Super Rugby 2019

Weekend Preview & Predictions

Week Five

This fifth weekend of the 2019 Super Rugby Season features six games, three of Friday the 15thMarch and then three on Saturday the 16thMarch.

Saturday Games

Sunwolves vs Reds

Venue Prince Chichibu Stadium, Tokyo
Date Saturday 16 March
Kick-off 13h15 local; 04h15 GMT; 06h15 SA Time; 14h15 Queensland
Referee Damon Murphy
AR1 Shuhei Kubo
AR2 Aki Aso
TMO Minoru Fuji

06h15 is fairly early for a Saturday morning. 

I very much doubt whether I will be awake at 06h15 on Saturday the 16thMarch. 

I will certainly not be setting my alarm to wake me for this match. I will record it, and slumber on.

I would guess that very few rugby supporters will be setting aside precious time to watch the Sunwolves battle the Reds in Tokyo.

This is one of the many nothing games that Super 15 Rugby throws up throughout the season. Two of the perennial bottom-dwellers, neither of which has a realistic chance of making the playoffs, slugging it out in Tokyo.

Yep, both teams can, and will, cause an upset from time to time. Both teams have a couple of players with real talent too. But, for the most part, it is a bunch of journeymen going about earning a living while playing some rugby. More often than not, it is some pretty mediocre rugby too.

The Sunwolves, at home, against a Reds outfit that has lost 8 away games on the trot, the home side will be favourites. 

Not much more that I can say about this one.

Team News:

Sunwolves:

Ex-Rebel Amanaki Mafi is set to end his Super Rugby exile after being named in the Sunwolves squad for Saturday’s clash with the Reds. Mafi has been named on the Sunwolves’ replacements bench and will make his debut for the Japanese outfit if he sees action against the Reds.

Mafi was added to the Sunwolves’ roster last week and, as expected, was named to face the Reds.

The Sunwolves have made six changes to their run-on side after losing to the Blues in Albany last weekend. In the back-line, Jason Emery shifts from outside centre to full-back, where he replaces Semisi Masirewa, and Sione Teaupa comes in to wear the number 13 jersey.

Emery is joined in the back three by Hosea Saumaki, who takes over from Jamie Henry while Hayden Parker replaces Rikiya Matsuda at fly-half.

In the forwards, Dan Pryor and Ben Gunter come in for Shahel Matshuhashi and Hendrik Tui as the starting flankers while Tom Rowe takes over from James Moore at lock.

Sunwolves: 15 Jason Emery, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Sione Teaupa, 12 Michael Little (c), 11 Hosea Saumaki, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Jamie Booth, 8 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Ben Gunter, 5 Tom Rowe, 4 Uwe Helu, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Atsushi Sakate, 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Jaba Bregvadze, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 James Moore, 20 Amanaki Mafi, 21 Keisuke Uchida, 22 Rikiya Matsuda, 23 Semisi Masirewa

Reds:

Reds have made five changes to their starting XV for Saturday’s showdown against the Sunwolves in Tokyo.

In accordance with Rugby Australia’s workload management policy this year, Wallabies prospects Taniela Tupou and Izack Rodda have been rested for this weekend.

The two forced changes see Ruan Smith partner his twin brother JP in the front row and Angus Scott-Young moving into the back row, with Lukhan Salakaia-Loto shifting to lock.

Alex Mafi will start at hooker, as Brandon Paenga-Amosa drops to the bench.

Isaac Lucas will wear the No.10 jersey, while Hamish Stewart is back in the starting side at fullback.

Prop Feao Fotuaika has been recalled this weekend, with lock Angus Blyth, flyhalf Teti Tela and outside back Filipo Daugunu all included in the Reds 23 for the first time this season.

Reds: 15 Hamish Stewart, 14 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 13 Samu Kerevi (captain), 12 Duncan Paia’aua, 11 Sefa Naivalu, 10 Isaac Lucas, 9 Moses Sorovi, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Liam Wright, 6 Angus Scott-Young, 5 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 4 Harry Hockings, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 Alex Mafi, 1 JP Smith.
Replacements: 16 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 17 Harry Hoopert, 18 Feao Fotuaika, 19 Angus Blyth, 20 Caleb Timu, 21 Tate McDermott, 22 Teti Tela, 23 Filipo Daugunu.

Thoughts:

After the Sunwolves clinched a historic first-ever win away from home against the Chiefs two weeks ago, they were outplayed by the Blues last weekend.

They will fancy their chances against a Reds outfit that has been nothing short of wishy-washy in 2019. Competitive at times, woeful at others, the Red have banked three losses so far in their current campaign.

The Reds have been fairly solid up front, with a scrum built around the massive bulk of Taniela Tupou, and the power of Izack Rodda. Neither will feature in this match, which suggests that the Reds may battle in the set-pieces.

The Sunwolves have learned from bitter experience that the only way they can hope to win a game of Super Rugby is to keep the ball away from the forwards and avoid the collisions, taking wide running lines and exploiting broken play. This is the way they play, and this will test the Reds defences to the limit.

The Reds would need to keep the ball tight, and play a physical, direct and disciplined game if they want to win. With their two Wallaby forwards sitting this one out, that might be a bit difficult to achieve.

Prediction:

Considering that the Reds have lost their last eight games in a row away from home in Super Rugby, the Sunwolves must be favourites.

For the first time in my entire life, I am tipping the Sunwolves to win.

The Sunwolves, by 10.

Highlanders vs Crusaders

Venue Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Date Saturday 16 March
Kick-off 19h35 local; 06h35 GMT; 08h35 SA Time
Referee Brendon Pickerill
AR1 Mike Fraser
AR2 James Doleman
TMO Glenn Newman

Can the Highlanders stop the Crusaders?

Can anyone stop the Crusaders?

Perhaps the Highlanders have a chance? 

Who knows? 

The men from Dunedin have not played their best rugby yet in 2019, although they have shown glimpses of what they are capable of during the first four rounds of competition. Glimpses will not be enough to knock over a Crusaders outfit that seem to be cruising along, winning game after game without really needing to hit overdrive yet.

One shudders to think what will happen the day the ‘Saders decide to kick into top gear?

Of course, it would be great if the Highlanders could click into top gear at the same time – what a game of rugby we will see then!

At the moment the Crusaders are chugging along, and they are likely to be adding another to their already impressive 19-game winning streak this weekend.

Unless, of course, the Highlanders can produce 80 minutes of the kind of rugby they have, briefly, shown they are capable of producing.

Team News:

The Highlanders:

Aaron Mauger has made five alterations to his starting line-up for Saturday’s clash with the Crusaders in Dunedin.

Mauger has largely stuck with the side that took on the Hurricanes last week with changes made for the two players that left the field with concussion injuries – Teihorangi Walden comes in for Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Jack Whetton for Pari Pari Parkinson.

Shannon Frizell is in for the hard-working Jackson Hemopo and Tevita Li slips out of the matchday 23 while Waisake Naholo returns to his right-wing spot.

Siate Tokolahi is restored to the bench which will have a six/two forward/back split. Folau Fakatava and Marty Banks will cover the backs while openside flankers Dillon Hunt and James Lentjes are included in the same squad for the first time this season.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Sio Tomkinson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Richard Buckman, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock (cc), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jack Whetton, 4 Josh Dickson, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Ayden Johnstone
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Dillon Hunt, 22 Folau Fakatava, 23 Marty Banks

The Crusaders:

Scott Robertson has named a strong starting line-up for their derby against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday.

There are eight changes to the team which did duty against the Chiefs in Christchurch last weekend and it includes the return of four All Blacks.

Owen Franks, Matt Todd and George Bridge all return from rest weeks for this game, while Sam Whitelock will captain the side for the first time in 2019, returning to partner Scott Barrett at lock.

It’s a new starting front-row for the champions this week with George Bower, fresh from his debut against the Chiefs, set to earn his first Super Rugby start at loosehead prop.

The hookers will swap for this game with Codie Taylor to wear the number two jersey and Andrew Makalio moving to the bench, while Franks’ return sees Michael Alaalatoa shift to the reserves.

The return of Todd is the only change to the loose forward trio this week.

In the back line, the scrum-halves swap for this game, so that Bryn Hall wears the number nine jersey and Ereatara Enari provides cover on the bench. George Bridge’s return sees Braydon Ennor shift to the right wing, and David Havili will start at full-back, in place of Will Jordan.

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Braydon Ennor, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 George Bower
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Harry Allan, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Tom Sanders, 21 Ere Enari, 22 Brett Cameron, 23 Will Jordan

Thoughts:

The Crusaders might not have clicked into overdrive yet this season, yet they are ranked right at the top of the stats table in all the categories that count. They are in the top two for tries, carries, meters with the ball in hand, tackles, offloads, clean breaks, and ruck successes. Those stats speak for themselves.

Of course, the Highlanders have some pretty impressive stats of their own, not the least being that they have only lost one game at home in their last 15 starts. But, the only one of the playing stats where they actually beat the Crusaders is in their scrum success rate. Just!

The return of the likes of Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Matt Todd, and George Bridge sends out the message that the Crusaders are taking this game seriously. They want another win, and will be looking to impose their physical game on the Highlanders.

The Highlanders have beefed up their team somewhat, with the return of Waisake Naholo, but they will miss the physicality of Pari Pari Parkinsin and Thomas Umaga-Jensen when the hard yards need to be done.

They have signalled their intention to take on the ‘Saders up front with their six/two forward/back split on the bench. Adding another openside flanker to the bench in Dillon Hunt also suggests that they will be chasing the ruck ball all afternoon.

In reality, the game will hinge on the kind of control that the two flyhalves exercise through the game. Richue Mo’unga started the season slowly, but has been improving with every outing, providing the Crusaders with the game management and front-foot ball they thrive on. The Highlander youngster, Josh Ioane has shown his rookie-status a couple of times with silly errors and decisions, and will need to play out of his skin if he wants to counter the presence of Mo’unga. Ioane will need to find some extra authority in his game.

Amongst the backs, we have Aaron Smith playing as well as ever for the Highlanders, and Ben Smith is in a class of his own, but I am not sure that the two are enough to counter the striking power of the ‘Saders back division of Havili, Ennor, Goodhue, Crotty, and Bridge, esecially if Richie Mo’unga starts to attack the Highlander line.

Up front, the Crusaders just seem to have far too many of the really big guns. And now Sam Whitelock is back too!

Prediction:

I cannot see the Highlanders adding to their 14 home wins in 15 starts. This will be their second loss in that winning streak.

The Crusaders, by 12.

Lions vs Rebels

Venue Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Date Saturday 16 March
Kick-off 15h05 local (SA Time); 13h05 GMT; 00.05 Melbourne time, March 17
Referee Egon Seconds
AR1 Jaco Peyper
AR2 Cwengile Jadezweni
TMO Willie Vos

South Africa is an interesting country. 

South African fans can be some of the most triumphal, obnoxious, overbearing and loudest of them all, when their team is winning. When the team loses, they can be one rusty razor-blade away from slitting their wrists as they loudly and tearfully proclaim that they are done with rugby, their erstwhile team, and their coach, even life itself.

Nowhere in the world does a fan turn on a team as quickly and viciously as do the Doom & Gloomers of the South African public.

When the Lions were flying, over the last three years, they were eulogised by one and all as the team that was showing the way for South Africa and South Africans. 

Then, in 2019, when the Lions stumbled a bit, the knives were out instantly, with coach Swys de Bruin the target in chief, with all manner of suggestion about his credentials and lack of expertise and technical nous. 

The team was quickly accused, and abused, as being a useless bunch of inexperienced youngsters without the ability to step up and take over from their elders who had, incidentally, been poached away from South African shores by the chequebook-wielding sneak attacks of their previous coach, Johan Ackermann, and a couple of others.

The truth is evident, the Lions pack has been denuded of the power and experience that carried them so close to glory in previous seasons. Three props of real quality have gone, one into retirement and two overseas. Two quality locks have gone, one to join his previous coach at Gloucester and the other to New Zealand. A flanker has also joined Gloucester, and a hooker has gone too.

That is the core of a very good pack of forwards, and no team in the world is equipped to deal with departures of that magnitude.

When their inspirational captain, Warren Whiteley was ruled out by yet another injury, the team was left light on leadership too. Nobody in the back division put their hands up for the leadership role, and it was left to the somewhat inexperienced Malcolm Marx to assume the captaincy, a role for which he is perhaps still woefully unprepared. One forgets that he is only 24-years old and has very little experience as a captain.

Small wonder then, that the 2019 Lions have struggled to get their game going again.

After stumbling around, playing ugly rugby and demonstrating a lack of real mongrel in the first couple of rounds of 2019, the Lions finally seemed to click into gear against the Jaguares last week.  They rediscovered their attacking mojo as they claimed a comfortable 47-39 win over the visitors from Argentina. The scoreline simply does not reflect the overall dominance of the Lions in that game.

Yet it does reflect their youthfulness and lack of experience and leadership on the field of play! The manner in which they conceded four late tries demonstrated their inability to close up shop, pull the shutters down and play focussed, disciplined rugby, ugly rugby if you will, to grind out the last quarter if the game, secure the well-deserved bonus point, and send the Jaguares packing.

And that is a leadership problem more than anything else. Once again, the senior players in the back division failed to step up and take control of the game.

The visiting Rebels will have taken note of the Lions inability to close out a game – demonstrated against the Stormers, and again last weekend against the Jaguares. They will know of this as a weakness.

This is a solid Rebels side that do the basics well. They have not played the most exciting rugby in the competition, but they do have a really solid set-piece, and they do have a very good kicking game. They also have leadership, with Will Genia at his best and running the game alongside the resurgent Quade Cooper. They will be looking to play the game in the Lion’s half of the field, and will be looking to exploit any indiscipline and errors by the Lions defenders.

In years past, the Rebels would have been a soft game for the home side, but 2019 may well be a very different prospect.

Team News:

The Lions.

Marvin Orie makes his return to the second row for the big clash with the unbeaten Rebels.

His lock partner will be fellow Bok Stephan Lewies.

The side shows four changes to the starting XV.

Andries Coetzee drops to the bench as Tyrone Green starts at fullback and Ruan Combrinck coming in at wing.

On the bench, hooker Jan-Henning Campher makes a first appearance for the Lions.

Also on the bench, Sithembiso Sithole returns, as do locks Rhyno Herbst and Ruan Vermaak. Lionel Mapoe and Andries Coetzee are both on the bench too.

Lions: 15 Tyrone Green, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Wandisile Simelane, 12 Franco Naude, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Albertus Smith, 7 Vincent Tshituka, 6 Marnus Schoeman, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Malcolm Marx (captain), 1 Dylan Smith.
Replacements: 16 Jan-Henning Campher, 17 Sithembiso Sithole, 18 Frans van Wyk, 19 Rhyno Herbst, 20 Ruan Vermaak, 21 Gianni Lombard, 22 Lionel Mapoe, 23 Andries Coetzee.

The Rebels:

Reece Hodge returns to the starting side as the unbeaten Rebels look to harness his huge kicking boot against the Lions in Johannesburg.

Hodge has come off the bench in his last two games since recovering from a fractured ankle.

Named on the wing, Hodge has relegated Marika Koroibete to the bench.

Rebels: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty (captain), 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Tom English, 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Reece Hodge, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Brad Wilkin, 6 Luke Jones, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Ross Haylett-Petty, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Anaru Rangi, 1 Tetera Faulkner.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Matt Gibbon, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Matt Philip, 20 Angus Cottrell, 21 Michael Ruru, 22 Sione Tuipulotu, 23 Marika Koroibete.

Thoughts:

This could get interesting.

The Rebels have never beaten the Lions, the closest they have come was back in 2012 when the Lions won 37 – 32 in Johannesburg. Nine of the other three games have been anywhere as close. The last time they met, in 2017 in Melbourne, the Lions took it easily by 47 – 10.

Although the Rebels have never won in South Africa, 14 losses and a draw from their 15 games played in Africa, they do come to Johannesburg in 2019 as an unbeaten outfit. Coach Dave Wessels has worked hard at instilling disciplines and game management into his team, and they have transformed into one of the best organised teams in the competition. 

They do not play spectacular rugby, they play disciplined rugby, using a kicking game to send opponents back into their own half of the field, and then looking to exploit mistakes and indiscipline. If given space, their halfbacks, Will Genia and Quade Cooper, along with Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty will work to dictate the game and the flow of proceedings.

The Lions will be focussed on depriving Genia and Cooper the space they thrive in, and will be looking for a physical, disciplined and confrontational performance to force the Rebel forwards onto the back foot.

Much of the interest in this game revolves around the faceoff between two of the world’s most enigmatic flyhalves. Neither the home-town favourite, Elton Jantjies, nor the visitor Quade Cooper are of the predictable, cool calm game managers that tend to be found in the most successful teams. Both have their foibles.

Both have shown an alarming tendency to implode when the psychological pressure mounts. Neither are known to be great defenders, with Jantjies perhaps a shade better that Cooper, who is usually sent out to defend on the wing when his team is in their own red zone. 

Both are of the mercurial variety, who can ignite a game into white-hot excitement in the briefest of moments, but can also be frustratingly prone to basic errors when the mood is not with them.

Flair, artistry, unpredictability, and excitement, tempered with inconsistency, school-boy errors, and weird decisions.

Both can change a game with a moment of brilliance. Both can lose a game with a moment of madness.

If both play to their potential, this game is worth the price of a ticket in the main stand. If they do not, then it would be more fun to go outside and watch some weeds pushing their way through cracks in the concrete pavement outside the stadium.

The Lions seem to be focussing on counter-attacking the inevitable kicked ball the Rebels are sure to provide. This is reflected in the selection of the exciting Tyrone Green at fullback ahead of the consistent Andries Coetzee. Coetzee might be fairly safe under the high ball, but he is hugely, almost inevitably, predictable. He will run the ball back, and he will die with it. He has yet to attend the practice session marked as “Passing The Ball 101” as he has thundered into contact time and time again. Tyrone Green might be a tad less dependable under the high ball, but he brings unpredictability to his counter attacking, and he can pass!  He has the impressive Wandisile Simelane and Vincent Tshituka who run very good support lines, with Ruan Combrinck and Courtnall Skosan also both great support runners with finishing ability.

The Lions will have worked at improving their maul defence after a very poor show last week. 

The Rebels do not have the best maul in the business, but it is well organised, and they will target the Lions early on to see if the weakness persists another week.

The Lions do seem to have a slight edge in the scrums, and the return of Orie will help their lineout.

There are so many variables in both teams, which adds interest in an otherwise bland competition.

Prediction:

The Rebels arrived in South Africa in two tranches – some of their players had to attend a Wallaby camp first, which may have impacted on their preparations for this week. 

The Lions will know that they need to lay down a marker this weekend. The Bulls are pulling away from them on the log, and the Stormers and the Sharks are circling. With both the Bulls and the Sharks enjoying a bye, the Lions need to send a message to everyone that they are still in the hunt.

Motivation for the Lions to produce, at home, together with the travel fatigue and altitude impacting on the Rebels makes the home side the favourites.

The Lions, by 9 points.