The Bulls and Rebels have a week off but otherwise it is full steam ahead into Round 3 of Super Rugby, with some interesting narratives.
1) Who are the Reds?
One of the noticeable reactions to our pre-season predictions for who would win Super Rugby was that the Reds were not being given enough consideration, given the number of Tests caps assembled in Brisbane through some notable signings.
The Reds’ opening weekend win over the Sharks seemed to back up that argument and then came the trip to Perth, when frankly the Reds were… well, awful.
Saturday’s clash with the Crusaders therefore feels like a prove-it fixture, if the Reds want to be taken seriously, and given the youthful look of the Crusaders’ back row – Pete Samu, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Whetu Douglas – along with the absence of Owen Franks and Matt Todd in the pack, an upset isn’t out of the question.
The verdict of Nick Stiles – “How we respond from that performance moving forward into the Crusaders next week is going to say a lot more about us I hope.” – was spot on. Time to find out who the Reds really are.
2) Stalling Highlanders need a kickstart
The odds of the Highlanders being winless after the first two weeks of Super Rugby had to be long before the season kicked off, and yet that’s the situation for the 2015 champions who have been hampered by injuries.
Liam Squire, Shane Christie, Ash Dixon, Dan Pryor, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Ben Smith and James Lentjes are some of the name missing on Saturday, with Jason Emery and Hayden Parker gone for the season, which combined with their wastefulness against the Chiefs and then the Crusader’s stunning comeback has made for a miserable start to the year.
Visiting the Blues is no picnic, but the Highlanders need to start winning and fast if they want to want to keep up with the Chiefs and Hurricanes. More of the same from Waisake Naholo will give them a chance.
3) Depleted Lions, promising Jaguares
Sending a youthful XV to Buenos Aires has lowered expectations for the Lions this weekend. Warren Whiteley remains as captain but with no Elton Jantjies, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Lionel Mapoe or Franco Mostert, and with Jaco Kriel and Faf de Klerk left on the bench, the odds are stacked against the Lions making it three wins out of three.
That is largely because the Jaguares have started the season in fine touch, even if their trip to Newlands last weekend to face the Stormers ended in defeat.
Raul Pérez seems to be working with a squad that feels more settled in year two, and despite a high number of injuries the way the Jaguares performed against the Kings and Stormers, with youngsters like Gonzalo Bertranou and Matías Orlando standing out in particular.
Based off those two performances, and the Lions leaving key starters at home, this feels like a must-win for the Jaguares.
4) Chiefs attack versus Hurricanes attack
Two irresistible forces and we are more likely to witness a contest similar to the Chiefs’ 24-23 win over the ‘Canes earlier last year than the 25-9 semi-final a few weeks later, when the Chiefs to everyone’s surprise were kept tryless.
For everyone’s sakes, pray the rain holds off, because if that happens then a high-scoring classic awaits between two teams who have shown a ruthless streak over the opening the two rounds; the Chiefs through opportunism against the Highlanders, the Hurricanes by wiping the floor so comprehensively with the Sunwolves and then the Rebels.
Steve Hansen will also have much to bonder; Sam Cane up against Ardie Savea, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie and Nehe Milner-Skudder, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and TJ Perenara… all of those match-ups will keep the All Blacks head coach and his selectors interested.
5) Willemse’s Stormers debut
Hopes are high for the former SA Schools fly-half, as he prepares to make his Stormers and Super Rugby debut off the bench when the Africa 1 Conference leaders head to Port Elizabeth to take on the Kings.
A descendent of the Quade Cooper sidestep, Willemse was heavily sought by the Bulls last year who opened compared him to Handré Pollard and billed him as an outstanding player.
Having opted to stay in the Western Cape, the 18-year-old back, who measures up at 183cm and 86kg, could prove to be an electric addition off the bench at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.