 19 2012

We've already reached Round Nine of Super Rugby this season, with plenty of teams still making a strong push for a play-offs berth.

We've already reached Round Nine of Super Rugby this season, with plenty of teams still making a strong challenge for a play-offs berth.

None more so than the previously unbeaten Stormers, who finally tasted defeat in 2012 after falling to the Crusaders last weekend but they certainly weren't disgraced.

Defeat ended their six-match winning streak and saw the South African conference leaders drop to second place on the overall table behind the Chiefs.

Friday's match against the defending champion Reds in Brisbane is of considerable importance to both teams as the tournament reaches the midpoint of its 18-match regular season.

The Reds need to continue the slight revival signaled by their win over the Brumbies, while the Stormers need to ensure their first false step last week does not become a more damaging stumble.

Elsewhere, the Highlanders will fancy their chances of bringing their six-match losing streak against the Blues to an end when the two Kiwi outfits battle it out at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

The southerners are coming off a bye and have won five of their seven games to be in second spot on the New Zealand conference. They haven't beaten the Blues since 2006 so a win is long overdue.

Highlanders v Blues
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin

We are midway through this year's tournament and these two sides have experienced contrasting fortunes in the 2012 Super Rugby competition.

The Highlanders will be fresh after their bye last weekend and host a Blues side who just can't buy a win at the moment.

After seven matches, the hosts are handily placed in fifth position on the overall standings with 26 points. However, they will be keen to return to the victory trail after going down to the Stormers in their last match two weeks ago.

The southerners have suffered their fair share of injuries this season, but were boosted by the return of former players Mike Delany and Hale T-Pole who will cover the fly-half and loose forward positions respectively.

But there was also a degree of sadness when it was confirmed that All Blacks scrum-half Jimmy Cowan will move to Aviva Premiership side Gloucester later this year.

As usual the Dunedin-based side will depend on All Blacks loosie Adam Thomson to get them on the front-foot in this match. Thomson has been in superb form this season and the Blues will have to keep him in check if they want to secure a crucial win.

After making the play-offs last year, much was expected from the Blues this season but things have gone pear-shaped for Pat Lam and his troops.

Despite starting the season as pre-tournament favourites, they have failed to live up to expectations and are currently in 14th position on the standings, just one point above the Lions at the foot of the table.

Their solitary victory this season was a 29-23 triumph over the Bulls in Round Three, but that result seems light years away as they subsequently lost successive matches to the Stormers, Hurricanes, Rebels and Sharks.

There were signs of improvement in their 29-23 defeat to the Sharks last week but some of their established players are woefully out of form and if they want to beat the Highlanders they need five-star performances from the likes of Ma'a Nonu, Ali Williams, Rene Ranger and Tony Woodcocock.

Prediction: The Blues will try to build on the positives which they gained from their loss to the Sharks, but we just don't expect them to beat the Highlanders on their own turf. Highlanders by seven points!

The teams:

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

Blues:15 Hadleigh Parkes, 14 George Moala, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Benson Stanley, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Chris Lowrey, 5 Filo Paulo, 4 Ali Williams, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Tevita Mailau, 18 Liaki Moli, 19 Dan Braid, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Michael Hobbs, 22 David Raikuna.

Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)

Reds v Stormers
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

The second game of the week comes from Brisbane where two franchises missing star players meet for what is a pivotal clash in terms of conferences.

Allister Coetzee's side are currently lying above the Bulls despite being level on points while the Reds are three points off the leading Brumbies.

Ewen McKenzie remains without Digby Ioane for another week while Quade Cooper is getting in extra sessions playing touch rugby with anyone he can. However, McKenzie is boosted by the return to fitness of sharp-shooter Mike Harris, who will take over the fly-half reins from youngster Sam Lane.

Despite the continued absence of key player Cooper, it is in fact the Stormers who are going into this game with the bigger chunck of their players missing. Out of the mix due to injury will be senior players Jean de Villiers and Andries Bekker, who join skipper Schalk Burger on the sidelines.

It's obvious that the effects of making that long journey from Cape Town to Dunedin to face one of the more physical teams and then going toe-to-toe against the Crusaders the following week has left the Stormers a touch battered and bruised, but they will have to wait until Round 11 for their rest.

The Reds in contrast are fresh from their bye week and will be looking for home advantage as a springboard for their campaign.

The carrot of a triumph sending them top of the Australian conference is also something that whets the appetite of the Brisbane side – the Brumbies face the Bulls on Saturday.

McKenzie will know that physicality and defence has been the Stormers' strong point this term, as the back-row combination of Duane Vermeulen, Rynhardt Elstadt and Siya Kolisi compliment young hard-man Eben Etzebeth and hard-working hooker Tiaan Liebenberg. Brok Harris has also upped his performances.

And so that leads us to the cliché of this game being set to be won up front. The likes of that aforementioned quintet and Steven Kitshoff will lick their lips at that prospect and therefore it will be a tough examination of the Reds' character, with much more expected from certain internationals.

Prediction: Despite losing their second skipper, we feel the visitors are too strong. Stormers by five!

The teams:

Reds: 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Dom Shipperley, 10 Sam Lane, 9 Will Genia, 8 Radike Samo, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Scott Higginbotham, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Rob