Super Rugby

Weekend Previews & Predictions

Round Twelve

What do all these names have in common? Owen Franks, Jesse Kriel, Brodie Retallick, Damian McKenzie, Tendai Mtawarira, Dane Coles, Warren Whiteley, Lood de Jager, Dane Haylett-Petty,……

Easy, they are all capped internationals, experienced Test players.

And they are all out of rugby for various periods of time due to injury.

Add some more names, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Cyle Brink, Sylvian Mahuza, Gianni Lombaard, all have been injured in the last four weeks of Super Rugby, and they are just some of the South African contingent…. there are many more, add the Aussies, the Kiwis, the Argies, and the Foreign Legionnaires and you have a truly extensive list of injured players. 

A look at that list tells the story of a game that has become a war of attrition. 

A sport that demands more than the human body is designed to give.

This has nothing to do with Super Rugby, and everything to do with a professional game that is spiralling out of control as the administrators and their financial partners demand more than the proverbial pound of flesh from their most valuable asset, the players.

I have written before of the ticking time bomb of long term and life threatening conditions that await the players in their later years. That is a separate issue all of its own.

Right now the concern has to be for the players of 2019.

Right now, rugby has to do something to stop this war, to stop wringing the neck of the goose that lays the golden eggs.

The players are simply playing far too much high intensity, high impact rugby, and it is slowly but surely helping to kill the game.

A Bit Of Foot-Shooting, Again!

Sanzaar just do not seem to get the idea of neutral referees. 

The seven-match Round 12 kicks-off in Christchurch as the Crusaders take on the Sharks featuring an all-New Zealand match official squad with Brendon Pickerill as the referee. The same evening Angus Gardner, an Australian, will have the whistle for the Reds versus Sunwolves match in Brisbane.

On Saturday in Wellington, the Rebels will play the Hurricanes hoping to consolidate their top position in the Aussie Conference. Australian Nic Berry will be the referee for that match. Over in New Zealand, a New Zealander Mike Fraser will be in the middle for the Kiwi derby between the Highlanders and Chiefs. Back in Aussie, another Aussie Damon Murphy will be in Canberra where the Brumbies meet the Blues at GIO Stadium, with South African Jaco Peyper refereeing in Pretoria as the Bulls and Waratahs do battle.

The weekend closes in Buenos Aires when the Jaguares host the Stormers. The referee will be South African AJ Jacobs.

In six of the seven matches featured this weekend, a referee will manage a game that features fellow countrymen playing against a foreign opponent. 

This is wrong in so many ways.

Part One: Friday, May 3

Crusaders vs Sharks

Venue: Christchurch Stadium, Christchurch
Date Friday 3 May
Kick-off 19h35 local; 07h35 GMT; 09h35 SA Time
Referee Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
AR1 Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
AR2 James Munro (New Zealand)
TMO Glenn Newman (New Zealand)

Try as we might, we cannot sidestep the feeling that the Sharks might be in a bit of trouble in Christchurch on Friday.

Much has been made of their win against the Waratahs last week, but I cannot help but ask how it was possible that the winning margin was just 8 points? How on earth did the Sharks allow the Waratahs to stay in the game and come so close to earning a losing bonus point?

Playing with a one-man numerical advantage for 34 minutes and a two-man advantage for 10 of those 34 minutes, I would suggest that the Sharks should have run up a much bigger score, and banked a try-scoring bonus point.

This was a game, against a woefully underperforming ‘Tahs outfit, where the Sharks should have stepped up to the mark, turned on the afterburners and blown the Aussies away.

And they did not.

Whilst the Sharks might have dominated the physical exchanges somewhat, in every single other statistic of importance, the losing side dominated the game!

And now the Sharks have to play the Crusaders, in Christchurch…..

Based on last weekend, I would suggest that the Sharks might be in a whole heap of trouble this week!

Team News:

The Crusaders:

Kieran Read will lead the side out on the occasion of his 150th Super Rugby game having been named in the XV to face the Sharks.

There is a new locking combination with Mitch Dunshea and Scott Barrett to start, and Luke Romano named on the bench. Jordan Taufua gets a start on the blindside, while Matt Todd returns to captain the team in the absence of Sam Whitelock, who is on an All Blacks rest week.

Bryn Hall is another who returns to the squad and will start at half-back, with Mitch Drummond moving to the reserves, while Mitch Hunt gets an opportunity in the number 10 jersey in place of Richie Mo’unga, who is also on All Blacks rest. Brett Cameron will provide cover in the reserves.

A new midfield combination will take the field against the Sharks, with Jack Goodhue lining up to start at 12 and Braydon Ennor retaining his spot at outside centre. Goodhue, alongside Codie Taylor, has been named as vice-captain for this game. The final change in the starting side sees promising young outside back Will Jordan start at full-back.

Crusaders: 15 Will Jordan, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Mitchell Dunshea, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Isi Tu’ungafasi, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Ethan Blackadder, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Brett Cameron, 23 Tim Bateman

The Sharks:

Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira has returned home from the team’s Australasian tour with an MCL injury to his left knee.

Robert du Preez (Snr) has not tinkered too much with last week’s successful side, making just a couple of changes to the team playing the Crusaders.

Thomas du Toit will revert to the loosehead side of the scrum in place of the injured Mtawarira.

Coenie Oosthuizen starts at tighthead.

Ruan Botha, after making his comeback from injury last week off the bench will start this match – with Hyron Andrews given respite after a sustained period of rugby, although he has been named amongst the reserves.

There is just one change in the backline, Louis Schreuder returning to the starting line-up and taking back the captaincy armband worn by Mtawarira against the Waratahs.

Sharks: 15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Sibusiso Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Louis Schreuder (captain), 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Philip van der Walt, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Mzamo Majola, 18 John-Hubert Meyer, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Jacques Vermeulen, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Robert du Preez, 23 Marius Louw.

Thoughts:

Kieran Read will celebrate his 150th Super Rugby match when he takes to the field to face the Sharks.

Just this little fact suggests that the Crusaders are likely to step up their focus and intensity as they look to celebrate Read’s achievement. They would dearly love to add to their record of 25-straight wins at home, taking it to 26 to mark Read’s personal record.

The Crusaders only loss in 2019 was against the Waratahs, but that was a match played in the shadow of the terrible events in Christchurch two weeks earlier, at a time when the Crusaders were, individually and collectively, struggling to deal with the aftermath of that devastating day.

The Sharks, on the other hand, have played 10 and won 5, lost 5, as they have become one of the most frustrating teams in all of rugby to predict. Their inconsistency is the stuff of a rapidly growing legend, and it takes a brave man to make any kind of bet on the Sharks winning one game or another.

On paper, the Sharks have some very good although seriously inexperienced talent, together with some seasoned veterans and a handful of players of the journeyman variety. The forwards are almost all of the hugely physical variety, often more muscle than rugby brain, but that has been a preference of the Sharks for some years now. (Think Willem Alberts.)

A physical pack of forwards is a good weapon when circumstances favour the close-in game. Circumstances such as found in an English winter, or Christchurch when it rains. 

The Crusaders have built their own game, and their string of outstanding results on very much the same basic pattern as that of the Sharks, at least as far as their forward game is concerned. They too have a physical pack that favours the close-in game.

The major difference is that the Crusaders forwards can also play the wide game if the situation dictates that style of play, and this is where their forward unit have an edge over the Sharks. We have not seen too many of the Sharks forwards playing in the wider channels, with the exception of one Hyron Andrews, and the odd wide run by Akker van der Merwe. Unfortunately Hyron Andrews is sitting this game out, while Van der Merwe is scheduled to start off the bench!  

The weather prediction for Christchurch suggests a cold, overcast day, but dry conditions. Conditions that might encourage the Crusaders to try and take the game away from the Sharks forward unit.

At the back, the two teams are starkly different. The Crusaders will run at you with clinical efficiency and accuracy, using the ball and their pace to avoid running into contact as much as possible. They seek to cut the line, or create the opening rather than smashing their way through their opponents.

The Sharks have not yet shown their commitment to an open style of rugby, except for a brief foray into that game plan when they effectively ran the Lions ragged in Johannesburg.

For the most part the Sharks back-play is hugely predictable. Andre Esterhuizen will be fed the ball, and he will attempt to smash a hole in the opposition back line. Time and again. 

Consider his personal playing stats – he has carried the ball 83 times in 2019, the 13thmost in the entire competition, and has made 582 meters with the ball in hand, the 15thmost in the competition. Yet he has been less than penetrative in his carrying. During those 83 carries he has broken the line just 5 times and has broken through the tackle a scant 3 times. 

Now consider that as an inside centre, the second playmaker in any backline, Andre Esterhuizen has made just 79 good passes, out of 94 attempts. He has attempted to run with the ball more often than he has passed the ball. When he has gone to ground with the ball, which he does frequently, he has conceded 12 turnovers. (There are also 14 handling errors on his tally, but that is not unexpected.)

In defence he has been very good, but the game of rugby is more than that.

I have quoted Andre Esterhuizen’s figures very deliberately. They reflect the Sharks focus on playing crash-ball rugby, with the 12 being their nominated ball carrier. Lukhanyo Am, regular outside centre partner to Esterhuizen has had just 67 ball carries this season, but has passed the ball 57 times too. He has to live off broken play scraps and counter-attacks from kick receipts to get the ball as Esterhuizen does not give him the ball off set-piece plays.

Consider then that Dan du Preez has carried the ball 116 times in Super Rugby 2019, the second most of any player and 33 more times than his inside centre. The Crusaders’ top carrier is David Havili, on 82. Du Preez is a forward, Havili is a full back, which tells us more of the difference in approach between these two teams.  

If we look at the two teams’ stats together, the Sharks have carried the ball 1055 times for 6553 meters, and made 1464 passes, while the Crusaders have carried the ball 1029 times, for a total of 6514 meters. They have passed the ball 1572 times.

Those are pretty similar stats, until we take the outcome of the carries into account. The Sharks have taken the ball into the ruck almost twice as often as the Crusaders, again an indication of their different game plans. The Sharks are still playing the “phase” game of taking the ball into contact, to ground, and recycling it, over and over again. The Crusaders work at keeping the ball away from contact as much as possible, and will kill it quickly if they cannot keep it moving, preferring kick deep if their attack falters, and defend the counter-attack, or to go for a set-piece restart rather than the ruck and recycle.

Without a doubt, the Crusaders’ game plan is the more successful of the two – their results, both historically and in 2019, speak for themselves.

The Sharks might be thinking that the Crusaders are a weakened side as they rest Richie Mo’unga, Ryan Crotty, Sam Whitelock, David Havili,  and a couple of others, but their replacements are of true quality, which suggests that there is no reason for complacency or over-confidence.

We do know that the Sharks have a reputation for being one of the better travelling teams when they visit the Antipodes, but this has to be set-off with the knowledge that they are also the most inconsistent side in the entire competition. Perhaps even in the world

Prediction: 

The Crusaders have won their last 25 home games, one more victory would equal their best ever run at home in Super Rugby which they set between March 2004 and April 2007. The Crusaders have also won nine of their last 11 Super Rugby games against the Sharks, including the last four on the trot. 

One plays an open, running, clinically sound game of rugby, the other does not, preferring the thud and thunder of smash-ball.

The Crusaders also score more tries than anyone else, 45 to the Sharks 30, while both teams have conceded 22 tries. There is another indicator in the tries scored/conceded ratio.

I simply cannot see the Sharks approach to the game of rugby being sufficient to overcome a flying Crusaders outfit.

The Crusaders, by around 15 points.

Reds v Sunwolves

Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Date Friday 3 May
Kick-off 19h45 local; 09h45 GMT; 11h45 SA Time
Referee Angus Gardner (Australia)
AR1 Ben O’Keeffe  (New Zealand)
AR2 Damon Murphy (Australia)
TMO Ian Smith (Australia)

The Sunwolves have only won the two games this year with their first coming in Round 3 against the Chiefs.  A series of close losses was eventually ended in Round 7 when they defeated the Waratahs. However they haven’t managed a win since. 

In truth, since that unexpected win over the ‘Tahs,  they’ve been truly thumped a couple of times! The Rebels put 40 on them in Round 8, and then the Highlanders smashed them 52-0 last week.

The Reds have had the luxury of a bye following their return from their South African safari where they managed a wholly unexpected win and a loss. 

The Reds have now won four of their last six games – including a hard fought win over the Sunwolves in Tokyo back in Round 5.

The Reds will start this game as favourites, but this Sunwolves outfit is almost as unpredictable as the South African Sharks.

Team News:

The Reds:

The Reds have made just the one change to their starting XV for Friday’s clash against the Sunwolves at Suncorp Stadium.

Following two appearances off the bench in South Africa, Jock Campbell will make his starting debut replacing Jack Hardy on the wing.

Hardy has been ruled out for the remainder of the season after rupturing his ACL in Durban.

Campbell’s promotion into the starting side sees outside back Seb Wileman potentially set to make his Super Rugby debut off the bench as the only change to the reserves.

Reds: 15 Hamish Stewart, 14 Jock Campbell, 13 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 12 Samu Kerevi (captain), 11 Sefa Naivalu, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Tate McDermott, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Liam Wright, 6 Angus Scott-Young, 5 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Alex Mafi, 1 Harry Hoopert.
Replacements: 16 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 17 JP Smith, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Harry Hockings, 20 Adam Korczyk, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Duncan Paia’aua, 23 Seb Wileman.

The Sunwolves:

After last week’s surprise move of changing just two of his team before taking on the Highlanders, the Sunwolves coach Tony Brown has returned to normal and made wholesale changes to his team for their trip to Brisbane.

In all there are 10 changes to the starting with, with a number of members from the Japanese national team getting a rare start with the Sunwolves.

In the front row hooker Shota Horie and loosehead prop Masataka Mikami start ahead of Nathan Vella and Pauliasi Manu – who both drop down to the replacement bench.

South African Grant Hattingh moves from the flank, where he played in last week’s 0-52 loss to the Highlanders, and replaces Mark Abbott at lock. Abbott drops out of the matchday 23 altogether.

The loose trio has undergone a complete reshuffle.

Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco moves from centre, where he played against the Highlanders, to No.8.

Hendrik Tui moves from No.8 to the flank position vacated by Hattingh’s positional switch.

Kara Pryor replaces Shuhei Matsuhashi on the other flank.

The changes continue in the backline, where Kaito Shigeno starts at scrumhalf ahead of Fumiaki Tanaka.

Phil Burleigh returns in the midfield to fill the spot vacated by Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco’s move back to the forwards.

The other midfield change sees Jason Emery replace Josh Timu.

Brown said he hopes the changes will result in a “great performance” against the Reds.

In a strange shift from standard practice fully a third of the starting team are actually of Japanese origin! However, there are still 6 non-Japanese players amongst the 8 replacements.

Sunwolves: 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Gerhard Van Den Heever, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Semisi Masirewa, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Kaito Shigeno, 8 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Luke Thompson, 4 Grant Hattingh, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, Shota Horie, 1 Masataka Mikami.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Vella, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Tom Rowe, 20 Ben Gunter, 21 Jamie Booth, 22 Yu Tamura, 23 Jamie Henry.

Thoughts:

Last time the two teams met, the Reds were simply horrible in the first half, conceding a  5-21 half-time deficit to the Sunwolves. Somehow they turned that around in the second half and managed a 34-31 win.

The Reds then beat the Brumbies in Brisbane, but they haven’t strung consecutive wins together since.

The Sunwolves, who are set to be booted from the competition after next season, have won two and lost eight of their matches this season and lost 0-52 to the Highlanders last weekend.

But they have beaten the ‘Tahs and Chiefs away from home, and come close against the Blues, Reds and again, the Waratahs, during this campaign.

Nobody knows what is likely to happen between these two teams this week.

Reds’ assistant coach Peter Ryan says his young side is learning to seize the moment, as they target back-to-back victories for the first time this season.

Prediction:

This is a tough game to pick with any degree of science or logic. Anything could happen, and often does when these two play each other. I am going with home ground advantage and thus the Reds. If it was any team rather than the Sunwolves, though, I’d be worried if I were a Reds supporter.  

Reds by 12.