Super Rugby

Weekend Previews & Predictions

Round Eleven 

The Easter Weekend is done and dusted. I was unable to post my comments and thoughts about the games in Round Ten due to a host of different issues – a visit to Cape Town, plenty of visitors here in Langebaan, and then a somewhat frustrating break in the main fibre link between ourselves and Cape Town, which meant that the “internet was down” – an issue cursed by some, but a blessing to others. 

I abandoned my attempts to get updates loaded onto the website after hours of frustration with that breakdown.

However, it is a new week, the internet is “up” and functional again, and more rugby looms ahead.

During the weekend I watched something that I have eschewed since its inception, the IPL 20-over cricket circus. 

I am not a fan. 

I find it all hugely contrived, with way too much hype and hoopla, odd rules, bowlers restricted to bowling in the batsman’s hitting channel, while batsmen play weird strokes that would have resulted in 6-of-the-best from an irate headmaster if we had tried to play like that in my school days. 

The contrived excitement of the commentators is as false as the eyelashes of Miss Transvestite World.

It is just not cricket the way I like to watch it.

I was, initially, quite astounded at the size of the crowd, people jammed into the stands shoulder to shoulder, wearing their team colours, waving team flags and printed placards with players’ names and other supportive slogans. 

It looked so good, something that other sports needed to somehow clone, until you paid a bit of attention to the whole of what was happening. 

It was all contrived, faked!

The crowd was jammed into just over one third of the stadium’s seating. The rest of the stadium was empty, cordoned off, with big banners along the one boundary to hide the fact that the seats behind those banners were empty. 

The television broadcast frequently focussed right in on the crowd, those smiling, waving faces and excited supporters, seeking out the most densely occupied portion of the stadium, and carefully slipping past the fringes where many seats were less well populated, and completely avoiding any views of the empty portions of the stadium. 

The only time we saw the empty stands was when an Australian fellow called Watson had the temerity to hit a huge six into the midwicket area, and the ball landed in row 17 or 18 of one of those empty stands, with not a single soul available to help retrieve the ball! 

The entire broadcast was being managed to give viewers the impression of a jam-packed stadium.

Propagandised in way that a certain Dr Goebbels would have been proud to call his own.

The faked hype of a full stadium is exposed as nothing more than smoke and mirrors. 

Is this done to enhance the marketability of the cricket product to advertisers? 

Is this done to hide the fact that spectator numbers are dwindling? 

It would be interesting to see the facts behind the façade.

This Weekend: Round 11:

The six-match Round 11 kicks-off in Christchurch where high-flying Crusaders host the Lions from Johannesburg in a match to be refereed by Paul Williams. The same night in Tokyo will see the Sunwolves take on the Highlanders.

On Saturday the Kiwi derby in Wellington between the Hurricanes and Chiefs will be refereed by Rasta Rasivhenge while in Sydney the Waratahs host the Sharks in a game that will be crucial to the prospects of both teams as we head into the final weeks of the tournament. In Cape Town the derby between the Stormers and Bulls will be refereed by Glen Jackson.

The weekend closes in Buenos Aires when the Jaguares host the Brumbies.

Friday Games

Crusaders vs Lions

Venue Christchurch Stadium, Christchurch
Date Friday 26 April
Kick-off 19h35 local; 07h35 GMT; 09h35 SA Time.
Referee Paul Williams (New Zealand)
AR1 Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
AR2 James Munro (New Zealand)
TMO Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)

Last week the Lions, somewhat unexpectedly, beat the Chiefs 23 – 17, a win that only 13% of those who participate in the Superbru prediction games had selected. The win was built on the dominance of a Lions loose-trio combination that functioned like a well-oiled machine, backed up by the robust loose ball presence of one Malcolm Marx. The dominance of the loosies was reflected in the fact that the Chiefs conceded 18 turnovers in the course of that game. This triggered a good team effort by the entire Lions outfit.

The Lions also surprised the Chiefs by fielding a team different to the one announced 48 hours before the game, as is required by Sanzaar’s rules. 

Both Malcolm Marx and Elton Jantjies started the game, after having initially been named on the bench. Jantjies started, surprisingly, in the 12 jersey, perhaps as a mentor for the young flyhalf inside him? 

Nothing wrong with those late changes to the team, and it certainly allowed the Lions to field a team as close to full strength as it was possible on the day.

This week they will not have the luxury of fielding Malcolm Marx as he has returned to South Africa in terms of the Springbok resting protocols. 

Perhaps there was a not-so-subtle tactic in those late changes to their team and a hint of their expectations this weekend? They targeted the Chiefs game as one they had a good chance of winning if they were at full strength, and they are using the Crusader game to rest one of their key players?

The Crusaders are not playing any games with their selections, although they are forced to rest a couple of their big guns due to All Black management requirements.

Team News:

The Crusaders:

Scott Robertson has named his side to take on the Lions on Friday.

In the forwards, Codie Taylor returns to start at hooker and with both Scott Barrett and Matt Todd sitting out in terms of All Black rest requirements, so Quinten Strange and Billy Harmon have been given an opportunity to start a game.

Mitch Dunshea has also been named in the matchday team, providing cover in the No.19 jersey.

Mitch Drummond will start at scrumhalf for this game and Ereatara Enari takes a spot in the reserves.

There is a reshuffle in the backline with George Bridge returning to the left wing, Braydon Ennor moving in from the wing to the midfield and Sevu Reece lining up on the right wing.

Finally, 20-year-old Ngane Punivai is set to make his debut for the Crusaders on Friday, having been named on the bench.

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Quinten Strange, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Harry Allan, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Mitchell Dunshea, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Ere Enari, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Ngane Punivai.

The Lions:

The Lions have made four changes to their starting XV to face the Crusaders in Christchurch on Friday.

In the backline, Shaun Reynolds will start at flyhalf after Gianni Lombard picked up an injury and has returned home.

Regular flyhalf Elton Jantjies has again been picked for the inside centre position.

Ruan Combrinck gets a start in the No.15 jumper with Andries Coetzee out of the matchday 23 this week.

At scrumhalf, Nic Groom rotates with Ross Cronje.

There is just one change to the pack. Robbie Coetzee will start in the No.2 jersey with Malcolm Marx back in South Africa as part of the Springbok protocol which also sees the introduction of Jan-Henning Campher on the bench.

Lions: 15 Ruan Combrinck, 14 Sylvian Mahuza, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Elton Jantjies, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Shaun Reynolds, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Stephan Lewies, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Sti Sithole.
Replacements: 16 Jan-Henning Campher, 17 Nathan Mcbeth, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Wilhelm van der Sluys, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Franco Naude, 23 Tyrone Green.

Thoughts:

The Lions might well have found a loose trio that works well together, and they also have their inspirational leader, Warren Whiteley, back in charge, but this does not herald a complete change in their ranks and prospects. 

This remains a very young, inexperienced outfit, with much to learn and a long way to go before they can think of achieving the heights of 2016 and 2017. For all their well-deserved victory last week, the Crusaders are a wholly different challenge this week.

The Crusaders will know that discipline will be key against the Lions, who have a very good goal kicker in Elton Jantjies, as well as an improving set-piece.

Unnecessary penalties will be a big concern for the Crusaders after they conceded no less than 18 penalties last time out against the Highlanders. 

Reports out of Christchurch tell us that the Crusaders have spent some time addressing this issue, and it is unlikely that we will see a repetition of their generosity this week. 

The set-piece battle will be a key element of this game, with the Lions showing some improvement in recent games as their young pack has started to gel and work as a unit. The Lions actually have a better scrum success rate than the Crusaders (93% vs 89%) in an aspect of the game where the Crusaders have been the most consistent team in the competition for the last 6 years.

The lineouts also show the Lions as being better than the Crusaders, 91,2% to 88%.

The set-piece margins may be slim, a couple of percentage points between the teams, and thus not of any real consequence when discussing their prospects in this encounter, but they do show that the perception that the young Lions pack has struggled in 2019 is not wholly correct. The Crusaders cannot take the set-piece battle for granted.

Ruck and breakdown stats show two teams that are wholly on a par. 96% each.

The real difference between these two teams can be found in their attacking plays. The Crusaders have consistently been amongst the top try scoring teams in the competition, and are again top of the table with 40, with the Lions, usually right up there with them in previous years, are down at 5thon the table with 31.

On the attack the Crusaders have been lethal in 2019, with 119 clean breaks in their 1027 ball carries. The Lions trail in this attacking statistic by a long way, with just 78 clean breaks in an almost identical 1029 carries. This tells us of the difference in penetration between the two backlines, where the Lions have often carried the ball sideways or even backwards without the line penetration of previous seasons. Much of the problem has been found in a number of players who seem to have forgotten or unlearned the principle of letting the ball do the work. Offloading stats tell us that the Crusaders have made 95 offloads in 2019, the Lions have dropped down to 13thon the stats table with just 57 offloads.

Many of their promising moves have seen the possession wasted as individuals decide to go on their own without looking for the pass or offload. 

The prime example of this type of selfish play has been, as usual, Andries Coetzee, who has carried the ball 58 times in 2019. At the end of all those carries he has passed the ball just 21 times. That tells us that he has died with the ball in hand no less than 37 times. He has actually passed the ball just 56 times all season, including all phases of play. 

He is not alone. 

Lionel Mapoe, is perhaps the most selfish of the back division, he has passed the ball just 32 times all season, while making 52 carries. 

There is something very wrong with those numbers. This is a player who is supposed to be a linking playmaker in the back division.

One could quote the figures for all the Lions backs, but they do no more than confirm that the Lions have lost that quick-passing keep-the-ball-alive style that served them so well in the past. Far too many players are taking decisions to go on their own, rather than looking to set up a team mate for the score.

The probing running of the past has slowly deteriorated into individual efforts, often of the crash-ball style.

Another habit, if I may call it a habit, that has crept into the Lions back play (and also into the back-play of most of the other South African teams) is the horrid thing I term the “hesitation waltz” – when a player gets possession and immediately does a goosestep, a pump of the arms, a dummy pass, and a jink, even if there is no opponent within two meters of him. This is amateurish schoolboy and touch-rugby stuff, designed to look showy, perhaps even baffle a lesser player at a social level, but is simply suicidal at the professional level of the game. Opponents are focussed on the player and ignore his razzle-dazzle breakdancing moves as they come into the tackle zone. All that those silly jinks and steps do is allow the opponents to get closer to you and your team mates and cut down your options with the ball in hand!

A number of Lions players are guilty of this silly stuff, and it will not work against seasoned opponents such as those that will take the field for the Crusaders!

If we move off consideration of the attacking plays of the two teams and switch our attention to the defences, we again see two teams that have somewhat different profiles in 2019. The Crusaders have made 87% of their tackles, 5thon the table, which is perhaps not as high as they are used to in previous years, but still just 0,3% behind the 2019 table topping Bulls on 87,3%! 

The Lions are down at 13thon the table with 82%.

When we combine our analysis of attack and defence, we do see a clear advantage accruing to the Crusaders. The Crusaders have been clinical and lethal, the Lions have not.

In this game we have the added issue of Elton Jantjies facing off against Ryan Crotty – a regular flyhalf with very little experience in the inside centre berth facing an All Black first choice inside centre. 

A man with 37 missed tackles in 2019 facing a man who has missed just 6? 

I am not sure that the Lions have got this selection correct, and I am guessing the Crusaders will be targeting the inside centre channel on Friday!

Perhaps the biggest problem that the Lions will need to deal with is the non-availability of Malcolm Marx. No doubt that one player does not make a team, or even a pack of forwards, but the presence of Marx at the breakdowns, and in general play will be certainly missed, while his control of the maul and his lineout work have been integral to the Lions game all year. That 91,2% lineout success rate belongs to the accuracy of Marx’s throwing.

In most of my pre-match thoughts and previews I attempt to look at much more than the cold hard stats as I try and figure out who will win a game, and why. There are things that statistics do not measure – passion, focus, clarity of purpose, game plans, tactics, strategies, leadership, game management, all things that cannot be measured in numbers.

This week the cold stats tell us that the Crusaders are well head of the Lions in the most important aspects of play – attack and defence. 

What the numbers do not tell us is what is going on in those mental spaces and the immeasurable aspects of the game of rugby.

Certainly, on paper, the Lions will need to bring enormous passion, unwavering focus, crystal clear clarity of purpose, clinical tactics and strategies, calm and inspirational leadership, and purposeful game management if they want to beat the Crusaders. 

Many of these areas have been found wanting in 2019!

Prediction:

Regrettably for the Lions fans, and especially for my friend Howard who is probably the best and biggest Lions fan of them all, I cannot see the Lions beating the Crusaders in Christchurch. There are just too many holes in the visitor’s game.

The Crusaders, by around 17 points.

Sunwolves vs Highlanders

Venue Prince Chichibu Stadium, Tokyo
Date Friday 26 April
Kick-off 19h00 local; 22h00 NZ Time; 10h00 GMT; 12h00 SA Time.
Referee Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
AR1 Angus Gardner (Australia)
AR2 Shuhei Kubo (Japan)
TMO Minoru Fuji (Japan)

The Sunwolves always have the ability to surprise, with a game plan designed to disrupt and disturb, and a game built of having fun rather than winning at all costs. They have nothing to lose as they go about shaking the foundations, the cages, and the composure of teams and players who should, on paper, make mincemeat of the Foreign Legion masquerading as an authentic Japanese team.

They host the Highlanders, who do have much to lose and everything to gain from this game. A win for the Highlanders can put them right back in the running for a playoff spot, despite their current lowly 13thplace on the overall log. Despite their woeful run of results in 2019, including a 7-week losing streak, they sit on 18 points with 3 wins in 9 starts, but just 2 points behind the Blues and the Waratahs, teams that are currently both in with a shout for a playoff slot!

One team has nothing to lose, the other has everything to lose.

It could be fun!

Of particular interest in this game will be the play of a certain ex-Highlander and Otago boy, Hayden Parker. Parker has blossomed as the Sunwolves chief playmaker and points scorer, with a metronomic goal kicking boot and some very clever all-field rugby. With the Highlanders he earned 30 caps and scored 101 points to add to his 47 caps for Otago and 442 points scored. He originally left the Highlanders after having been used primarily as a back-up player to both Colin Slade and then Lima Sopoaga, and must surely be in the sights and plans of his old team as a re-signing when his time with the Sunwolves comes to an end.

In addition, there are some very strong rumours of a possible All Black call-up for Parker, especially as Damian McKenzie is out of the 2019 World Cup! 

It all adds interest to a game that most would otherwise dismiss as just another one of the endless nothing games in Super Rugby.

Team News:

The Sunwolves:

In an almost startling change to their usual habit of making sweeping changes to their team from week to week, Sunwolves have made just two changes to their starting XV for Friday’s match against the Highlanders.

One of the changes sees South African Grant Hattingh return to the starting line-up. The former Bulls player will don the No.6, replacing Ben Gunter, who takes a spot on the bench.

The other change is at scrumhalf. Japanese international Fumiaki Tanaka replaces Jamie Booth as this week’s No.9.

Dan Pryor retains the captain’s armband.

The inclusion of Tanaka changes the foreign to Japanese mix in this “Japanese” team from 13-2 to 12-3.

Sunwolves: 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Gerhard Van den Heever, 13 Josh Timu, 12 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 11 Semisi Masirewa, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Hendrik Tui, 7 Dan Pryor (captain), 6 Grant Hattingh, 5 Luke Thompson, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Nathan Vella, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Alex Woonton, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Tom Rowe, 20 Ben Gunter, 21 Kaito Shigeno, 22 Yu Tamura, 23 Jason Emery.

The Highlanders:

Coach Aaron Mauger has stuck largely with the same group of players that beat the Blues, for the clash against the Sunwolves.

In the forwards, the hard-working Shannon Frizell makes way for the captain Luke Whitelock at No.6 with Elliot Dixon retaining his spot at No.8 following some good form over the last few weeks.

In the backs, Patelesio Tomkinson moves to the right wing to accommodate the return of Rob Thompson at centre.

Matt Faddes moves to fullback to cover for the rested Ben Smith.

The bench will have a six/two split with Dillon Hunt being included in the forwards mix, while Kayne Hammington and Bryn Gatland will cover the backs.

Highlanders: 15 Matt Faddes, 14 Sio Tomkinson, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Luke Whitelock (captain), 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Sef Fa’agase, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Shannon Frizell, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Dillon Hunt.

Thoughts:

I guess this game will really revolve around the focus brought to the field by the Highlanders. We know the Sunwolves will do their level best to disrupt and disturb the Highlanders plans. Their brand of “organised chaos” and spur-of-the-moment rugby has the ability to throw even the most carefully prepared team into disarray.

There is also something of an old boys team familiarity to the Sunwolves as they run on to play the Highlanders – Hayden Parker, Dan Pryor, Fumiaki Tanaka and Jason Emery, are all ex-Highlanders, while Josh Timu trained with the Highlanders throughout the pre-season.

The Highlanders do have everything to gain from this game, especially as they have lost their last four away games, they have not lost more consecutive games on the road since a run of eight defeats spread across 2012 and 2013. 

On paper, and man-for-man, the Highlanders do seem to have the edge over the Sunwolves in every department, save perhaps for the outstanding form of Hayden Parker.

A statistical comparison is not going to reveal much as these two sides have had pretty similar results in this year, although against hugely different opponents and under vastly different conditions.

We will simply have to go with the “on paper” comparison when we make our picks.

Prediction:

The win over the Blues will have given the Highlanders some much needed momentum. They will also know that this is probably the last chance they have to get their playoff chances back on track. We can expect a seriously focussed game from the visitors.

The Sunwolves will put up a fight, but just do not have the numbers. 

The Highlanders, by 15.