Super Rugby Pacific: Five talking points ahead of Round 14 including the Chiefs looking to lock up top spot with win over Brumbies
Super Rugby Pacific continues this weekend with Round 14, which includes fascinating match-ups between some of the leading teams, as the tournament heads towards its business end.
Ahead of the action in the southern hemisphere, Planet Rugby has picked out five talking points to consider in the upcoming games.
Chiefs keen to secure top spot with win over the Brumbies
With just two rounds of matches left before the play-offs, the Chiefs head into the weekend knowing that a victory against the Brumbies will secure them top spot on the table ahead of the knockout stages, which commence in a fortnight’s time.
Clayton McMillan‘s charges have been the standout side in this year’s competition as they have won 11 out of their 12 matches played so far this year, with the only blip being a 25-22 home loss to the Reds in New Plymouth in Round 12.
They have a difficult task on their hands as they face the Brumbies in their backyard at GIO Stadium – a venue where the Canberra side is yet to taste defeat this year, after notching victories there against the Reds, Moana Pasifika, Waratahs, Fijian Drua and Highlanders.
However, Stephen Larkham’s troops are desperate to secure a victory as they are still in the hunt for a home quarter-final despite doing their chances of securing that goal damage when they rested several of their first choice players against the Western Force in Perth last week that ended in defeat.
McMillan has made some minor tweaks to his run-on side with the big surprise being star playmaker Damian McKenzie being shifted from fly-half to full-back with Josh Ioane coming into the run-on side for the first time this season to start at number 10.
Meanwhile, the Brumbies have received a shot in the arm as they welcome back Wallabies like James Slipper, Lachlan Lonergan, Allan Alaalatoa, Nick Frost, Rob Valetini, Len Ikitau and Tom Wright for this fixture. It sets the stage for a fascinating battle.
Aaron Smith’s final home appearance for Highlanders
All eyes will be on the 34-year-old as the end of his 12-year association with the Highlanders draws ever closer. Smith is set to play his last game at his side’s headquarters at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin when they host the Reds on Friday.
The veteran All Blacks scrum-half has been an integral part of the Highlanders squad since making his Super Rugby debut in 2011. He is renowned as one of the best scrum-halves from the professional era as he’s a skilful distributor and excellent reader of the play.
Aaron Smith doing Aaron Smith things 🤯👏 @Te_Nug pic.twitter.com/D4AXwewAr1
— Highlanders (@Highlanders) March 14, 2022
The 2015 Rugby World Cup winner is also the Highlanders’ most-capped player in their history and the most-capped All Blacks scrum-half ever. Smith is set to play in his 184th Highlanders game against the Reds and would love to go out on a high with a victory to mark that occasion.
Adding spice to the occasion is the fact that the Highlanders are currently in ninth place in the standings – just three points adrift of their closest rivals, the Western Force, who occupy the all-important final play-off spot.
However, they can expect a tough challenge from the Reds, who can ill afford a defeat as they are in seventh, just one place above the Force.
Blues and Hurricanes chasing a home quarter-final
There will be plenty at stake when these two heavyweights of New Zealand rugby go head-to-head at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday.
With both sides renowned for their enterprising approach to the game, matches between the Blues and Hurricanes are usually entertaining affairs and the latest instalment of this fixture between these rivals should be no different.
With the top four teams assured of home quarter-finals, both these sides will be giving their all to secure victory this weekend as very little separates them in the standings.
The Blues are currently in fourth position – with the Chiefs, Crusaders and Brumbies above them – while the Hurricanes are hot on their heels with just a point separating them on the table.
However, despite having home ground advantage, the Blues have struggled when playing in New Zealand derbies of late as they lost their last three matches, against the Crusaders (twice) and Chiefs.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have lost five of their last seven matches against the Blues, including their last two encounters, while also losing their last two fixtures away from Wellington, their most since 2018.
With regular skipper and openside flanker Dalton Papali’i still on the sidelines due to suspension, Patrick Tuipulotu continues to lead the side while Adrian Choat will wear the number seven jersey. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have been boosted by the return of captain Ardie Savea and fellow All Blacks, Jordie Barrett, Tyrel Lomax and Asafo Aumua.
The statistics just how close this encounter promises to be with 39 previous meetings in Super Rugby competition resulting in 19 wins a-piece and one draw between the two sides. The home side have the edge at home in recent times, having logged a victory against the Hurricanes in the latest two encounters at Eden Park.
Big derby in Melbourne between the Rebels and Force
Just like the Highlanders, the Rebels are on the outside looking in at the play-off berths but despite just having two more regular season matches left to play, they still have an outside chance of reaching the knockouts.
They simply have to win their remaining matches – against the Force and Brumbies – to achieve that goal and first up is their home clash against the men from Perth on Friday.
Apart from their play-off ambitions, the Rebels will be out for revenge as they were on the receiving end of a 34-27 loss to the Force when these sides met previously in their season opener in Perth earlier this year.
There's been some close #REBvFOR battles in the past 💪
As we draw closer to finals, there's a lot on the line for both teams! 🤯#SuperRugbyPacific pic.twitter.com/7K5sOtQxee
— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) May 25, 2023
Heading into this weekend’s rematch, the Force are eighth on the table, having amassed 22 points from their 12 matches played so far, while the Rebels are in 11th position, six points adrift of them, with the Highlanders and Fijian Drua occupying the spots in between.
For the Rebels, star playmaker Carter Gordon returns for his 12th match of the season after recovering from a knee injury, while Reece Hodge, who is set to break the Rebels’ record for the most Super Rugby appearances, shifts to inside centre after covering in Gordon’s absence last week.
Meanwhile, the Force head into this encounter in a confident mood after ending their 14-match losing streak against the Brumbies last week and they have been boosted by the return of Wallabies lock Izack Rodda, who is set to make his first appearance of the season via the replacements bench after recovering from a foot injury.
Aaron Mauger aiming to go out with a bang as Moana Pasifika coach
Earlier this week, news broke of Mauger’s impending departure as Moana’s head coach at the conclusion of this year’s Super Rugby Pacific campaign.
Although the former All Blacks centre said family and not Moana Pasifika’s results is the reason behind his decision to resign, one can’t ignore the fact that the team has lost all 12 matches they have played in 2023.
With just two games left during their campaign – against the Fijian Drua and the Waratahs – there will be plenty of desperation in Moana’s ranks as they aim to clinch that elusive win.
This weekend they head to Lautoka where they take on the Drua, who joined the tournament with Moana last year.
The two teams met earlier this year in the competition’s first round at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland and those in attendance were treated to one of the tournament’s matches of the season. The Drua clinched a 36-34 win courtesy of a 77th minute try from debutant Taniela Rakuro.
If the 11-try opener is anything to go by, the crowd in Lautoka will be in for a spectacular affair as Moana hope to end their losing streak in this year’s tournament while the Drua, who are in 10th place on the table, are eager to clinch a play-off spot.
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