Super Rugby 2019

Weekend Preview & Predictions

Round Nine

The six-match Round 9 kicks-off on Friday with New Zealand Conference leaders, the Crusaders hosting the Highlanders in Christchurch. The action heads over to Australia where the Australian Conference leaders, the Rebels, host the Stormers in Melbourne.

Saturday sees four matches and kicks-off in Hamilton with the Chiefs hosting the Blues who are on a four-match winning streak. Over in Canberra the Brumbies and Lions clash, before we head to Durban where the Sharks play the Jaguares. The weekend finishes in Pretoria where the Bulls take on the Reds.

Friday Games

Crusaders v Highlanders

Venue Christchurch Stadium, Christchurch
Date Friday 12 April
Kick-off 19h35 local; 07h35 GMT; 09h35 SA Time
Referee Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
AR1 Damon Murphy
AR2 Angus Gardner
TMO Glenn Newman

Ben Smith will be playing his 150th game for the Highlanders when they take on the table-topping Crusaders in Christchurch. The Highlanders will need him to be at his very best if they want to win this game and, perhaps, signal a turnaround in their season which has, if the truth be told, been pretty miserable so far in 2019. 

To complicate matters a bit more for the visitors, they will be playing outdoors in Christchurch, which is vastly different to playing under the roof in Dunedin. The arrival of autumn in Christchurch brings with it colder, wetter and windy days, and the weather forecast for Friday is suggesting that it is going to be all of those things during this game. The temperature is forecast to be no higher than 12C, with a stiff 35kmh wind, and the possibility of rain.

The Crusaders are used to these conditions, they live with their weather all year round and get to practice in these conditions whenever practical.

The Highlanders are not used to playing outdoors in the cold and wet. Period.

That is why the Highlanders have managed just one win in their last seven starts in Christchurch. Now they have to beat the conditions, as well as a confident and on-form Crusaders with plenty of motivation and focus for this game.

Ben Smith’s 150thmight not be a game that he will be wanting to remember one day in the dim and distant future when he sits down with all his old buddies to talk about the good old days.

Team News:

The Crusaders:

Scott Robertson has named a side that features seven changes for Friday’s clash with the Highlanders in Christchurch.

Andrew Makalio will start this game at hooker, and Ben Funnell has been named on the bench. Codie Taylor, who was withdrawn from last weekend’s match with a calf strain, will be rested ahead of the bye.

Owen Franks, who suffered a shoulder sprain in the Brumbies match, will also sit this one out, and is replaced by Michael Alaalatoa in the three jersey. Oliver Jager will provide cover on the bench.

The final changes to the forward pack will see Sam Whitelock and Whetukamokamo Douglas return to the starting side, and Whitelock resume the captaincy.

At half-back, Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond swap this week, so that Hall starts and Drummond moves to the bench.

Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor both return to the starting side at centre and on the right wing respectively. The only other change to the matchday 23 sees Mitch Hunt replace Brett Cameron on the bench.

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Braydon Ennor, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Sevu Reece, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Whetu Douglas, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Harry Allan, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Will Jordan

The Highlanders:

Ben Smith will lead his team out to play his 150th game for the Highlanders on Friday. He will run out first both as captain and to mark the significant achievement of 150 games for his club.

A local boy, born and raised in Dunedin, Smith made his debut in 2009. He has scored 190 points for the club.

Coach Aaron Mauger has handed Josh Ioane the Highlanders’ No 10 jersey for the trip Christchurch to face the Crusaders on Friday.

The flyhalf hasn’t started a match since the fourth round loss to the Hurricanes a month ago, an injury to Marty Banks has opened the door for him to run the attack.

Luke Whitelock, who was named in the All Blacks’ 41-man ‘foundation day’ squad, has been ruled out due to a calf niggle, allowing Elliot Dixon his second start of the campaign at No 8.

There are a few changes in the tight five, with Pari Parkinson recalled to add some size to the pack while Josh Dickson moves to the bench.

Daniel Lienert-Brown gets a start in the No 1 jersey, while Ayden Johnstone starts on the pine as the Highlanders manage the workload of their young forwards.

James Lentjes, starts in the No 7 jersey with a strong game against the Hurricanes and Shannon Frizell gets another run at No 6, with Jackson Hemopo handed the impact role once more.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Patelesio Tomkinson

Thoughts:

My immediate thought is that the Crusaders forwards are simply too good for the Highlanders. Even without Owen Franks, the front row of Alaalatoa, Makalio, and Moody is a formidable unit, backed by the international class second row of Whitelock and Barrett, and then you have a loose trio comprising Kieran Read, Matt Todd, and Whetu Douglas.

This forward unit is a challenge for anybody in the world, including many test teams, and certainly a level up from the Highlanders, who simply do not have the same level of quality international players in their ranks.

The Highlanders loosies are no slouches, but Dixon, Lentjes, and Frizell are again overshadowed by the experience and class of the Crusaders trio.

At the back, once again, it is a Crusaders outfit laced with All Blacks and near-All Blacks that catches the eye. A midfield of Goodhue and Crotty, with Havili, Ennor and Reece out wide, and playing off Bryn Hall and Richie Mo’unga is as good as it gets.

Despite the presence of Ben Smith at 15, the rest of the Highlanders backs are not a settled combination. Injuries have not helped, which both Marty Banks and Richard Buckman out this week, resulting in yet more changes before taking on the Crusaders.

Almost every indicator that you could think of is favouring the home side.

The weather and conditions, the form of the two teams, the quality of the squads, the form of individual players, and then there is home ground advantage too, everything says that this is a game the Crusaders will win comfortably.

However, one should never discount the Highlanders’ mongrel. They are a team with a reputation for fighting hardest when they are the underdogs, and they are certainly the underdogs in Christchurch on Friday!

Even then, I am not sure that pure mongrel is going to be enough.

Prediction:

The quality of the Crusaders, at home, versus the out-of-sorts Highlanders?

It has to be the Crusaders, by around 14 points.

Rebels v Stormers

Venue AAMI Park, Melbourne
Date Friday 12 April
Kick-off 19h45 local; 09h45 GMT; 11h45 SA Time
Referee Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
AR1 Brendon Pickerill
AR2 Rasta Rasivhenge
TMO James Leckie

The Stormers arrive in Melbourne a somewhat depleted team. Their second row stocks are at an all-time low as all four their front-line locks are back home, some with injuries – Eben Etzebeth, Chris van Zyl, and JD Schickerling – while Pieter-Steph du Toit is on paternity leave. Captain Siya Kolisi has also been forced to sit this game out because of the agreement with Springbok management for limiting national players’ game time. Du Toit’s leave could not have come at a worse time for the Stormers as they are in desperate need of the leadership and focus that he brings to the squad. This is not a good time for anyone to be on leave……

Some might add that their backline has been on leave for most of 2019 too. Despite the potential amongst the backs, they have been a strangely dysfunctional and misfiring unit all year.

Many are pointing fingers at Robbie Fleck’s coaching as being the primary reason for the Stormers’ failure to kick up a gear or two, and that may well be a contributing factor, but I do believe that the turmoil and infighting back in their home union has a much bigger impact than many will realise.

A report this week about the civil war that rages within the Western Province Rugby Union, with the personal agendas of elected officials interfering with the professional side of the game provides much evidence of a team being set up to lose!

With an injury ravaged squad, and a dysfunctional home environment, this Stormers outfit are on something of a mission impossible at the end of a four-game tour to the Antipodes.

The Rebels are on a different, and far more easily achievable mission. They are looking for a third successive victory, which would consolidate their Australian conference lead over the second-placed Waratahs, who have a bye.

They are also looking for their first win over a South African team. Everything seems to favour the home side this week!

Team News:

The Rebels:

Wallabies back Jack Maddocks is among the injured players to be ruled out of their home clash with the Stormers.

Maddocks is among four changes to their starting XV for the AAMI Park match as they look to bank their first win this season over a South African opponent, which Rebels coach Dave Wessels described as a “mini milestone”.

The wing is out with a minor knee injury, with his place taken by Australian Under-20 flyer Semisi Tupou.

Lock Matt Philip has a bruised heel and hooker Anaru Rangi has an ankle issue, while prop Sam Talakai has been rotated into the starting side in place of Jermaine Ainsley.

Wessels said the injured trio could have played if pushed, but thought it was a chance to show faith in the wider squad.

Rebels: 15 Reece Hodge, 14 Semisi Tupou, 13 Tom English, 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Angus Cottrell (captain), 6 Luke Jones, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Ross Haylett-Petty, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Robbie Abel, 1 Tetera Faulkner.
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Matt Gibbon, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Esei Ha’angana, 20 Rob Leota, 21 Richard Hardwick, 22 Michael Ruru, 23 Campbell Magnay.

The Stormers:

Loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff will captain the Stormers on Friday.

Kitshoff takes over the captaincy from Siya Kolisi, who is being rested for the final match of the Stormers’ Australasian tour.

Kitshoff will line up alongside hooker Bongi Mbonambi and tighthead prop Wilco Louw in the front-row, with Salmaan Moerat and Cobus Wiese forming a new lock partnership and Johan du Toit on the replacements bench.

Ernst van Rhyn will make his Stormers debut at openside flank in place of Kolisi, with Kobus van Dyk and Jaco Coetzee retaining their places in the loose trio.

The only change to the backline sees scrum-half Herschel Jantjies back in the starting line-up, while wing Seabelo Senatla is set to make his first appearance of the season from the replacements bench.

Stormers: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Jaco Coetzee, 7 Kobus van Dyk, 6 Ernst van Rhyn, 5 Cobus Wiese, 4 Salmaan Moerat, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff (c)
Replacements: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Johan du Toit, 20 Juarno Augustus, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 Josh Stander, 23 Seabelo Senatla

Thoughts:

When the Stormers look back on this 2019 tour to the Antipodes, they will know that they came within a hair’s breadth of beating both the Hurricanes and the Blues in New Zealand. They will also know that they lost those two games due to their own inability to convert possession and pressure into points.

They will also know, that despite the scoreline suggesting that the Reds were much the superior team in Brisbane last week, that the Stormers were again the “masters” of their own destiny and simply failed to convert numerous scoring opportunities into points due to a weird lack of finishing ability in a backline that should be so much better than they are! (Okay, so the incompetence of referee Marius van der Westhuizen did not help much, and the harsh yellow card shown to Siya Kolisi was a huge game-breaker in that encounter.)

Three games on the road, all lost due to the inability of the Stormers to score tries. They have had chances uncountable, yet they just do not seem to be able to string together enough passes and error-free moments to turn those chances into points.

This week they are at the end of an exhausting five weeks of touring, if we add the travelling time – with the fourth game in Melbourne a massive mountain to climb before they can head home.

The Rebels have problems of their own. Injuries have taken a toll on their team too, with fullback Dane Haylett-Petty, winger Jack Maddocks, lock Matt Philip, hooker Anaru Rangi and prop Sam Talakai all sitting out the game.

In addition to their injury problem, the Rebels have something of an on-field disciplinary problem, and have conceded the most penalties per game of any team this season, and average close to one yellow card per game. Last week they were extremely fortunate not to see Billy Meakes get a yellow, perhaps even a red, for his no-arms assault on the Sunwolves’ Jason Emery.

Once again, on paper, the Stormers have the back division to give anyone a run for their money. Once again, we have to acknowledge that they are simply not playing anywhere near their potential, and are not likely to fix the problems in the final week of a tour where fatigue and the one-foot-on-the-plane syndrome will be starting to make a serious impact too.

The Rebels back division has been well managed and controlled by the Will Genia/Quade Cooper combination – their years together at the Reds have made them a formidable pairing. The rest of the backline is a very well drilled outfit, with Reece Hodge, Tom English, and Marika Koroibete’s finishing ability combining well with the mongrel attitude and unpredictability of Billy Meakes and a much improved and more mature Quade Cooper.

They seem to be a better prepared and better functioning back division than that of the visitors.

Up front the two teams have both got their problems, and much will depend on the unity of the two outfits. The Stormers seem to have the edge in the front row, but the Rebels seem to have a better second row. The loose trios are pretty much of a muchness, especially as the Stormers are missing their two kingpins, Kolisi and Du Toit.

With the forward units fairly evenly balanced, it will be the functionality of the back divisions that will be the difference between these two teams. One team’s backline is functioning well, the other is not.

On form, the Rebels thus seem to have the edge.

Prediction:

This weekend seems to be one where the current trend for the visiting teams winning games is unlikely to continue. As I have looked at all the fixtures, it just seems that it will be home-teams all the way.

The Stormers, tired at the end of a long trip away from home, ravaged by injuries and enforced rests, taking on a settled Rebels outfit. Everything says this is going to be the Rebels, by around 12 points.