Super Rugby

Weekend Previews & Predictions

Round Sixteen

Friday’s games offered two surprise results.

First, another draw! The Bulls and the Blues somehow managed to draw a game, making 2019 the season with the most draws in the history of the competition! Six in one season!

Then we saw the Waratahs confound all predictions and beat the Rebels in Melbourne. Another result that messed with most people’s predictions! 

What surprises will the rest of the weekend bring?

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.

Saturday 1 June

Sunwolves v Brumbies

Venue: Prince Chichibu Stadium, Tokyo
Date Saturday 1 June
Kick-off 14h15 local; 05h15 GMT; 07h15 SA Time; 15h15 Aus Time.
Referee Federico Anselmi
AR1 Nick Briant
AR2 Shuhei Kubo
TMO Minoru Fuji

I am not going into much detail about this one. The Brumbies will be looking for a bonus point win to extend their lead at the top of the Aussie conference, they can stretch it away from the Rebels now after the latter lost to the Waratahs on Friday.

The Sunwolves will not be looking for anything meaningful from this game. 

Team News:

Sunwolves:

The Sunwolves have, once again, made wholesale changes to their team for their Super Rugby Round 16 clash against the Brumbies in Tokyo on Saturday.

The Sunwolves have reshuffled their backline and opted to field a new pack.

The most significant modification sees Amanaki Mafi losing the No.8 jersey to Australian-born Ben Gunter.

In the loose trio, Gunter is joined by Dan Pryor and Yoshitaka Tokunaga.

In the second row, Tom Rowe takes over the No.5 jersey from Luke Thompson.

While, Takuma Asahara, Nathan Vella and Alex Woonton will be the new front-row.

The changes in the backline see New Zealander Jason Emery move from fullback to outside centre, while flyer Semisi Masirewa will don the No.15 jersey – leaving the left wing spot open for Hosea Saumaki.

The other change in the backline sees Jamie Booth at scrumhalf while in-form Hayden Parker retains the pivot positions.

Twelve of the starting 15 are not Japanese born players, and four of the reserves are also foreign legionnaires.

Sunwolves: 15 Semisi Masirewa, 14 Gerhard Van Den Heever, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Hosea Saumaki, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Jamie Booth, 8 Ben Gunter, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 5 Tom Rowe, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Takuma Asahara, 2 Nathan Vella, 1 Alex Woonton
Replacements: 16 Jaba Bregvadze, 17 Masataka Mikami, 18 Conan O’Donnell, 19 Yuya Odo, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Keisuke Uchida, 22 Takuya Yamasawa, 23 Timothy Lafaele.

Brumbies:

Brumbies Head Coach Dan McKellar has made just one change to the team that defeated the Bulls at GIO Stadium last week.

The coach has opted to rotate prop James Slipper into the starting XV. Slipper comes into the front row, with Scott Sio rotated to the bench.

There are two changes amongst the replacements as Lachlan McCaffrey makes a welcome return from injury.

Matt Lucas, is recalled to the fbench having last featured against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.

Brumbies: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Irae Simone, 11 Toni Pulu, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Pete Samu, 7 Jahrome Brown, 6 Tom Cusack, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Folau Fainga’A, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 Connal Mcinerney, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Leslie Leuluaialii-Makin, 19 Darcy Swain, 20 Lachlan Mccaffrey, 21 Rob Valetini, 22 Matt Lucas, 23 Tom Wright

Thoughts:

Top of the Aussie table plays stone last.

Nothing more to add.

If you are truly bored and do not want to watch paint drying, or the hair on your head growing, try watching your fingernails grow…

Predictions:

The Brumbies, by a whole lot of points. Let’s say 30.

Chiefs v Crusaders

Venue:ANZ National Stadium, Suva, Fiji
Date Saturday 1 June
Kick-off 19h35 local; 07h35 GMT; 09h35 SA Time
Referee Ben O’Keeffe
AR1 Glen Jackson
AR2 James Munro
TMO Shane McDermott

This is something of a home game for a whole bunch of players in both teams. Two of the players, Pita Gus Sowakula of the Chiefs, and Sevu Reece of the Crusaders were born in Fiji, while a number of others trace their roots and family heritage back to this wonderful island.

Officially, this is a Chiefs’ home game, despite the game being played a very long way away from their base in Hamilton. The Chiefs do have a strong support base in Fiji, although the Crusaders have their followers too.

Based on the season so far, this game is almost a foregone conclusion, the Crusaders have 53 log points, and the Chiefs have 27. First on the log plays 11th. The Crusaders have won 10 games, precisely double the number of victories chalked up by the Chiefs.

The Crusaders have scored 59 tries, the Chiefs 48. More importantly, the Crusaders have conceded just 25 tries all season, the Chiefs 54.

However, in the last couple of weeks there has been a slight indication, just a hint, that the Crusaders are a little vulnerable. Two draws against South African teams, one in Christchurch and the other at Newlands, have sent a small suggestion that the Crusaders can be beaten.

Whether this Chiefs outfit is the team to beat the Crusaders remains to be seen.

Team News:

Chiefs:

Colin Cooper has made only one change to a versatile forward pack this weekend. Hooker Nathan Harris earns a week off and Samisoni Taukei’aho will start at hooker with Bradley Slater joining the bench as cover in jersey No.16.

In the backline, scrumhalf Brad Weber will start in his 70th appearance for the Chiefs. Flyhalf Jack Debreczeni will start at No.10 moving Marty McKenzie to the bench in jersey No.22.

Anton Lienert-Brown returns from All Blacks leave to start at inside-centre combining with Alex Nankivell in the midfield, with Tumua Manu as cover on the bench in jersey No.23. In the final change to the backline, Sean Wainui will start on the left wing in absence of Etene Nanai-Seturo who is with the New Zealand Under-20’s.

On the reserves bench, tighthead prop Angus Ta’avao returns to the fold named in No.18. Following a successful debut, Daymon Leasuasu retains his spot in the 23 and is joined by loose forward Mitchell Jacobson.

Once again, loosehead prop Aidan Ross and scrumhalf Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi retain their positions in the reserves.

Chiefs: 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Shaun Stevenson, 13 Alex Nankivell, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Sean Wainui, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Pita Gus Sowakula, 7 Sam Cane (captain), 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Tyler Ardron, 4 Jesse Parete, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 1 Atu Moli.
Replacements: 16 Bradley Slater, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Daymon Leasuasu, 20 Mitchell Jacobson, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Tumua Manu.

Crusaders: 

Scott Robertson has brought Kieran Read, Billy Harmon, Mitch Drummond and Braydon Ennor back into the starting XV.

Ben Funnell and Mitch Dunshea also feature in the matchday 23 this week.

Harmon has earned a start this week in place of vice-captain Matt Todd, who has been rested. Read’s return sees Whetu Douglas move from No.8 to the blindside, and Jordan Taufua shift to the reserves.

The two changes in the backline from the side that took the field against the Blues last Saturday see Bryn Hall and George Bridge move to the bench, making way for Drummond and Ennor to start this game.

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Braydon Ennor, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Isi Tu’ungafasi, 18 George Bower, 19 Mitchell Dunshea, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge.

Thoughts:

The stats tell us that the Chiefs have an 85,1% tackle success rate for 2019. This is above average and would normally indicate a team that defends fairly well. Sadly, this rating is based on actual tackle attempts made and succeeding, or failing. Many who have watched the Chiefs in 2019 will tell you that this tackle success rate obscures the fact that the Chiefs’ defence has been somewhere close to abysmal this season. Many of the 54 tries scored against them have been unopposed tries as the Chiefs defensive structures simply evaporated and left huge holes in the line, holes that opponents have galloped through without so much as a fingernail being laid on them. When there is no attempt at a tackle, there is no statistical input from that moment.

The lack of a solid defensive structure has been the single biggest problem the Chiefs have had all season, and it does not look as if they are able to do anything about it.

Their attack has been good, they are joint fourth in the try scoring stakes, with 48 tries, the same number as the Hurricanes. (the Crusaders are the top dog here, with their 59 tries.)

They are second on the table for clean breaks, with 169. (The Crusaders top this list too.)

Third on the table for the number of ball carries, 1608. That puts them just behind the Crusaders on 1636, and the Blues on 1654.

Fourth for meters made with the ball in hand, 9052m in total. Fifth for defenders beaten, with 299.

The Chiefs top the table for offloads, 163 of them, and sit second on the table for good passes, 1888 passes that went to hand.

All of these stats indicate a Chiefs side doing exactly what we all expect from them. They attack with great enthusiasm, and they are good at it. That is the Chiefs way.

However, when we take a look at those defensive woes, things start to fall apart a bit.

Yes, the Chiefs have made the most tackles of anyone in the competition, 2127 tackles completed. But they have missed 237, the third highest in the competition. (Only the Highlanders and the Sunwolves have worse numbers for missing tackles.)

And then there is the propensity for handing opponents unopposed tries – those where the hole has opened up in the midfield or on the fringes and an opponent scores without being touched. No attempted tackles, so no statistical data for the bean counters to enter into their spreadsheets and tables.

The Chiefs’ set-pieces have been average to poor too, their scrum has been steady, but their lineouts have struggled, down at 12thon the statistical data table, with an 86% success rate.

All the stats contribute to telling a tale of a team that is getting some things right, but is struggling with certain critical components of the game of rugby.

The stats confirm everything that we have seen when watching the Chiefs.

Now this is a preview of what will happen when the Chiefs play the Crusaders in Suva, Fiji, and I have said absolutely nothing about the Crusaders yet!

Do I need to say anything?

The Crusaders sit at the top of the log, they lead the stats in almost every category worth mentioning. In fact only their lineouts have wobbled a bit in 2019, with an 88,1% success rate. Even there, they are ahead of the Chiefs on 86%.

Ignoring the statistics for a moment, and thinking simply about the on-field rugby we have watched all season, and in every single aspect of the game, the Crusaders are way ahead of the Chiefs. We do not really need the statistical evidence to tell us that.

Predictions:

Suva may be an official home ground for the Chiefs this weekend, but I would suggest that the Fijian support will be fairly evenly split between the two teams. Effectively this is neutral territory for both sides. Hence there is no home ground advantage or home town support base. Both teams are visitors.

Without the advantage of playing at home, neither side starts the game with anything other than the rugby they have played so far in the season as an indicator of which way the result will go.

Based simply on the visual and statistical evidence, the Crusaders will win, comfortably. I would suggest a spread of some 15 points.

Reds v Jaguares

Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Date Saturday 1 June
Kick-off 19h45 local; 09h45 GMT; 11h45 SA Time; 06h45 Argentine Time.
Referee Jaco Peyper
AR1 Egon Seconds
AR2 Paul Williams
TMO James Leckie

I am prepared to bet that Suncorp stadium is going to be very close to empty when the Jaguares take the field against the Reds on Saturday. You see, the entire city of Brisbane, and the entire state of Queensland, is distracted by the Aussie Rugby League’s upcoming State of Origin series. Scheduled for the 5thof June, Queensland will play New South Wales in the first of three games to determine NRL bragging rights for 2019. 

This State of Origin series includes a Queensland Residents game against the Residents of NSW – this game was played on the 12thMay with Queensland winning 47 – 22. Also on the menu are U/20, U/18, and U/16 games.

One can understand that the residents of Brisbane are somewhat distracted from supporting the Reds, especially as their team’s season is all but over from a qualification for the playoffs perspective.

Very few seats in Suncorp will be occupied on Saturday. 

Wives, girlfriends, and doting parents, some club mates, and a bunch of Argentineans who are following the Jaguares are likely the entire crowd as the Jaguares look to further extend their lead at top of the South African conference.

They will fancy their chances against a struggling Reds side.

Team News:

Reds:

The Reds have made six changes to their starting XV for Saturday’s match against the Jaguares at Suncorp Stadium.

Prop JP Smith returns from concussion, while Brandon Paenga-Amosa will start at hooker in a new-look frontrow.

After assuming the captaincy in Samu Kerevi’s absence last week, Izack Rodda will be rested for this match in accordance with Rugby Australia’s workload management policy.

It sees a reshuffle to the forward pack, as Lukhan Salakaia-Loto shifts from the backrow to lock, Angus Scott-Young moves to blindside flank and in his 100th match for the Reds, Scott Higginbotham will start at number eight.

There’s a further three changes to the backline with Kerevi resuming the captaincy at inside centre and Chris Feauai-Sautia (knee) and Filipo Daugunu (arm) both returning from injury.

Hegarty and Matt McGahan will also trade places in a positional switch, with McGahan at flyhalf and Hegarty starting in the 15 jersey.

Hooker Alex Mafi is on the bench this week in one-of-five changes to the reserves.

Gav Luka could potentially make his Super Rugby and Queensland debut after being named in the Reds’ 23 for the first time.

Lock Harry Hockings returns from suspension, Duncan Paia’aua drops to the bench, while Hamish Stewart is set to make his comeback from a shoulder injury.

Reds: 15 Bryce Hegarty, 14 Jock Campbell, 13 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 12 Samu Kerevi (captain), 11 Filipo Daugunu, 10 Matt McGahan , 9 Tate McDermott, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Liam Wright, 6 Angus Scott-Young, 5 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 4 Angus Blyth, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 JP Smith
Replacements: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Gav Luka, 19 Harry Hockings, 20 Adam Korczyk, 21 Scott Malolua, 22 Duncan Paia’aua, 23 Hamish Stewart

Jaguares:

The Jaguares have shuffled their side that will face the Reds on Saturday.

Gonzalo Quesada has made 10 changes to the team that recorded a 23-15 win over the Waratahs in Sydney.

In the backline, Juan Cruz Mallia takes over the No.15 jersey from Emiliano Boffelli, with Matias Orlando moving to the inside centre, making way for Matias Moroni at outside centre.

There are also changes to halfback duo as Joaquin Diaz Bonilla and Felipe Ezcurra replace Domingo Miotti and Tomás Cubelli.

In the pack, the mentor opted to change his entire front row with Lucio Sordoni, Agustin Creevy and Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro coming in for Santiago Medrano, Julian Montoya and Mayco Vivas.

The second row sees Tomas Lavanini and Lucas Paulos replacing Marcos Kremer and Guido Petti.

While the loose trio combo will comprise of Javier Ortega Desio, Tomas Lezana and Guido Petti with Pablo Matera and dropping to the bench.

Jaguares: 15 Juan Cruz Mallia, 14 Santiago Carreras, 13 Matias Moroni, 12 Matias Orlando (captain), 11 Ramiro Moyano, 10 Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, 9 Felipe Ezcurra, 8 Javier Ortega Desio, 7 Tomas Lezana, 6 Guido Petti, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Lucas Paulos, 3 Lucio Sordoni, 2 Agustin Creevy, 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro.
Replacements: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Mayco Vivas, 18 Enrique Pieretto, 19 Marcos Kremer, 20 JUan Manuel Leguizamon , 21 Pablo Matera, 22 Tomas Cubelli, 23 Jeronimo De La Fuente.

Thoughts:

The Reds have been riding a rugby seesaw all season. Ups and downs have been a feature of their game, a pendulum of highs and lows that has continued with two relatively tight losses the last two weeks. Their game against the Waratahs was lost due, in the main, to some of their perennial discipline problems, and the misfiring boot of their goal kickers. 

Last week, against the equally misfiring Chiefs, the Reds entire game plan was exposed – without Samu Kerevi, their backline is woeful.

He has been the kingpin, the axis of the Reds entire backline game. If he does not carry the ball and look to burst the tackle, he is the decoy that attracts defenders onto him, opening spaces away from him for others to exploit.

They will be very pleased to have him back this week!

The Jaguares arrive in Brisbane with a remarkable record. They have never been beaten in Australia!  Their 2019 tour is also unbeaten to date. They have won two on the trot, following a win over the Hurricanes in NZ with a win last week over the Waratahs.

As usual, the Waratah support base went into whinging overdrive as habitual Waratah and Wallaby jingoist Phil Kearns suggested that the Jaguares should not be playing Super Rugby.

Mr Kearns is known for his overtly one-sided and often ill-conceived comments, ranging from outrage every time a referee blows the whistle against his favoured ‘Tahs or Wallabies, to downright racist comments about opponents. Enough has been said about his pathetic cheerleading and outright bias, we will not discuss his recent comments other than to suggest that the Jaguares will have taken note, and may be even more motivated by them!

Key aspects of this game will be found in the forward exchanges – the Reds have the very smallest edge in the scrum, both teams have been pretty woeful in this set-piece. 

Both teams have a good lineout, although the benching of Alex Mafi might detract from the Reds’ lineout in the early stages of the game. Mafi ranks 4thin lineout throwing accuracy, and his accuracy might be missed against a team known for disrupting the opposition lineout at every opportunity. 

Both teams have very good lineout poachers. However, Izack Rodda, the best in Super Rugby 2019, is not playing this week, while the two Argentinean master-poachers, Guido Petti and Javier Ortega Desio are starting for the Jaguares. Rodda’s Wallaby rest week could not have come at a worse time.

The real test will be on the defence. The Jaguares have one of the best defences around, ranking fourth for tackles made and third for turnovers in the tackle. The Reds are down at 12thfor tackles made.

The Jaguares midfield defenders have been particularly solid, stopping some pretty fancied midfielders across the competition. They will know that Samu Kerevi needs constant attention, and will look to shut him down as much as possible.

When the final 20 minutes of this game ticks around we will see the measure of the two teams’ depth, and here the Jaguares seem to have the advantage. Their bench is littered with internationals, while the Reds have two players potentially making their debut off the bench and another two returning from injury and suspension.

The Jaguares lead the competition for tries in the last quarter of a game for a very good reason. They have strength in depth!

Discipline might be an issue for both sides. The Jaguares have recently conceded a number pf penalties at the breakdowns, while the Reds’ Taniela Tupou is the most penalised player in the competition this year, giving away 19.

The Reds might well find this game to their liking – there are no expectations of a playoff spot, and thus no constraints on their game. With no pressure, they might go out there to have some fun, and that could give them a small edge.

However, this Jaguares outfit are the Masters of Disruption. They know how to turn opposition game plans on their heads.

Predictions:

I have the Jaguares consolidating their lead in the SA Conference with a comfortable 12 point win over the Reds.

Sharks v Hurricanes

Venue: Kings Park, Durban
Date Saturday 1 June
Kick-off 15h05 local (SA Time); 13h05 GMT; 01h05 NZ Time.
Referee Nic Berry 
AR1 AJ Jacobs
AR2 Divan Uys
TMO Willie Vos

If ever there was a time for the Sharks to put their doubters and detractors behind them, it is in this game where the Hurricanes visit Kings Park.

The Sharks have a somewhat woeful home record in 2019, yet they have a remarkably good record against New Zealanders. They have won their last four home games against Kiwi sides on the trot. They have also shown that they can beat the New Zealanders back in New Zealand.

That alone should be enough motivation to produce the goods against the hurricanes.

Not that they need motivation other than the fact that they are third on the South African log, three points behind the Jaguares and the Bulls, who have already drawn their Round 16 game and earned two points to get them level with the South Americans. The Sharks need a good win to keep up the pressure on the Argentineans and the Bulls, and to keep their hopes of a home quarterfinal alive. A bonus point win would help!

The Hurricanes arrive in Durban knowing that they have won four of their previous six games against the Sharks, including the last two on the trot.

They will have a little motivation of their own. Firstly, the game is something of a grudge match for coach John Plumtree, who played 80 games for the Sharks between 1988 and 1997. He coached the Sharks from 2008 until he was ignominiously and inexplicably fired by John Smit in 2012. He is married to a Durban girl, Lara, and their youngest son Troy was born in Durban.

John Plumtree might well have been the Sharks coach in this fixture, had John Smit not decided that he would rather bring Jake White to Durban from Canberra.

The next bit of ‘Canes motivation will be that they have never won three successive games against the Sharks outfit. This could be the one.

This will be the Sharks’ final home game of the regular season as they hit the road for the final two rounds against the Jaguares and the Stormers.

Team News:

Sharks:

Robert du Preez has made just one change to last week’s starting side that defeated the Lions, with Philip van der Walt out with a shoulder niggle and Jacques Vermeulen starting in his place on the flank.

Meanwhile, the Sharks’ bench has been bolstered with Thomas du Toit and Tyler Paul returning to the matchday 23.

Craig Burgen has been bracketed with Cullen Collopy for the No.16 jersey.

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 Jacques Vermeulen, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Mzamo Majola.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden/Cullen Collopy, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Tyler Paul, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Robert du Preez, 23. Kobus van Wyk.

Hurricanes:

John Plumtree has made three changes to his starting XV for their Round 16 Super Rugby match against the Sharks in Durban.

Dane Coles will return to the Hurricanes playing squad for the match.

Coles has been named on the bench along with experienced loose forward Gareth Evans, the pair returning after being sidelined for an extended period due to calf injuries.

Beauden Barrett has been named to start at flyhalf after he missed the side’s last match against the Jaguares.

Reed Prinsep has been named to start at No 8 after he missed the Round 14 fixture due to injury.

The only other change to the run on side is at lock where Kane Le’aupepe replaces Isaia Walker-Leawere who moves to the bench.

That bench has been dramatically altered with prop Fraser Armstrong also returning from injury to join Coles and Evans.

Du’Plessis Kirifi and James Marshall, who both started against the Jaguares, move to the reserves.

Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Wes Goosen, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (captain), 8 Reed Prinsep, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Isaia Walker-Leawere, 4 James Blackwell, 3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2 Asafo Aumua, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Fraser Armstrong, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Kane Le’aupepe, 20 Du’Plessis Kirifi, 21 Gareth Evans, 22 Richard Judd, 23 James Marshall.

Thoughts:

Two teams that play diametrically opposed styles of rugby. Muscle versus Mind, Brawn versus Brains, whatever you wish to call it, this is the essence of the way the two teams play their game.

The Sharks will look for forward domination, and then play the direct ball close in to the forwards, looking to play one-off-the-nine rugby to batter the Hurricanes back, to milk penalties, and look for territory and points from the resultant kicks. 

It is battering-ram rugby, aided by a muscle-monkey approach to the inside midfield game, and a rush defence to stop the opposition from counter-attacking.

It is not pretty, but it is a formula that has worked against New Zealanders in the last two seasons.

This game plan works when all the parts of the machine are functioning together. But it is a game plan that has often disintegrated when the Sharks come up against a forward unit that matches them for physicality and does not allow the dominance the Sharks need. The game plan did not work against the Stormers, nor the Bulls. The plan stuttered a bit but beat the Waratahs. It did not work against the Reds nor the Chiefs. It folded spectacularly against the Jaguares. It worked equally spectacularly against the Lions back in Round 8, it worked superbly in earning a draw against the Crusaders.

Will it work against the Hurricanes?

The first problem has to be the Sharks lack of consistency. They have won 6, lost 6, and drawn 1 in 2019, while focussing on this game plan. They need to be more clinical and focussed if they want this plan to beat the Hurricanes.

That being said, the Hurricanes have struggled in the forward exchanges during 2019. Their scrum has been good, but their lineout is the worst in the entire competition, and they have struggled to defend the driving maul. They have had average results on the turnover of the ball on the ground, and have also conceded 177 turnovers.

At the back, the Hurricanes have been superb, as usual. They have made no less than 59 linebreaks and 78 tackle bursts, and have carried the ball 1437 times for 8829 meters.

Their robust defence has been impressive with a competition leading 44 turnovers in the tackle.

Overall the two teams rank almost identically in tackle success rates, but the Hurricanes have a remarkable stat of having beaten 358 defenders in 2019, the best of them all. The Sharks rank a lowly 13thin that category.

This game will be won or lost in the minds of the players. The Sharks are a confidence side, and when they have managed to establish their game plan and achieve the dominance they desire, they become almost single-minded in their relentless focus and determination.

When the Sharks wobble early in the game, and those mental doubts kick in, they have struggled to get themselves back into a dominant frame of mind.

The Hurricanes have struggled when they have been forced to come from behind, but when they have achieved scoreboard dominance, they play with an unrestrained joy that can be devastating for opponents.

Which way will it go on Saturday?

Predictions:

My initial instinct was that the Sharks would win this one, but then logic started to niggle at that instinctive call.

The Hurricanes just seem to have too much striking power, balanced by a competitive, if not dominant pack of forwards. They also have two of the most impressive rugby brains in the game – TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett, which gives them an edge. They have the Brains. I have Brains beating Brawn.

The Hurricanes, by 6

Lions v Stormers

Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Date Saturday 1 June
Kick-off 17h15 local (SA Time); 15h15 GMT.
Referee Marius van der Westhuizen
AR1 Cwengile Jadezweni
AR2 Stefan Geldenhuys
TMO Marius Jonker

Turmoil.

A word both teams know well.

A word that applied to the Stormers at the beginning of the year as their administrators seemed hell-bent on destroying the team before the first kick-off of the season. A coach with no formally appointed assistants. Finances in extremis. Internecine squabbling; rumours of coaches being hired and fired; the Director of Rugby being replaced, and then not, and then resigning. The amateur arm of the game trying to take over the management of the professional arm. The CEO not speaking to the Chairman, or was it the other way around? Bickering and squabbling as individuals sought to impose their personal agendas on the game of rugby.

Small wonder that a seriously distracted team got hammered in their opening game against the Bulls?

The noises coming from the administrative offices have receded somewhat although the volcano is still rumbling, and the Stormers really struggled to look away from the problems and focus on the rugby to get their season going in the early rounds, despite an unexpected win over both the Lions and the Sharks.

In recent weeks the Stormers seem to have found their mojo, despite still being in last place in the South African conference.

The Lions, seriously disrupted by the poaching endeavours of their former coach, Johan Ackermann, who waved an English chequebook under the noses of favoured senior players and enticed them away from Ellis Park. And then a couple of other lesser poachers stole some others. The result being that the Lions struggled with a young team that needed to find itself and establish the focus and esprit de corps that had made the Lions such a happy family in the previous three years.

Somehow they managed to win games, despite not having the same level of forward stability and dominance of previous years.

Further disruption was caused by the ongoing injury problems of their iconic captain Warren Whiteley in a team that is well short of some natural leaders amongst the senior players.

In the last week the Lions confirmed that Whiteley’s chances of playing against the Stormers were slim. He has now got a kidney stone problem. 

And then, just to cause further turmoil, something of a silenced bomb has burst over the Lions in the last two days. 

Their chief points scorer, Elton Jantjies, has been dropped from the squad for disciplinary reasons. 

Initially the news from the Lions’ camp was that Jantjies was ill, and that was why he was a spectator at Tuesday’s team practice. 

Subsequently it was announced that he had been suspended for “breaching team protocols.” We have not been given the full story, but it appears that there was an ugly altercation with a number of his team mates, which may or may not have something to do with his refusal to follow instructions by his captain, Kwagga Smith, during last week’s loss to the Sharks.

We may never know, but a disruptive week is the last thing the Lions wanted or needed as they prepare to host the Stormers at Ellis Park.

This game is critical for both teams. They both have 30 points on the log, although the Lions head the Stormers in log position because they have won seven games to the Stormers 6.

Both teams still have a realistic chance of making the cut for the playoffs, albeit  as wild card qualifiers.

This alone suggests that they have everything to play for in Johannesburg.

Team News:

Lions:

The Lions will be without Elton Jantjies who “was not considered for selection this week due to a breach of team protocol”.

Jantjies’ absence means Shaun Reynolds will partner with Ross Cronje in a new halfback pairing.

Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx returns to the starting XV and he will captain the team.

The other change to the front row sees Carlu Sadie return in the No.3 jersey.

In the back row, Cyle Brink moves to the No.6 jersey with Vincent Tshituka coming int at No.7.

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Courtnall Skosan, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Shaun Reynolds, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Kwagga Smith, 7 Vincent Tshituka, 6 Cyle Brink, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Stephan Lewies, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Malcolm Marx (captain), 1 Dylan Smith.
Replacements: 16 Jan-Henning Campher, 17 Sti Sithole, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Reinhard Nothnagel, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Hacjivah Dayimani, 22 Nic Groom, 23 Tyrone Green.

Stormers:

Steven Kitshoff will captain the Stormers in their Super Rugby encounter with the Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday.

The experienced prop takes over the captaincy from regular skipper Siyamthanda Kolisi who will miss the clash at Ellis Park.

Kolisi (knee), Pieter-Steph du Toit (shoulder) and Kobus van Dyk (knee) have all been ruled out due to injuries, which have resulted in a number of changes to the Stormers forward pack.

In the loose trio Sikhumbuzo Notshe will start at No.8, with Jaco Coetzee shifting to openside flank and Johan du Toit on the other side of the scrum.

Eben Etzebeth returns after being sidelined through illness last week and takes his place in the second row alongside Cobus Wiese.

The only change to the front row is a rotation at tighthead prop, with Wilco Louw in the starting line-up and Frans Malherbe set to make an impact in the second half.

The only changes to the replacements bench see the return of fit-again utility forward Ernst van Rhyn and a potential Stormers debut for loose forward Marno Redelinghuys.

The backline remains unchanged from the combination that featured in the 34-22 win against the Highlanders at Newlands last week.

Stormers: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Seabelo Senatla, 13 Johannes Engelbrecht, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Joshua Stander, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Johan du Toit, 6 Jaco Coetzee, 5 Cobus Wiese, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Siyabonga Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff (captain).
Replacements: 16 Chad Solomon, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Ernst van Rhyn, 20 Marno Redelinghuys (Stormers debut), 21 Justin Phillips, 22 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 23 Dan Kriel.

Thoughts:

In recent weeks the Stormers have been a changed side. Throughout the season they have relied on a dominant pack of forwards to earn them opportunity after opportunity, only to see the back line squander those opportunities like politicians spending money from the public purse.

But somewhere, somehow, in the last three weeks, the Stormers backs have suddenly started to play some rugby, improving week after week, and starting to play to the standard that their individual pedigrees suggest.

The Lions, in contrast, have tried to play their usual expansive game of rugby, but have been hamstrung by a lack of leadership on the field, and by some very poor defending.

Consider that the Lions have scored 43 tries, the most by any of the South African conference contingent. 

Consider then that they have conceded 49 tries, also the most by a South African conference team! 

Except for the Sunwolves and the Chiefs, the Lions have the worst points difference in the competition, with a negative -55. 

Much like the Chiefs, the Lions tackling rate is not bad, but the number of uncontested tries is a real problem.

Both sides are hampered by injuries, with Warren Whiteley again not available for the Lions. The Stormers are perhaps worse off with the news that both Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit are out of the team for this week, if not longer. Kobus van Dyk is also not available. Three of their loose forward stalwarts not available in one crucial game! Their over-the-ball contest might suffer as a result.

Doing a stats analysis is a bit pointless with these two teams. They have very similar stats in most categories, so we need to look at the playing evidence rather than the cold hard numbers.

The Stormers biggest problem has been their lack of finishing in 2019, a problem that robbed them of a number of games that they could, perhaps should, have won. This problem seems, on the evidence of the last three weeks, to be something of the past.

The Lions have defensive issues, and now they have to take the field without Elton Jantjies, their top points scorer with 110 points so far in 2019. They do have the advantage of Malcolm Marx’s return to hold the pack of forwards together. The reality has been that they have looked disjointed and short of focus all year.

Unit by unit, it just seems that the Stormers have the edge, with just their loose forward and flyhalf options being a little limited.

Predictions:

I am going with the Stormers, by 11.