Talking points ahead of Super Rugby

Date published: April 6 2017

An Ardie-less back row and huge measuring tests for the Blues and Stormers. Here are some talking points ahead of Round 7.

1) Hurricanes back row without Savea

For the visit of the Waratahs the Hurricanes will have do without Ardie Savea, injured last weekend in the win over the Reds with a calf niggle that will have him watching from the stands. Reed Prinsep will get the nod at number eight in Savea's place and the onus is on both him and the two flankers, Calum Gibbins and the under-rated Brad Shields, to work out a way to mute Michael Hooper at the breakdown.

Prinsep and Gibbins are both talented but this is the weakest back row the 'Canes have fielded for some time, with Savea out and Victor Vito now carving up in France with La Rochelle. Expect the bearded Shields to play a prominent role as the Hurricanes target win number five and hope to close the gap on the Crusaders.

2) Bulls can end tough tour on a high

The Bulls gave the Chiefs perhaps more of a contest than the New Zealand franchise were expecting last weekend, after a woeful second half the previous week away at the Blues. Saturday's game in Tokyo therefore offers up a chance to end a mixed bag of a tour on a much-needed high, given the criticism thrown the way of head coach Nollis Marais over the last few weeks.

Opting to rest Handré Pollard probably comes at the right time, with Pollard having missed all of last season not quite at the peak of his power, and Jannes Kirsten is always an entertaining player to watch powering his way around the field.

The Sunwolves attacked so well against the Stormers before their bye, but with the defence still susceptible to cough up points, anything less than a victory will lead to a truly miserable trip back to Pretoria for the three-time champions.

3) Chance for Blues to make a statement

Talk about a yardstick fixture for Tana Umaga. The Highlanders, coming off a 50-point performance last week against the Rebels, are still missing plenty of their top stars in Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo, with Liam Squire limited on his return to a spot amongst the replacements.

Meanwhile the Blues are flying, in part down to one of the signings of the season in Augustine Pulu at scrum-half, whose low error count but lift in tempo has brought the best out of the Blues' attack. 

Dropping the Ioane brothers to the bench against the Force worked out a treat, only Rieko starts this week, and for a predominantly young group Dunedin will offer up a significant challenge. What a challenge though. Winning at the Forsyth Barr Stadium will require Piers Francis to keep the Blues in touch off the tee, but it is far from impossible.

4) Stormers' first big test

Capetonian supporters don't need the reminder. Having cruised through the 2016 season to the top of the Africa 1 Conference to finish nine points clear of the Bulls, just two points less overall for the regular season the Hurricanes, it all came crashing down with that 60-21 hammering at Newlands from, guess who, the Chiefs.

Forgotten in the aftermath was that the Stormers actually scored first, before the Chiefs' backs clicked into gear and ran the Stormers ragged. 

So what will have changed less than a year on? The Chiefs are crucially without Sam Cane, always a threat at the breakdown, and as respected as the second row combination of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit no doubt are, the Chiefs duo of Dominic Bird and Brodie Retallick are both in outstanding form. Midfield also has to be a worry for the Stormers given the relative inexperience of Dan du Plessis and EW Viljoen.

From a morale perspective, this fixture has enormous implications for Robbie Fleck and his side. If their back row can get revved up, featuring high-energy duo Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Siya Kolisi, then they have a chance. But last season's 60-21 ghost is floating above this game.

5) Kings to win in Perth?

Away winners in Singapore earlier in the year, now the Kings head to Perth looking to knock off another Super Rugby struggler. Picking a winner feels far from straighforward after the Force showed plenty of fight against the Blues, key figure Dane Haylett-Petty leading the charge as he so often does.

Defence for the Kings remains an issue but this pack is tough, especially the locks Irné Herbst and Wilhelm van der Sluys, while Chris Cloete continues to play at a level that will see him snapped up by a more prosperous club. For the Kings to win Lionel Cronje needs to have an excellent day off the kicking tee, something we have seen happen before in 2017.