Super Rugby 2019

Weekend Preview & Predictions

Week Six

This sixth weekend of the 2019 Super Rugby Season features a full compliment of seven games, just one on Friday the 22ndMarch and then five on Saturday the 23rd March, and the final one on Sunday the 24thMarch. The Jaguares have the weekend off.

Sanzaar & The Refs

A quick comment about the referees for this weekend. Once again Sanzaar have completely ignored the principle of neutral referees.

Think on these appointments: 

The Stormers visit the Hurricanes in Wellington, New Zealand. Glen Jackson, a New Zealander who has previously been lambasted for being somewhat biased in favour of New Zealand teams, will be in charge of the match. Jackson’s compatriots Nick Briant and Ben O’Keeffe will be the assistant referees, with yet another New Zealander, Glenn Newman, the TMO.

An all-South African officiating team will take control of the match between the Bulls and Chiefs at Loftus, with AJ Jacobs serving as referee, Cwengile Jadezweni and Griffin Colby as the assistant refs, and Willie Vos on TMO duty.

Down in Durban, it is more of the same, South Africa’s Rasta Rasivhenge will be in charge of the clash between the Sharks and Rebels in Durban. He will be assisted by fellow South Africans Divan Uys and Aimee Barrett-Theron, with Marius Jonker as the TMO.

The other four games will see neutral referees, which begs the question, how and why can the principle of neutral referees not be applied in all the games under Sanzaar’s direction?

Friday’s Game

Blues vs Highlanders

Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Date Friday 22 March
Kick-off 19h35 local; 06h35 GMT; 08h35 SA Time
Referee Marius van der Westhuizen
AR1 Nic Berry
AR2 Brendan Pickerill
TMO Ben Skeen

The bookies and professional tipsters are mostly saying that the Highlanders will win this one. Personally, I am not so sure.

This Blues outfit just seems to have something extra in the tank in 2019. Not that their results have been all that wonderful, but they have been in the fight in every one of their games. Last week’s win over the Sunwolves might have been the first of the season, but that belies their competitive display in each of the games that they have lost.

Neither team took to the field last weekend, with the Blues on a bye, and the Highlanders game against the Crusaders being called off after the Christchurch massacre.

Without a doubt, the Blues are the more desperate of the two teams. They have endured a long three years and all of 20 games since they last tasted victory against a fellow New Zealand side. (And the last team they beat, back in February 2016, were these self-same Highlanders, so history might just be on their side this week?)

The Highlanders will know that they up against a desperate opponent. 

With the quality available to both teams, this might well be the game of the weekend.

Team News:

The Blues:

There are three changes to the Blues’ starting line-up to play the Highlanders at Eden Park on Friday.

The bench will include four All Blacks to add real punch in the second half.

The only change in the pack sees Alex Hodgman return to the loosehead prop to partner the strong-scrummaging Sione Mafileo, with Karl Tu’inukuafe to come off the bench.

Blake Gibson will captain the side while Tom Robinson makes his sixth straight start after some outstanding form. All Black Dalton Papalii will play from the reserves bench.

Jonathan Ruru returns at scrumhalf, with Augustine Pulu to come off the bench – while the only other change will see midfielder Ma’a Nonu to inter-change with Sonny Bill Williams, who has the week off.

The replacements include internationals Ofa Tuungafasi, Tu’inukuafe, Patrick Tuipulotu and Papalii, with Pulu, Otere Black and the bracketed pair of Levi Aumua and Matt Duffie as back reserves.

Blues: 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Tanielu Tele’a, 13 TJ Faiane, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Harry Plummer, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Ofa Tuungafasi, 18 Karl Tu’inukuafe i, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Dalton Papalii, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Otere Black, 23 Levi Aumua or Matt Duffie.

The Highlanders:

The Highlanders have handed a first start of the season to Marty Banks, who will line up at fly-half for their game against the Blues on Friday.

Elsewhere in the backs, Thomas Umaga-Jensen will again partner Patelesio Tomkinson in the midfield, while half-backs Folau Fakatava and Josh Ioane will provide cover in the playmaking positions, with the versatile Richard Buckman rounding out the back reserves.

Meanwhile, the forwards will have the experience of Liam Coltman, Tom Franklin and Luke Whitelock combined with exciting young players Pari Pari Parkinson and Shannon Frizell. Hooker Ray Niuia will get his first start from the bench with Josh Dickson and Jackson Hemopo adding plenty of size to the game-day 23.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Patelesio Tomkinson, 12 Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock (cc), 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Ayden Johnstone
Replacements: 16 Ray Niuia, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Richard Buckman

Thoughts:

Much of the outcome of this game rests in the mindset of the Blues. They certainly have the quality of player across the entire team, despite missing the considerable talents and experience of Sonny Bill Williams this weekend. Loaded with talented individuals, the likes of the Ioane brothers, Melani Nanai, Ma’a Nonu, Blake Gibson, TJ Faiane, and even more All Blacks such as Ofa Tuungafasi, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Patrick Tuipulotu, Dalton Papalii on the bench, there is certainly a depth of quality available to the Blues. The problem in not in the quality of their players, it seems to be a serious  mental frailty, a propensity for implosion just when it looks as of the Blues have a game in the bag.

Nobody has been able to explain this Blues phenomenon, yet it happens, week after week.

Sometime, someday, it will end. The Blues will turn a mental corner and start winning again.

However, that corner has necessarily to be turned against a fellow New Zealand outfit, beating foreigners is good, but not good enough!

Their opponents, the Highlanders outfit that just seems to be a little out of sorts in 2019 might well be the Blues’ opportunity to turn that corner. 

Yes, the Highlanders have won games this year, but a couple have been by very close margins. They also have something of a poor record away from home against fellow New Zealanders. They have won just 2 of their last 9 away games in New Zealand!

And that could be a telling factor in this game.

On paper, at least, the two teams seem well matched, with the Blues perhaps slightly better off in the All Black department, but it is what happens between the ears that will determine the outcome of this game.

Prediction:

As I mentioned earlier, the bookies and the tipsters are leaning towards the Highlanders. I have a sneaking suspicion that they might just have this one wrong. I am going with the Blues, by 6.

Saturday Games

Hurricanes vs Stormers

Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Date Saturday 23 March
Kick-off 19h35 local; 06h35 GMT; 08h35 SA Time
Referee Glen Jackson
AR1 Nick Briant
AR2 Ben O’Keeffe
TMO Glenn Newman

The Stormers might be coming off a three-match winning streak, but they have not looked entirely convincing in 2019. Whilst their forwards have been up to the challenge and have provided the foundation on which their three wins have been built, their back division has not played with any conviction, cohesion, and penetration so far this season.

They arrive in New Zealand with something of a local monkey on their back too. They are on a 10-match losing streak in New Zealand. They have also not beaten the Hurricanes since 2014.

The Hurricanes have also been less than convincing in 2019. They hammered the  Brumbies in Canberra by 43-13 in Round Three, suggesting that they had clicked into gear after underwhelming displays in the first two rounds of the season, but then reverted to their stuttering and stumbling in the 4thand 5throunds as they sneaked a last minute win over the Highlanders 25-22 in Week Four and then drew 23-all with the desperate Chiefs last week.

The Hurricanes are, maybe, at their lowest ebb in a number of years, but so are their visitors. Both sides can improve, and the Stormers might just have started that improvement cycle, with last weekend’s win over the Jaguares perhaps just the psychological boost they needed to get the win in their first of four games on their 2019 Australasian tour.

Team News:

The Hurricanes:

Beauden Barrett takes over the captaincy for this match as Dane Coles is forced to sit out the game in terms of the All Black player management process.

Barrett will have younger brother Jordie immediately outside him after the latter was named to start in the number 12 jersey as Ngani Laumape is also forced to rest by the AB processes.

Last year’s top try-scorer Ben Lam returns on the left wing which sees Wes Goosen move to the right from last week’s match against the Chiefs.

There will be a first start for Richard Judd at scrum-half for what will be his fifth appearance for the Hurricanes as TJ Perenara also has the week off.

Three changes have been made in the forwards with Liam Mitchell returning at lock while Vaea Fifita moves back to the side of the scrum.

The other changes up front are at hooker where Ricky Riccitelli returns to the starting side in place of Dane Coles, while Fraser Armstrong comes in for Toby Smith who has an ankle injury.

On the bench the experienced prop Jeff To’omaga-Allen returns to the match day squad along with lock Isaia Walker-Leawere and utility back Fletcher Smith.

James O’Reilly has also been named on the bench with Asafo Aumua unavailable due to concussion. Danny Toala could make his Hurricanes debut if he comes off the bench.

Hurricanes: 15 Chase Tiatia, 14 Wes Goosen, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Jordie Barrett, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett (c), 9 Richard Judd, 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 James O’Reilly, 17 Xavier Numia, 18 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 19 Isaia Walker-Leawere, 20 Sam Henwood, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Danny Toala

The Stormers:

Robbie Fleck has made three alterations to his starting line-up to take on the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday.

There are two changes amongst the forwards and one in the back-line for the encounter at Westpac Stadium.

Up front, hooker Bongi Mbonambi and lock Chris van Zyl are back in the run-on side, with Scarra Ntubeni and JD Schickerling among the replacements.

The only change to the back-line sees Ruhan Nel start at outside centre, with Dan du Plessis set to make an impact in the second half from the replacements bench.

Eben Etzebeth has been named in the starting side, although he still has to pass Level 5 of the Concussion Protocols before the medical team will clear him to play. He passed the first four levels without a hitch, but struggled at practice on Wednesday and did not pass Level 5. He will be given until Friday to pass the tests.

Stormers: 15 Dillyn Leyds, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 SP Marais, 10 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Juarno Augustus, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Chris van Zyl, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Replacements: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 JD Schickerling, 20 Jaco Coetzee, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 Dan du Plessis, 23 Damian Willemse

Thoughts:

The Stormers go into this game with more than just one monkey on their backs! 

As I mentioned earlier, they have not beaten the Hurricanes since 2014, and they have not beaten a New Zealand based outfit in their last ten encounters with teams from those beautiful islands.

These are just the “local” monkeys that the Stormers are carrying with them. 

There are a host more monkeys that travel with them. The uncertainty of their home union’s finances; the knowledge that their coach is in his last season with the team; their well-respected Director of Rugby has quit, and his replacement is rumoured to be a man that does not get on with the players in the squad; there are also the political monkeys that run their home union each with their very own personal agendas in the forefront of their minds. A whole troop of monkeys.   

Then there is yet another very big monkey that accompanies this squad, the alpha male of the troop of monkeys – the Stormers have lost their last eight consecutive Super Rugby games outside South Africa, conceding an average of 40 points per game in that spread. Their lack of away wins is starting to feel like an unbearable load…..

Now consider the Hurricanes own record. They have won 24 of their last 25 Super Rugby games on home soil, including their last 12 on the bounce; they’ve not lost at home to a South African squad since April 2013. 

Yet, in their games against the Stormers, the scales do tip towards the visitors, with three wins in their five encounters since 2012. Sadly, though, the last Stormers win was in Cape Town in 2014.)

Perhaps the one thing counting in the Stormers favour in this encounter is that the Hurricanes have not been on top of their game so far in the 2019 season, with just the game against the Brumbies suggesting their obvious quality. Add the changes forced on the ‘Canes by the All Black player management processes, and the mounting injury toll. All this suggesting that the Stormers might just have a chance to rewrite the record books a little this weekend.

Much has been made of the Hurricanes expected tactical game against the Stormers, with Beauden Barrett apparently about to unleash his sublime kick-passing tactic for the first time in the year, in addition to the rest of his considerable game management and playing skills. South African back-threes are notoriously unreliable under high kicks, and the Stormers’ wings and fullback are not the biggest players on the park. With the slight figures of Leyds, Petersen, and Marais having to cope with the high ball that is being chased by the likes of Chase Tiatia, Wes Goosen, Matt Proctor, Jordie Barrett, and the try-scoring machine that is Ben Lam this could well be the tactic that dismantles the Stormers defences. 

However, Barrett has not used the kick-pass with any regularity in the last 18 months, and he does not have the bulk and height of his brother Jordie running out wide as the primary chaser. When this tactical approached worked best, it was Jordie’s chasing that gave the opposition the biggest headaches.

The Stormers do seem to have the edge in the forwards, especially if Etzebeth is passed fit to play. An all-Springbok starting front row, with yet another Springbok prop, Wilco Louw, to come off the bench, supplemented by the likes of Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, and Siya Kolisi, is the core of a formidable pack.

The quality of the Stormer forwards is offset by the quality of that ‘Canes back division, especially with Beauden Barrett playing some sublime rugby at the moment.

Perhaps the duel between the two opposing loose trios will be the crux of this game?

Reed Prinsep, Ardie Savea, and Vaea Fifita facing off against Juarno Augustus, Pieter-Steph du Toit, and Siya Kolisi is a mouth-watering prospect. Savea has been in top form so far in 2019, and he is facing two Stormers in good form too, Siya Kolisi who had a great game last weekend, and Du Toit, who has been as good as any in the world this year. 

Whatever happens, this will be an interesting one to watch.

Prediction:

The Stormers are way short of the kind of form and playing style one expects from a team loaded with the quality available to them, and this might be the game where the team finally hits its straps. I, however, do believe that the collective weight of all the monkeys on their backs might be too much for the men from the Cape.

The Hurricanes, at home, with a 23 out of 24 home winning record?

The Hurricanes, by 10.

Waratahs vs Crusaders

Venue: Sydney Cricket Ground, Sydney
Date Saturday 23 March
Kick-off 19h45 local; 08h45 GMT; 10h45 SA Time
Referee Jaco Peyper
AR1 Paul Williams
AR2 Egon Seconds
TMO Ian Smith

The form team in the competition against a hugely under-performing home side?

A team loaded with All Blacks against a team loaded with Wallabies. This should, on paper, be a mouth-watering prospect. Two teams representing the best their respective countries have to offer, in the run-up to a World Cup? Bragging rights and confidence on the table? What more could you ask for in a rugby match? 

Yet, while the one set of internationals is playing great rugby and, frighteningly, has not really clicked into top gear yet, the other is playing such poor rugby that many are suggesting that their places in the Wallaby squad must be in serious jeopardy.

The Waratahs just seem to be somewhat disinterested, cruising along as if they expect to win based simply on their reputations, while the Crusaders have the look of a school of hungry sharks waiting for the trigger that unleashes the feeding frenzy.

I am not sure that this is going to be a game worth setting aside time to watch. It could be a very one-sided affair. 

Team News:

Waratahs:

Daryl Gibson has named Karmichael Hunt on the bench in his return from a hamstring strain that ruled him out of last week’s 19-13 loss to the Brumbies.

Nick Phipps will make his first starting appearance of the season, having overcome a calf injury sustained during a Wallabies camp, with Jake Gordon relegated to the bench.

Continuing his rotation policy, Gibson has handed Cam Clark a wing spot at the expense of Curtis Rona, while the forward pack remains unchanged, though exciting back-rower Michael Wells returns to the match-day 23 after representing the Australian sevens team during the opening six rounds of the World Series. 

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Cam Clark, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Jack Dempsey, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Harry Johnson-Holmes.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Tuala, 17 Rory O’Connor, 18 Chris Talakai, 19 Lachlan Swinton, 20 Michael Wells, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Mack Mason, 23 Karmichael Hunt.

The Crusaders:

Richie Mo’unga and Scott Barrett will miss the Crusaders return to Super Rugby in Sydney on Saturday night. 

The pair are not permitted to play in the match at the Sydney Cricket Ground due to All Blacks enforced leave, despite last weekend’s fixture against the Highlanders in Dunedin being cancelled in the aftermath of the Christchurch terrorist attack. 

Mo’unga has been replaced by one-cap All Black Brett Cameron at first-five eighth, while lock Quinten Strange replaces Barrett in what promises to be an emotionally charged fixture.

Captain Sam Whitelock, who was last week due to make his first appearance of the season after an extended break, confirmed they would honour the victims of the mosque attacks before the game kicks off.

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

Thoughts:

Try as I might, I just cannot see past the way this Waratah side has underperformed in 2019. It is not that they are off-form as much as it seems that they lack interest and motivation. When they dominate the important statistics such as possession and territory, carries and running meters, yet make nothing of the ball they receive, there is something wrong. Their game plan is hugely predictable, with the primary focus of flyhalf Foley seeming to be nothing more getting the ball to the inside centre, either Karmichael Hunt or Kurtley Beale, who then has the playmaking responsibility, which usually entails either a close pass or going wide, but invariably to Israel Folau as quickly as possible, but with the entire back division running from very deep. This game plan has some serious flaws. First and foremost it is very predictable and easy to read. Secondly, running from depth allows the opposing defence all the time in the world to rush up and shut down the Waratahs well behind the gain line.

There just seems to be a complete lack of enterprise and initiative. There is no surprise to anything the Waratahs do, and surprise is an integral part of the game of rugby!

The Crusaders do have to deal with the mental pressures of the Christchurch tragedy, which might well be a distraction, or it may serve as a massive motivator for the team to take something positive back to their home town.

Whichever way it works for the Crusaders, you can be sure that they will look to their flyhalf as the primary playmaker, allowing his midfielders the scope and opportunity to launch attacks or distribute the ball as the situation dictates. There is much more of an unexpected, adventurous style about the way the Crusaders play the game.

And then there is the serious grunt provided by that Crusader pack of forwards. 

They work to subdue the opposition, and to dominate in the set-pieces and in the collisions. In contrast the Waratah forwards are often found to be fringing around the collision areas rather than getting involved, which creates opportunity for a dominant pack to drive through the middle.

The ‘Tahs are going to have to find a whole new level of game in themselves if they want to contain this Crusaders outfit.

Another factor that might have an influence on this game is the SCG playing surface. Two weeks ago, when the ‘Tahs managed to beat the Reds, the surface cut up so badly that large sections had to be replaced. Some 3000 square meters of the surface had to be completely re-laid.

We are told that the Waratahs have confirmed that the SCG had been cleared for use against the Crusaders.

The new surface apparently stood up to the rigours of last Friday’s NRL clash between South Sydney and the Sydney Roosters and SCG representatives and independent consultants have since deemed the field up to Super Rugby standards.

We shall have to wait and see…

What are the chances of the Waratahs beating the Crusaders?

Not too great, I would suggest.

The Crusaders’ 2019 attacking stats make for impressive reading. The log leaders have scored the most tries and points to date – even though they’ve only competed in four games whilst many others have completed five.

The set piece remains a special strength of the ‘Saders. They’ve used their power at the scrum, lineout and maul to telling effect in their first four matches.

The scary thought is that this Crusaders outfit has not yet reached their best in 2019. They certainly haven’t been at their clinical best or most aggressive yet. When they do click up a gear or two, there is going to be trouble for someone.

Prediction:

Bluntly? The Crusaders, by a long way.

Sunwolves vs Lions

Venue: Singapore National Stadium
Date Saturday 23 March
Kick-off 19h55 local; 10h55 GMT; 12h55 SA Time.
Referee Damon Murphy
AR1 Shuhei Kubo
AR2 Tawasaki Kawahara
TMO Minoru Fuji

The Sunwolves will play their game in Singapore after hearing the news of their expulsion from the ranks of Super Rugby in 2020. At the time of writing we still do not know what Sanzaar will say at Friday’s press briefing, and whether they have some second tier competition in mind that might offer the Sunwolves a lifeline. However, the knowledge that the Big Four of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Argentina are no longer willing to bankroll a team that is wholly unable to sustain itself will weigh heavily on the player’s minds in the run-up to this game.

Of course, sheer mongrel and a modicum of anger is often exactly the catalyst a team needs to completely throw off the shackles and play with complete abandon. If you have nothing to lose, well just go and have some fun.   

We will find out this Saturday if the Sunwolves collective have that mongrel and ability to put disappointment behind then and play for the sheer hell of it!

A win against the Lions would be a nice way to rub Sanzaar’s noses in it.  

And the 2019 Lions do seem ripe for the plucking!

Team News:

The Sunwolves:

The Sunwolves have lost three key players to concussive injuries ahead of their game against the Lions in Singapore on Saturday.

Midfielder Michael Little and props Pauliasi Manu and Sam Prattley will sit this one out.

The Sunwolves already have the reputation for making sweeping changes to their starting XV week in and week out, and have done so again, along with those forced on them by injury..

Ryohei Yamanaka starts at fullback, with Jason Emery shifting from No.15 to outside centre in place of Sione Teaupa.

Harumichi Tatekawa replaces the injured Little at inside centre.

Semisi Masirewa starts on the left wing in place of Hosea Saumaki, who drops down to the replacement bench.

Former Lions and Bulls player Grant Hattingh starts at lock in place of Uwe Helu – who also drops down to the replacement bench.

Jiwon Koo comes in at tighthead prop for Hiroshi Yamashita and Masataka Mikami starts in place of Pauliasi Manu.

Sunwolves: 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Gerhard Van Den Heever, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Harumichi Tatekawa, 11 Semisi Masirewa, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Jamie Booth, 8 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Ben Gunter, 5 Tom Rowe, 4 Grant Hattingh, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Atsushi Sakate, 1 Masataka Mikami.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Vella, 17 Alex Woonton, 18 Hiroshi Yamashita, 19 Uwe Helu, 20 Amanaki Lelei Mafi, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Takuya Yamasawa, 23 Hosea Saumaki.

The Lions:

Lions coach Swys de Bruin has made six changes to his side to face the Sunwolves.

Sylvian Mahuza returns on the right wing and veteran Springbok centre Lionel Mapoe is back in the midfield.

Nic Groom starts at scrumhalf.

Rhyno Herbst is at lock, while Ruan Vermaak will wear the No.8 jersey and lock Stephan Lewies will slot in on the flank – changes necessitated by the injury-enforced absence of Kwagga Smith.

Robbie Coetzee is included on the bench and returns after a lengthy injury lay-off.

Newcomer Wilhelm van der Sluys will also make his debut for the Lions should he take to the field from the bench.

Lions: 15 Tyrone Green, 14 Sylvian Mahuza, 13 Wandisile Simelane, 12 Lionel Mapoe, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Ruan Vermaak, 7 Stephan Lewies, 6 Marnus Schoeman, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Rhyno Herbst, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Malcolm Marx (captain), 1 Sithembiso Sithole.
Replacements to be confirmed.

Thoughts:

The Sunwolves have produced some pretty mediocre stuff in 2019, with a couple of moments of sheer magic and surprising enterprise in between. Their landmark win over the Chiefs contained some of those magical moments and enterprise, but one must not forget the Chefs own contribution to that game, or should we rather say lack of contribution?

Sadly, the Sunwolves discipline has often been their downfall, as it was just a week ago when they led the Reds 21-5 at half-time, but then proceeded to made a host of errors and indiscretions as they let the Queenslanders back into the game. Poor discipline eventually cost them the game.

The Lions will have read the script and seen the way their fellow South African teams have often struggled when playing in any of the Sunwolves various “home” cities.  They are unlikely to take the Sunwolves lightly. 

Both teams have had to deal with a host of injuries, the Sunwolves have lost a key playmaker and motivator with the injury to Michael Little and their scrum may suffer after the loss of two starting props, Pauliasi Manu and Sam Prattley 

The Lions have their share of injuries, especially with the influential Kwagga Smith missing this one, whilst Warren Whiteley’s leadership is sadly missed.

The Lions will know that they have to do exactly what the Sharks did to the Sunwolves in the opening game of the season. Contain, smother, dominate. Period.

They will be looking for forward dominance in the set-pieces, in the collision, and over the ball. They will be looking for clinical, error free rugby throughout the 80 minutes of the game.  

The Sunwolves have struggled when their forwards are forced onto the backfoot, and have looked lost when deprived of their favourite broken play ball. The Lions will also know that the Sunwolves defence, although game, is as leaky as  sieve with a low 83% success rate across the first five rounds of the season.

The Lions will look to score early, and then maintain pressure throughout, with the goal of forcing the Sunwolves to crack under the combined pressures on-field and off-the-field.. 

If the Sunwolves can hold their composure and take some strength from adversity, they may just turn this around and make the Lions pay for the bad news that arrived in Tokyo this week.

Prediction:

I cannot see the Sunwolves beating the Lions, both in terms of teams on paper, and mentally after the bad news of their demise as a franchise.

The Lions, by 18.