Weekend Previews & Predictions
The Elephant In The Room
Sanzaar just do not get it, do they?
The outcry about neutral referees continues to fall on deaf ears as we head into Round 16 of the 2019 Super Rugby competition.
This weekend we have New Zealander Mike Fraser running the Blue/Bulls game at Eden Park, and the Cape Town born Marius van der Westhuizen refereeing the Lions/Stormers clash. Neither can thus be considered neutral referees. Perhaps even Jaco Peyper running the Reds/Jaguares match can be questioned, as the Jaguares are officially a South African conference team.
It would not have required much juggling to ensure complete neutrality. Shifting Ben O’Keeffe, Federico Anselmi, Jaco Peyper and Paul Williams around a bit and neutrality could have been easily achieved.
But that is not the Sanzaar way…….
The seven-match Round 16 kicks-off in Auckland where Mike Fraser will be in charge of the Blues versus Bulls clash. The same evening Paul Williams will referee the Australian derby between the Rebels and Waratahs.
There are five matches on Saturday, starting once again in Tokyo where the Sunwolves face the Brumbies with Federico Anselmi will be in charge, while Kiwi referee Ben O’Keeffe has the whistle for the NZ Conference derby between the Chiefs and Crusaders in Suva, Fiji. I
In Brisbane, the Reds play the Jaguares with Jaco Peyper as the referee.
Later on Saturday the Sharks host the Hurricanes, with Australian Nic Berry in Charge. The final match sees an all-South African clash between the Lions and Stormers. The referee is Marius van der Westhuizen.
Friday 31 May
Blues v Bulls
|Venue:||Eden Park, Hamilton|
|Date||Friday 31 May|
|Kick-off||19h35 local: 07h35 GMT; 09h35 SA Time|
Two teams with everything to play for.
The Bulls to keep their hopes of a home quarterfinal flickering, if not burning quite so brightly, as the Jaguares have surpassed all expectations and taken the lead in the South African conference.
The Bulls do, however, still have hopes of a quarterfinal wildcard spot. They sit in the 7thspot on the overall log, but have a difficult time ahead of them, with this fixture against the Blues, followed by the Highlanders in Dunedin, before they head home again to play the Lions. To keep those hopes of a wildcard entry to the quarters alive, the Bulls simply have to win at least one of their two fixtures in New Zealand.
Not an easy task considering that their two most influential players will be watching the game on television back home in South Africa! Duane Vermeulen and Handré Pollard have been the spine of this Bulls’ outfit in 2019, and neither will play again in New Zealand this season.
The Blues have an equally stiff challenge ahead of them. They sit in the last place on the NZ log, a position not unfamiliar to them. Thirteenth on the overall log they have just 26 log points, and need to win all three their last games with try-scoring bonus points to hope for a wildcard qualification. This is not completely out of the question, but they will need to thump the Bulls, then the Reds, and finally the Hurricanes. To achieve that unlikely result.
At home, in Auckland, the Blues might have a chance. They have been good at home. But those final two fixtures, the Reds and the ‘Canes, are away from home.
Blues supporters will point out that their team may have lost five of their last six matches, but they were not blown away in any of those matches. They managed to score 15 tries in those six games, although one was a fairly comfortable win over the Chiefs, 23 – 8.
In all their losses the points difference was never devastating – a 12-point loss to the Highlanders 24 – 12 was the worst. They lost to the ‘Canes by 10 points, the Brumbies by 5, the Chiefs by 4, and the Crusaders by 8.
Against the Crusaders, last week, they showed intent and intensity in their 11-19 loss.
If they can recreate that kind of intensity and focus again, the Bulls may be in a spot of bother.
Blues head coach Coach Leon MacDonald has retained virtually the same starting line-up for their Super Rugby Round 16 clash against the Bulls in Auckland on Friday.
The Blues have just one change to their starting XV.
The change in the forwards where centurion James Parsons returns from injury to start at hooker.
The backline remains unchanged for the third straight game.
Blues: 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Caleb Clarke, 13 TJ Faiane, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Reiko Ioane, 10 Harry Plummer, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Lua Li, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Hoskins Sotutu, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Otere Black, 23 Tanielu Tele’a.D
Pote Human has been forced into a few changes to his team for the opening match on the New Zealand leg of their Australasian tour.
The most significant change is at scrumhalf, where the Bulls are rotating again.
Human has named Ivan van Zyl at scrumhalf, taking over from Andre Warner, who drop down to the replacement bench – with Embrose Papier dropping out of the matchday 23.
Marco van Staden comes in at flank for Paul Schoeman, who moves to No.8 in the place of Duane Vermeulen, who has returned to South Africa as part of the SA Rugby agreement with contracted Springboks and their franchises.
Jason Jenkins will don the blue jersey for the 50th time.
With Handré Pollard and Duane Vermeulen back home in SA, Burger Odendaal will take over the captaincy.
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 John-Ben Kotze, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain), 11 Rosko Specman, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Paul Schoeman, 7 Hanro Liebenberg, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Rudolph Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Wiehahn Herbst, 19 Jannes Kirsten, 20 Ruan Steenkamp, 21 Andre Warner, 22 John Jackson, 23 Divan Rossouw.
I am struggling to find positives for the Bulls as they head into this game without their match-winner Handré Pollard, and their mongrel-inspiring No.8 Duane Vermeulen.
Throughout 2019 the Bulls have relied heavily on Pollard’s almost metronomic kicking boot to keep them in the game and to win matches.
Duane Vermeulen has been their ball-carrying powerhouse, and has been almost unbeatable at the ruck, where he has won more turnovers than anyone else in the competition, and has earned more ruck penalties than anyone else – those are often the penalties that Pollard was able to convert into points.
One of the strongest aspects of the Bulls’ 2019 game is thus missing this week. (And next week!)
Tries have been a scarce luxury as they have dotted the ball down just 29 times.
The Bulls do have a very good lineout with a 93,5% success rate, and their driving maul off the lineout has been very good.
Their scrum, however, despite some very good performances by their front three, has an 89% success rate, which is a bit light when they have to face the best scrum in the competition. The Blues have a 97% scrummaging success rate!
The Blues lineout has been efficient too, with an 87% success rate.
The weakness in the Bulls’ game has been their defence, they have conceded 41 tries, not the worst in the competition, but…….
They do have some consolation in this department. The Blues have also struggled to score tries, with just 35 to their credit, while conceding 36.
The one area where the Bulls are likely to dominate the Blues is in the lineouts and the subsequent driving mauls. Defending the maul has been a particular weakness of the Blues in 2019, the phase of play where they have conceded more tries than anyone else in the competition.
The Bulls’ backline has been seriously disrupted by injuries and by Springbok rest periods and the like. This has resulted in some disjointed performances that have contributed directly to the paucity of tries by the men from Pretoria.
The Blues back division has a very settled look to it, with some serious strike power in Reiko Ioane, Melani Nanai, Caleb Clarke, and the underrated TJ Faiane. Ma’a Nonu provides the brains and experience to guide the youngsters around him. Their weakness is probably at 10 where Harry Plummer has not quite found his feet at this level of the game.
I am not sure that the Bulls have the forward firepower to dominate the Blues, both in the scrums and in the tight-loose phases of play. In the looser phases of play the Blues seem to have the edge through Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, and Tom Robinson, a more settled trio than the Schoeman, Liebenberg, and van Staden combination. The Bulls do have RG Snyman who has been playing out-of-his-skin in the loose.
For me, it all comes back to a better scrum and a more efficient back division, coupled to a very good loose trio from the Blues, playing a superb lineout and driving maul from the Bulls. The Blues just seem to have more of an “all field” look.
With desperation as a motivator, this could be an interesting game to watch.
I have the Blues, with home advantage, winning by 9.
Rebels v Waratahs
|Venue:||AAMI Park, Melbourne|
|Date||Friday 31 May|
|Kick-off||19h45 local; 09h45 GMT; 11h45 SA Time|
We are told that the Waratahs are desperate.
So desperate that they have refused to rest their Wallabies despite the agreement with Rugby Australia to do so. None of Rob Simmons, Michael Hooper, Sekope Kepu, Kurtley Beale, or Bernard Foley are being rested this week as coach Darryl Gibson clings to the hope that his team might still qualify for the playoffs.
Gibson has gone so far as to say that he will not rest his Wallabies against the Rebels this week, nor next week against the Brumbies.
That might upset Michael Cheika somewhat!
I am not sure that there is any point to Gibson’s desperation.
The Waratahs trail the Brumbies by eight points and Rebels by seven.
Even if the ’Tahs can beat the Rebels in this game, and then go on to beat the Brumbies in Sydney, the Glamour Boys would still need an unlikely slip-up from the Brumbies against the bottom-placed Sunwolves to have a faint hope of making the play-offs.
They finish their season away from home to the Highlanders in Dunedin, which is not going to be easy.
Bonus point wins in all three their final games would give them a maximum of 41 points.
In the real world that is unlikely, which suggests that Darryl Gibson’s desperation is more than a little misguided.
The Rebels, however, are on a totally different mission. They know that they simply and absolutely have to bank a bonus-point win this week to stay in touch with the Brumbies. The Brumbies have the much easier task of taking on the Sunwolves this Saturday and are very likely to bank a bonus point of their own. If the Brumbies add a full five points, and the Rebels slip up, the gap could become a 6-pointer, and that could be crucial in the final count-out.
The Brumbies have an easier run-in to the end of the regular season. After this weekend’s clash with the Sunwolves, they have the ‘Tahs away from home and then the Reds back in Canberra. Two wins, and they are through.
The Rebels have to take down the ‘Tahs in Melbourne and then travel to New Zealand to play the Crusaders, and then come home for their final regular season game, hosting the Chiefs. They need at least 12 points from these three games to overtake the Brumbies.
As far as this game goes, it does seem that it is “Mission Impossible” for the Waratahs, and a “Must Win” for the Rebels.
The Rebels will welcome back Isi Naisarani, Luke Jones and Anaru Rangi to the starting XV, while Matt To’omua will line up for his first Rebels start at inside centre.
With the news of his re-signing to the team until 2021 announced this week, the Rebels have been further buoyed by Naisarani’s return from a toe injury to re-take his place at No.8.
Rebels stalwart Luke Jones will also return to his blindside flank after recovery from a fractured cheekbone, while Anaru Rangi has been ushered back into the team after being rested in the Rebels’ 45-point win over the Sunwolves.
To’omua replaces Billy Meakes at inside centre, with the latter dropping to the bench.
In further changes to the starting XV, props Tetera Faulkner and Jermaine Ainsley will start ahead of fellow front rowers Matt Gibbon and Sam Talakai, while hooker Hugh Roach will return to the bench following the inclusion of Rangi.
Flanker Rob Leota, lock Sam Jeffries and hooker Jordan Uelese have been the unlucky omissions in what looms as one of the most competitive Rebels’ sides announced this the season.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty (captain), 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Reece Hodge, 12 Matt To’omua, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Richard Hardwick, 6 Luke Jones, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Matt Philip, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Anaru Rangi, 1 Tetera Faulkner.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Matt Gibbon, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Ross Haylett-Petty, 20 Angus Cottrell, 21 Michael Ruru, 22 Billy Meakes, 23 Tom English.
Daryl Gibson has named a largely unchanged line up for Friday’s Round 16 Super Rugby match with the Rebels.
Karmichael Hunt is the major omission through injury, after the centre went down in the opening minutes last week against the Jaguares.
Hunt will be replaced by Lalakai Foketi, following an impressive performance off the bench against the Argentinians.
Curtis Rona returns to the starting XV in place of Cameron Clark, while Mack Mason joins the bench.
Loosehead Prop Tom Robertson will earn his 50th Waratahs and Super Rugby cap.
Jed Holloway can notch a half-century of appearances if he comes off the bench.
Waratahs: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Lalakai Foketi, 11 Curtis Rona, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Lachlan Swinton, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Ned Hanigan, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Tuala, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Chris Talakai, 19 Jed Holloway, 20 Will Miller, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Mack Mason, 23 Cameron Clark.
Much as in the previous preview where I struggled to find positives for the Bulls as they visit the Blues, so too am I struggling to find positives for the Waratahs as they head into Melbourne to play the Rebels. History might favour the Waratahs, with 14 wins in 16 matches against the Rebels, but that was before 2019. This year the Rebels have been far more consistent than their visitors, especially when playing at home. They have won four home games and are looking for a fifth, which would be their best home-season record since the inception of the club.
The Rebels have won 7 of their 13 games in 2019, while the ‘Tahs have won 5.
The Rebels have scored 53 tries, the second most in Super Rugby, just 6 behind the Crusaders. The Waratahs have scored just 39. Both teams have conceded 40.
Neither team has impressed with the ball in hand, their carries and meters gained stats are decidedly mid- to lower end of the table. Neither team has beaten too many defenders either. Both have made an almost identical number of clean breaks too.
The Waratahs have been the better of the two defensively, with an 86,2% tackle rate, compared to an 82,8% rate for the Rebels.
The Rebels, however, have been by far the better of the two in converting possession into scoring opportunities, and then taking those opportunities.
The Rebels do have the upper hand in the lineouts and scrum set-pieces.
One differentiator has been the Rebels ball-poaching skills in the lineouts, where they have stolen 19 balls, more than anyone else.
The Rebels have had some disciplinary problems, conceding 114 penalties, although this aspect of the game has improved in recent weeks. The Waratahs are not far behind with 94 penalties.
The real differentiator between these two teams seems to be mental rather than statistical.
The Rebels are a happy, settled bunch of players who seem to be enjoying their work. They seem more focussed on the job at hand than their rivals.
The Waratahs have exuded something of a “victim” mentality during 2019 – “Nobody loves us, everybody hates us, we are going to the garden to eat worms…”
The reality seems to be that the Waratahs are a team that somehow expected their opponents to roll over when the mighty ‘Tahs, loaded with Wallabies, rode into town. When that did not happen, the result has often been bemusement and then the victim card………..
The Waratahs should, based on paper pedigrees, be the better of the two teams.
The Rebels, based on results and perceptions, are the better of the two in 2019.
The Rebels will win this one, by 12 points.