A chance for a monumental back-to-back for the Stormers and pivotal games for the Reds and Jaguares are some of this week’s talking points.
1) Stormers test of consistency
Odd as it sounds coming off a big win, and one of the Stormers’ best for some time, head coach Robbie Fleck will have had his work cut out this week in training keeping his squad focused on an almighty challenge this Saturday when the Lions come to Newlands.
Johan Ackermann’s Lions are fresh off a bye and have had time to put the news of their head coach’s departure behind them, while there is also pride on the line in Cape Town in the battle to decide who is the best side in South Africa.
The Lions held an iron-like grip on that accolade at the end of last year and naturally going into 2017, but it’s safe to the say the Stormers’ win over the Chiefs has turned heads. Not only can they run the ball from anywhere – why SP Marais was let go by the Bulls is baffling – but the back row and second row are delivering, with Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Siya Kolisi in fine form.
Being odds-on favourites going into Saturday shows just how highly regarded the Stormers currently are, and there’s no catching them in Africa 1 having opened up a 17-point gap on the Cheetahs. Knock off last year’s finalists and the Stormers’ confidence will go through the roof. Having Pieter-Steph du Toit back is no bad thing either.
2) Sunwolves to test the Crusaders?
First things first, the Sunwolves will not win in Christchurch. The Crusaders are unbeaten for a reason, and rested too off their bye week, while happily welcoming back Richie Mo’unga and Kieran Read into the fold only makes the a more ominous proposition for this weekend’s opposition.
That doesn’t mean the Japanese franchise have simply flown down to New Zealand to take a hiding though – and we don’t just mean lifting cars. Filo Tiatia and his coaching staff appear to putting together constructive game plans to get the best out of their resources and it worked against the Bulls, just.
Coping with the Crusaders’ intensity around the ruck and bringing down the number of missed one-on-one tackles are priorities. But the Sunwolves have proven against the Stormers and Bulls this season that they are far from a walkover.
3) Vulnerable Reds
It’s not too early to check the time of death on the Reds’ season. High hopes, and big-name signings, have failed to formulate a successful campaign. Six losses from seven matches, and just six table points to show for those efforts, mean the pressure is right on the whole squad and coach Nick Stiles.
Especially after that horrendous second half in Canberra, shipping 33 points to nil in a defensive shambles that left Stephen Moore dismayed trying to make sense of what happened in his post-match interview.
The Reds’ defence is certainly no better than that of the Force, so to see the Kings put up over 40 points in Perth last Sunday should get some alarm bells ringing – even without the excellent full-back Malcolm Jaer this week due to injury. A Reds’ response is long overdue, but the Kings are improving. A defeat in this one might cost Stiles his job.
4) Jaguares golden chance
The Bulls might be seething from their loss in Tokyo but combine a low mood in camp with the travel factor, and the Jaguares have a great chance to go to Loftus and pull off a result.
Last weekend’s narrow defeat to the Sharks wasn’t the prettiest of games and again proved how competitive this Jaguares outfit have become in 2017, with a respectable 19 points out of their first 17 games.
Given the Sharks are on a bye, the Jaguares go to Pretoria knowing a win can take they could potentially go top of Africa 2 this weekend and into the play-off spots with the Lions at Newlands. Santiago González Iglesias at fly-half is a big call from Raul Pérez over Nicolás Sanchez but the return on the wings of Emiliano Boffelli and especially Santiago Cordero will keep the Bulls defenders very busy.
5) Hurricanes at Eden Park
Were it not for the so far perfect boot of Marty Banks then the Blues would have travelled back to Auckland buoyed by a rare win in Dunedin. Instead you get the sense that Tana Umaga is sick of seeing his admittedly young squad come up second best against their Kiwi rivals.
Still, what better chance to bounce back then at home to the champions, who weren’t quite at their best despite putting away the Waratahs last weekend, although they do admittedly welcome back both Savea brothers at Eden Park.
The Blues still have plenty to feel good about though, such as the form of scrum-half Augustine Pulu and the emergence over the last two weeks of second-row Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, who looks a handful. Get the all-singing all-dancing Hurricanes, and the Blues will struggle. If the visitors’ form hasn’t picked up however, then who knows.