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Super Rugby Preview: Saturday

10th June 2011 07:50


blues v crusaders

The Crusaders and Blues play for top spot in the NZ Conference

All five matches on Super Saturday will have a big bearing on the make-up of what the top six teams will look like at the end of Round 17.

Following last weekend's upsets and five away victories, the log table is getting even more congested - especially at the top which means the final two weeks, and indeed, the final couple of matches, are going to have a major bearing on log positions ahead of the knock-out stages.

The top two will go straight through to the semi-finals with home advantage while the third-ranked team goes into the opening round of playoffs with the teams who finish fourth to sixth, currently the Crusaders, Sharks and Bulls.

Crusaders v Blues
Alpine Energy Stadium, Timaru

Fresh from a bye, the Crusaders are back in action in Timaru this week against the Blues in what is a must-win fixture for both franchises.

Sitting fourth and third respectively on the table, New Zealand's title hopefuls will be interested spectators of how the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls do on Saturday.

If the Bulls lose, both the Blues and Crusaders will have one foot in the play-offs, with a losing bonus point for either side further backing their case.

On form this one should go to the Crusaders but the unpredictability of the Blues adds a certain edge to matters.

Team news sees the wise move of Jared Payne back to full-back. The soon-to-be Ulster player has struggled in recent weeks at 13 so a shift to his more familiar slot adds solidity to the line-up. Lachie Munro is the unlucky man to miss out while Stephen Brett comes back in to lead the line. Luke McAlister and Benson Stanley are at 12 and 13.

Richie McCaw's absence this week would have usually been a hammer blow for the Crusaders but that is not the case this season as up-and-coming openside Matt Todd has proved he could well be the future All Black seven. Also boosting Todd Blackadder's arsenal is the return of Andy Ellis and Sam Whitelock.

The bookies have this one as a 'home' victory or in handicap terms, an eight-point start for the Blues, which is about right we feel in the circumstances.

No question that there will be a knock-out feel to this one - fitting following Sonny Bill Williams' most recent fight against a 43-year-old - and there's battles all over the field that will keep those ringside intrigued.

Williams against McAlister is one while Joe Rokocoko up against Zac Guildford could be a play-off in itself for a spot in the All Blacks' 30-man RWC squad. Rokocoko has a lot to prove at the moment and when better to do it than with Graham Henry in the crowd.

Prediction: Although it is difficult to see how this talented Blues group can suffer four straight losses in Super Rugby, that may well be the case on Saturday. Having their starting half-back and second-row combinations back together will bring a great deal of solidity to the Crusaders' game. Crusaders by 8!

Super Rugby betting odds: Crusaders 2/7

The teams:

Crusaders: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Brent Ward, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Luke Romano, 19 Jonathan Poff, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Matt Berquist, 22 Ryan Crotty.

Blues: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Benson Stanley, 12 Luke McAlister, 11 Rene Ranger, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Anthony Boric, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 John Afoa.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Tevita Mailau, 18 Chris Lowrey, 19 Sean Polwart, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 Lachie Munro, 22 Sherwin Stowers.

Referee: Craig Joubert

Waratahs v Highlanders
Sydney Football Stadium, Sydney

The Waratahs will be in finals mode when they tackle the Highlanders in Sydney, knowing that defeat will spell the end of their campaign.

The hosts returned from South Africa, where they picked up just two bonus points from narrow losses to the Sharks and Bulls and slipped to seventh, one spot outside semi-final contention.

Despite back-to-back losses, the Waratahs can still gain a wild card entry into the play-offs if they win their next two home games against the Highlanders and the out-of-contention Brumbies.

Of course other vital results from teams ahead of them on the ladder could fall in their favour if the Stormers beat the Bulls and the Lions beat the Sharks on Saturday. If that doesn't work, the Bulls and the Sharks play each other next weekend in Pretoria, where one of those two teams will lose out on crucial points.

But it's really all in the Waratahs' hands - if they drop a game in the next fortnight, they can kiss their play-off hopes goodbye.

"If we can win our next two games, we're still controlling our destiny," Waratahs coach Chris Hickey said.

The eighth-placed Highlanders won't be doing their trans-Tasman rivals any favours either.

After back-to-back home losses to the Lions and the Force, coach Jamie Joseph's troops must beat the Waratahs and win their final match - away to the Blues next week - to have any chance of making it into the top six.

Despite the Kiwi outfit's late season fade, Hickey still rated the Highlanders highly.

"They're the team that's made the most progress out of all the Super Rugby sides," he said.

"We know their defence is very good and they're also very competitive at the breakdown. That's an area we're going to have to compete very well at."

Prediction: The Highlanders haven't got their act together for a few games now, and whilst the 'Tahs are coming off two defeats of their own, we'll back the hosts to come good. Waratahs by nine.

Super Rugby betting odds: Waratahs 2/7

The teams:

Waratahs: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Lachie Turner, 13 Tom Carter, 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Sosene Anesi, 10 Daniel Halangahu, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Phil Waugh (c), 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Sitaleki Timani, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Al Baxter, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Pat O'Connor, 19 Chris Alcock, 20 Hugh Perrett, 21 Josh Holmes, 22 Atieli Pakalani.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Kendrick Lynn, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Siale Piutau, 10 Tony Brown, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Bronson Murray, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh. (c).
Replacements: 16 Mo Schwalger, 17 Chris King, 18 Nick Crosswell, 19 John Hardie, 22 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Robbie Robinson, 22 Telusa Veainu.

Referee: Chris Pollock

Force v Reds
nib Stadium, Perth

The Reds travel west this weekend looking to shake off the after effects of a shock defeat at home last week.

If you had to base your prediction for Saturday's result in Perth on the overall standings, the table-topping Reds would be overwhelming favourites. But if the new Super Rugby format has shown us anything, it's that there are no safe bets, especially when it comes to derbies.

Few would have expected the Reds' unbeaten run to come to an end against the Brumbies, but that game at Suncorp Stadium illustrated just why we love this ever-unpredictable competition.

Was it complacency that got the better of the Reds? It's a moot point now as Ewen McKenzie's men will know that another slip-up could cost them a home semi-final - or more.

Their task is made even more difficult by the absence of backline trio Ben Lucas, Digby Ioane and Anthony Faingaa, who all picked up injuries against the Brumbies. As a result, 20-year-old Jono Lance will make his debut at full-back. There's another teenager in the starting line-up in the form of 19-year-old Liam Gill, who starts at flank.

Those who doubt the Force's ability to cause an upset need only to look back the clash between these sides in Brisbane back in February, when the Reds needed a try in the dying minutes to edge the fourteen-man Force by a single point.

Fans in Perth will take further encouragement from the Force's come-from-behind win on the road to the Highlanders last week when a jaw-dropping second-half suggested that the Perth side are set for solid end to the season.

Good news for the Force is the return of play-maker James O'Connor, but James Stannard has done such a good job at fly-half in O'Connor's absence that the wunderkind has been slotted in at full-back.

All that said, it's fair to say we should expect a reaction from the Reds this week. Quade Cooper and co. have set the benchmark this season and will be desperate to get their title challenge back on track after last week's hiccup.

But with all those injuries in the back-line, one has to wonder it they will be able to find the same fluency on attack that made them so dangerous this season.

Prediction: It's tough to argue with the Reds' record this year but home ground advantage seems to play a big role in clashes between these sides since the hosts on the day have won all six previous fixtures. Although the Reds have never been to nib Stadium (since the Force moved from Subiaco Oval) we're going to back the underdogs to cause an upset. The Force by a whisker!

Super Rugby betting odds: Western Force 15/8

The teams:

Western Force: 15 James O'Connor, 14 Nick Cummins, 13 Patrick Dellit, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 David Smith, 10 James Stannard, 9 Brett Sheehan, 8 Richard Brown, 7 David Pocock, 6 Matt Hodgson, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Matt Dunning, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Kieran Longbottom.
Replacements: 16 Ben Whittaker, 17 Tim Fairbrother, 18 Tom Hockings, 19 Ben McCalman, 20 Mark Swanepoel, 21 Mitch Inman, 22 Alfie Mafi.

Reds:15 Jono Lance, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Will Chambers, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Rod Davies, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Radike Samo, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Scott Higginbotham, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Ben Daley.
Replacements:16 James Hanson, 17 Greg Holmes, 18 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 19 Jake Schatz, 20 Ben Coridas, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Dom Shipperley.

Referee: Stuart Dickinson

Lions v Sharks
Coca-Cola Park, Jo'burg

The Lions host the Sharks on Saturday in the first of two South African derbies where the result is more significant for the visitors than for the hosts.

The Durban-based franchise travel to Johannesburg with the knowledge that they have to win this fixture to remain in contention for a spot in the play-offs.

In contrast, the struggling Lions - who are in 14th position on the table - are aiming to finish their campaign on a winning note as this is their last match of the competition.

The home side will be keen to avoid the tournament's wooden spoon - they are above the Rebels on the table by virtue of a better points difference - and after showing a huge improvement in their performances on tour, don't be surprised if they give the Sharks a good run for their money.

The Sharks registered an important 23-18 win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last week. However, they finished the match with 13 men, after Charl McLeod and Keegan Daniel were sent to the sin-bin.

They cannot afford such ill-discipline if they want to be successful in the Lions' den.

The Sharks will once again rely heavily on young playmaker Patrick Lambie, who has come to the fore with some fine performances in recent weeks. Among the forwards, number eight Ryan Kankowski will want to prove to Springbok coach Peter de Villiers that he is not a spent force at international level after missing out on selection in a 37-man Bok training squad.

The Lions' best player this season has been their fiery loose forward Josh Strauss, who has put in solid performances on a consistent basis.

Adding spice to this fixture is the fact that these sides are coached by friends and fellow New Zealanders John Mitchell (Lions) and John Plumtree (Sharks).

Prediction: When these teams met in their previous encounter in Round Eight, the Sharks won 27-3. Even though the Lions are a better side now don't expect them to be victorious. Sharks by four..

Super Rugby betting odds: Lions 5/2

The teams:

Lions: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Dylan Des Fountain, 13 Doppies la Grange (c), 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Deon van Rensburg, 10 Butch James, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Derick Minnie, 6 Cobus Grobbelaar/Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco van der Merwe/David de Villiers, 4 Wikus van Heerden, 3 Patric Cilliers, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Jacobie Adriaanse, 18 David de Villiers/David Bulbring, 19 Warren Whiteley, 20 Michael Bondesio, 21 Elton Jantjies, 22 Michael Killian.

Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Stefan Terblanche, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Jacques Botes, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Gerhard Mostert, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Eugene van Staden, 2 John Smit (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Alistair Hargreaves, 19 Marcell Coetzee, 20 Frederic Michalak, 21 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 22 Adrian Jacobs.

Referee: Marius Jonker

Stormers v Bulls
Newlands, Cape Town

There is always a great sense of anticipation around the Cape when the Stormers face off against the Bulls. This weekend is no exception with Newlands already sold out for the big Super Rugby clash.

The equation for both teams is quite simple: win at all costs.

A loss for the defending champion Bulls could spell the end of their season with another tough outing against the Sharks to follow next weekend in Pretoria.

Victory for the Stormers will assure them a home play-offs spot, and if they win big next weekend against the Cheetahs - a home semi-final. Defeat, however, will give the Sharks a glimmer of hope of topping the SA Conference should they win in Jo'burg and Pretoria over the next fortnight.

But back to the game at hand as last year's finalists renew hostilities. The Bulls were too good on that occasion, but the Stormers won their clash earlier this season by 10 points at Loftus Versfeld. It was only their 3rd win over the Bulls since 2004.

However, the Bulls went through a purple patch in the earlier rounds, and looked way out of sorts. Fast forward a few matches later and the Bulls have turned the corner and continue to make a late charge towards a play-offs spot by forcing their way into the top six.

Last week's win over the Waratahs was their fifth on the trot and have definately saved their best for last as we reach the business end of the tournament.

The Stormers have been pretty consistent throughout and return from a successful Australasian trip where they recorded three out of four wins - a remarkable effort for a South African team on the road.

Whether travel fatigue plays a big factor when the two rivals run out at Newlands remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: both sides will be up for this titanic clash.

Prediction: We bet against the Stormers last time and suffered the price. Will we make the same mistake again? Tempting, but no. Stormers by six!

Super Rugby betting odds: Stormers 1/2

The teams:

Stormers: 15 Conrad Jantjes, 14 Gio Aplon, 13, Jaque Fourie, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Kurt Coleman, 9 Ricky Januarie, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Schalk Burger (captain), 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Rynhardt Elstadt, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Deon Fourie, 1 Wicus Blaauw.
Replacements: 16 Tiaan Liebenberg, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Anton van Zyl, 20 Nick Koster, 21 Dewaldt Duvenage, 22 Juan de Jongh.

Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Jaco Pretorius, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Mornť Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Gary Botha, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Rossouw de Klerk, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Derick KuŁn, 20 Dustin Jinka, 21 Francois Brummer, 22 Stephan Dippenaar.

Referee: Jonathan Kaplan

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