Super Rugby 2019

Weekend Preview & Predictions

Round Seven

This 7th weekend of the 2019 Super Rugby Season kicksoff with a big New Zealand Conference derby in Wellington where the Hurricanes host the Crusaders. Later on Friday the Waratahs face the Sunwolves at the McDonald Jones Stadium.

Saturday action kicks-off in Auckland with the Blues versus Stormers match. This is followed over in Brisbane by the Aussie derby between the Reds and Rebels. Next up is the crunch South African derby between the Sharks and Bulls in Durban.

The weekend’s Super Rugby ends in Buenos Aires with the Jaguares hosting Chiefs.

Three teams enjoy a bye weekend: The Lions, Brumbies, and Highlanders.

Sanzaar & The Refs

Another  quick comment about the referees for this weekend. With six games scheduled, Sanzaar have managed to get things right for a change. Well, almost…..

Just one game features a hometown referee, with Nick Briant of New Zealand carrying the whistle when the Stormers visit the Blues in Auckland. 

All the other games feature neutral referees.

Maybe one day we will see neutral referees in all the games?

Friday’s Games

Hurricanes vs Crusaders

Venue Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Date Friday 29 March
Kick-off 19h35 local; 06h35 GMT; 08h35 SA Time
Referee Ben O’Keeffe
AR1 Glen Jackson
AR2 Nick Hogan
TMO Aaron Peterson

A magnificent 19-game winning streak ended last week, as the Waratahs unexpectedly stopped the Crusaders in their tracks.

Could this be the signal that the Crusaders’ two year dominance of Super Rugby is over? Perhaps? Maybe?

Or not.

This week will not be easy for the ‘Saders as they look to get their 2019 campaign back on the track they have occupied with single-minded intent, purpose, and focus for such a long time. This week they face the team that is most usually their most difficult of opponents, the Hurricanes.

When we look back at these two teams’ most recent meetings, we see a trend. The Crusaders win, at home, and the Hurricanes win, at home. Their last six meetings have been won by the home side, every time.

Back in 2017 the Crusaders won their first encounter, 20 – 12 in Christchurch, and then lost 31 – 22 in Wellington.

In 2018, it was a Hurricanes win in the first game, 29 – 19 in Wellington, and then the Crusaders triumphed 24 – 13 in Christchurch. They also won the 2018 semi-final in Christchurch by 30 – 12.

And in 2019, the trend continued, with the Crusaders banking the first win, 38 – 22, in Christchurch.

Based simply on this set of results and the evident home-ground advantage, then the Hurricanes are due a win this weekend.

But it is not likely to be that simple.

With both teams on 19 log points, the lead in the New Zealand Conference and in the overall standings will be up for grabs on Friday.

For the fans, the rivalry between the Crusaders and the Hurricanes is what Super Rugby is all about, and should always be about. 

This is what first, Super 12 and then Super 14 delivered every weekend, an intensity and focussed rivalry that was sadly blunted when the suits decided to add more teams to the competition.

This weekend may just offer us a glimpse of the future, when the competition returns to the 14-team format.

We can only hope….

Team News:

The Hurricanes:

John Plumtree has named a largely unchanged team to face the Crusaders in Wellington on Friday.

Vaea Fifita and Ricky Riccitelli will make their 50th appearances for the team on Friday.

The pair have been named to start the match at Westpac Stadium in a largely unchanged side from the one which defeated the Stormers last round.

TJ Perenara and Ngani Laumape return to the Hurricanes starting XV after they missed the Stormers match.

They are the only personnel changes, although there is one positional shift which sees Jordie Barrett move from the midfield to the right wing in place of Wes Goosen.

Goosen has been named on the bench.

Riccitelli, who made his debut for the Hurricanes against the Brumbies in 2016, will start after Dane Coles was ruled out with a minor calf injury.

Fifita, who made his debut against the Blues in 2015, has again be named at blindside flank.

The return of Perenara has seen Richard Judd move on to the reserves bench which also features the recall of the experienced prop Chris Eves and exciting young loose forward Du’Plessis Kirifi.

Hurricanes: 15 Chase Tiatia, 14 Jordie Barrett, 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 Liam Mitchell, 4 James Blackwell, 3 Ben May, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Fraser Armstrong.
Replacements: 16 Asafo Aumua, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 19 Isaia Walker-Leawere, 20 Du’Plessis Kirifi, 21 Richard Judd, 22 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 23 Wes Goosen.

The Crusaders

Scott Robertson has named a full-strength team to face the Hurricanes in Wellington on Friday.

Perhaps the biggest news is the return of All Black captain, Kieran Read, who will play his first game of 2019.

The starting side includes the return of two other All Blacks as Scott Barrett and Richie Mo’unga join Kieran Read in the line up against the Hurricanes, with Quinten Strange and Brett Cameron shifting to the reserves.

The return of Read sees Whetukamokamo Douglas move to the blindside, and Jordan Taufua take Tom Sanders’ spot on the bench after Sanders dislocated his shoulder against the Waratahs last weekend.

The only other changes to the matchday 23 sees Mitchell Drummond return to provide cover for Bryn Hall at scrumhalf and Oliver Jager set to play his first Super Rugby match of 2019.

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Braydon Ennor, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 5 Samuel Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Harry Allan.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 George Bower, 18 Oli Jager, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Brett Cameron, 23 Will Jordan.

Thoughts:

This is not an easy game to call. The home-ground advantage aside, the two teams have had very different seasons so far in 2019.

The Crusaders have looked to be cruising along, not yet in high gear, but functioning like a well-oiled and settled machine. Not every player is in top form yet, but the machine is working.

At least, it was working until last week’s hiccough against the Waratahs. 

I am not a mechanically minded person. The workings of the internal combustion engine are a complete mystery to me, and I have yet to see electricity flowing from the end of a cable….. Open a tap, and water flows out of the spigot, switch on the electricity, and there is, well, nothing…… They tell me the electricity is flowing, but I cannot see it!

When a motorcar’s engine gives one of those hiccoughs, that kinda stuttering jerk before it settles down to run smoothly, I simply assume that it was the mechanical equivalent of a human burp, a bit of excess gas expelled, and everything will be okay afterwards. It usually is.

When the Crusader engine stuttered and hiccoughed against the Waratahs, my thought was that it was the rugby equivalent of that human burp.  

Just like there can be a number of reasons for that human burp, there could be many reasons for that stutter in the Crusader engine.  Turmoil in their hometown, a cancelled match, emotions, talk about changing the team’s name…

I cannot tell for sure what exactly gave rise to their somewhat listless and unfocussed performance against the Waratahs.

But I do feel that it was only a stutter in the engine, just a burp.

The Crusaders still top the standings – ahead of the Hurricanes on points difference, but there are some other numbers that count too – The ‘Saders have a positive points difference of +49, whilst the ‘Canes are a bit worse off on +24.  The Crusaders have scored 25 tries and conceded 16, the ‘Canes have score 22 and conceded 17.

Those scoring stats aside, in every other playing statistic, the two teams are so close that it is difficult to separate them.

However, we have to look beyond the statistics and at the actual on-field performances, and that is where the Crusaders have looked so much better than the Hurricanes so far in 2019.

As I said earlier, the Crusaders have looked to be cruising along like a well-oiled and maintained machine, without kicking into high gear. The Hurricanes have not looked anywhere near as well-oiled and maintained. They have won games, but stuttered, stumbled, and creaked as they notched up those wins. Last week’s close encounter with the Stormers is evidence of that rough-running engine.

Of course, on paper neither side has an overall advantage over the other. The Crusaders have a well-functioning, often dominant pack of forwards, the ‘Canes have a back division that is as good as any Test team in the world. The Crusaders have a very good backline too, while the Hurricanes forwards are not that far off the mark.

On balance, neither side seems to have a personnel advantage.

There are various points of technical interest in this game

The primary interest will be in the functioning of the two sets of halfbacks and their inside centre combinations. 

The trio of Perenara, Barrett, and Laumape is nothing short of world class. They can take control of a game and dictate proceedings with an almost arrogant aplomb. As matters stand at the moment, this is likely to be the All Black starting combination in the 2019 Test season.

Facing them we have Bryn Hall, Richie Mo’unga, and Ryan Crotty. All three will probably be sitting on the bench when the All Blacks start that first Test on 2019, especially with Aaron Smith out of contention due to injury……

Another point of interest will be the clash between the two sets of loose forwards. The return of Kieran Read, together with Douglas and Todd for the Crusaders, facing off against Princep, Savea, and Fifita? The mouth waters….

If both teams click into to gear, and they are very likely to do so in this winner-takes-all derby, then this could well be one of the epic games of the 2019 season.

I for one will not be missing it.

Prediction:

That Crusaders team is hurting, and the home-ground trend has to end sometime. Together with the fact that the ‘Saders have simply looked a better side all year, while the ‘Canes have just not looked quite as good, suggests an upset of the statistical record is on the cards.

I have gone with the Crusaders, by 7 points or so.

Waratahs v Sunwolves

Venue McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle
Date Friday 29 March
Kick-off 19h45 local; 08h45 GMT, 10h45 SA Time
Referee Paul Williams
AR1 Jaco Peyper
AR2 Egon Seconds
TMO George Ayoub

Last week the ‘Tahs beat the Crusaders, this week they host the Sunwolves.

Just that very sentence should be enough as a preview of this game.

There is really, truly, not much more to say.

Yes, the Sunwolves gave the Waratahs a real scare in Tokyo in Round Two, and then went on to win against the Chiefs, but all that was before they were told that they were heading into the Super Rugby history books, to join the Cheetahs, the Force, and the Kings as used-to-be Super teams.

Last week they could not use that news as sufficient motivation to knock over the Lions, and I doubt whether it will be any better against the Waratahs.

Team News:

The Waratahs:

The Waratahs have shuffled their starting XV ahead of this home game on Friday against the Sunwolves.

As part of the Aussie World Cup player management agreement, the ‘Tahs have opted to rest Wallabies players Bernard Foley, Jack Dempsey and Adam Ashley-Cooper.

The rotation provides the opportunity for Mack Mason to get his first start of the season with Michael Wells, Lachlan Swinton and Kamichael Hunt promoted off the bench. 

The Waratahs were forced into making a late change to their starting line up – with wing Curtis Rona ruled out due to injury.

Rona has suffered a low-grade groin injury and will be forced to miss the Sunwolves game.

Alex Newsome will now start on the wing, with John Folau to come on to the bench – with the potential to make his Super Rugby debut.

Tom Saniforth returns to the squad after missing the opening rounds of the season with a right ankle injury.

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Cam Clark, 13 Karmichael Hunt, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Mack Mason, 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 Harry Johnson-Holmes.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Tuala, 17 Rory O’Connor, 18 Chris Talakai, 19 Ryan McCauley, 20 Tom Staniforth, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Lalakai Foketi, 23 John Folau.

The Sunwolves:

The Sunwolves have, as they have done all through their brief history, made several changes to their team for the encounter with the Waratahs.

Four of the five changes to the starting XV are in the pack.

In the only backline change, Kaito Shigeno starts at scrumhalf in the place of Jamie Booth – who drops out of the matchday 23 altogether.

Seasoned loose forward Hendrik Tui starts at blindside flank in place of Ben Gunter, who also misses out of this match.

Energetic lock Uwe Helu returns to the second row, after playing off the bench in the loss to the Lions last week – with Tom Rowe dropping out altogether.

The front row is also revamped – Jaba Bregvadze starting at hooker in place of Atsushi Sakate and Pauliasi Manu the loosehead prop in place of Masataka Mikami.

(Once again, eleven of the starting XV are not Japanese-born players.)

Sunwolves: 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Harumichi Tatekawa, 11 Semisi Masirewa, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Kaito Shigeno, 8 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Grant Hattingh, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Jaba Bregvadze, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Vella, 17 Masataka Mikami, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Takuya Yamasawa, 23 Josh Timu.

Thoughts:

I am struggling to find much to say about this game.

Yes, the Sunwolves, sticking to their chaos theory game plane, gave the ‘Tahs a scare early in the season, and they beat a woeful Chiefs side, but that is about it.

The Waratahs have bumbled along winning games but seemed to be on a tactical holiday as they simply went through the motions. They finally reverted to a tried and tested game plan last week when they went back to a tactical kicking game rather than their 2018/2019 plan of shovelling the ball to the midfield standing deep and then attempting elaborate playbook plays that always ended with the ball in Israel Folau’s hands.

Whilst both the kicking game plan and the previous midfield based plan are easily readable, and whilst both pivot around Israel Folau, the kicking plan plays directly into his special strength, the aerial game. If this is used effectively against the Sunwolves it can be devastating.

If the Waratahs can maintain accuracy and focus in this game, the Sunwolves are history in more ways than one.

The ‘Tahs forwards seem to have the edge, their backs should be better organised, and they have the confidence of having beaten the Crusaders.

What more could you ask for?

Prediction:

I simply cannot see the Sunwolves lifting themselves above the distractions of the last 14 days and producing the level of performance that is required to beat the Waratahs.

The Waratahs, by 18.