Super Rugby 2019

Weekend Preview & Predictions

Week One – Saturday Games

This first weekend of the 2019 Super Rugby Season features seven games, two of Friday the 15thand five on Saturday the 16th.

Saturday Games

Blues vs Crusaders

Venue Eden Park, Auckland
Date Saturday 16 February
Kick-off 19:35 local, 06:35 GMT, 08:35 SA Time
Referee Nick Briant
AR1 Federico Anselmi
AR2 Dan Waenga
TMO Ben Skeen

2018’s top New Zealand team, and the overall champions, versus the bottom team? In any other universe we would not be wondering about the result, we would simply skip this one in the knowledge that the Crusaders will win and get on with our day. But, this is not any other universe, this is New Zealand, and there has been much talk about a new-found confidence in the Blues camp.

Have said that, playing the defending champions, the Crusaders, before heading off on what promises to be a difficult trip to Durban to play the Sharks and then on to  Buenos Aires to face the Jaguares is about as tough as it gets for new Blues coach Leon MacDonald.Making it tougher is the injury to first-choice No10 Stephen Perofeta. He was injured in the pre-season victory against the Hurricanes, although his loss is slightly mitigated by the return to fitness of Otere Black. 

A good start is crucial for MacDonald and the Blues, who limped home in 14th place, with only the Sunwolves below them, last season. They won only four matches and none against New Zealand opposition. Their final match was against the Crusaders in Christchurch in July – a humiliating 54-17 defeat during which they leaked four converted tries in the final 16 minutes.

I would suggest that it would be unrealistic to expect MacDonald to quickly turn around the team that Tana Umaga couldn’t fix in three years.

Yet we are told that there is a sense that something is brewing at a franchise that has delivered far too little for far too long.

Their problem is that they have to play the Crusaders, and that is a very difficult challenge first up in anyone’s season, or universe.

Team News:

The Crusaders:

Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has named a strong matchday squad to take on the Blues in their Super Rugby opener at Eden Park on Saturday.

The side will be captained by Matt Todd in the absence of regular skipper Sam Whitelock. Ryan Crotty has been named vice-captain.

The team features 10 of the 2018 All Black squad in the starting line-up, including Test debutants Richie Mo’unga at fly-half and George Bridge on the left wing.

20-year-old Will Jordan has also been named in the matchday side, and could earn his first Super Rugby cap if called on from the bench.

The Blues:

Number eight Akira Ioane celebrates his 50th cap for the Blues on Saturday.

Ioane has showed his durability by playing in every game for the Blues over the last two seasons.

While Ioane plays his 50th, Otere Black is rewarded for his patience as he makes his long-awaited debut at fly-half after missing the entire 2018 Super season with injury.

Strong pre-season form has been rewarded for Sione Mafileo at tighthead prop,  Josh Goodhue at lock, and Auckland captain TJ Faiane in the midfield and the debut of robust loose forward Tom Robinson.

There will be considerable interest in the inclusion of Ma’a Nonu at centre, returning to the Blues for a third time and for his 161st Super Rugby game, the most capped player in the competition.

The Teams:

Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Ma’a Nonu, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Otere Black, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (c), 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Matt Matich, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Sonny Bill Williams

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Manasa Mataele, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Tom Sanders, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Will Jordan

Thoughts:

One wonders whether the change in coach is going to make any difference at the Blues? Will it be the same old Blues lacking cohesion and game management? Or will this be the season where they begin to believe in themselves, and stop taking a step back when the opportunity for a score and a win presents itself?  

For the Crusaders, they have had it all going their way as they have been the foundation on which the All Blacks have been constructed in the professional era. 

Scott Robertson is the breakdancing, surfing head coach with an eye for innovation and clever thinking. He has been blessed with a team loaded with talent, an abundance of All Blacks with plenty of experience, some great younger talent coming through and the best forward pack in Super Rugby. His job is much the easier of the two coaching jobs involved in this clash. 

Prediction:

You would be a bit silly to bet against the Crusaders winning, even if it is full of early season rust. I would guess a 10 point margin.

Waratahs vs Hurricanes

Venue Brookvale Oval, Sydney
Date Saturday 16 February
Kick-off 19:45 local, 08:45 GMT, 10:35 SA Time
Referee Angus Gardner
AR1 Ben O’Keeffe
AR2 Damon Murphy
TMO James Leckie

This could get interesting, if the Waratahs can play rugby that matches the potential in their squad, and the Hurricanes show early season ring rust much as they did at Loftus Versveld a year ago when they inexplicably lost to the Bulls.

The Hurricanes do go into the clash without Beauden Barrett, who is still on honeymoon, which might present the ‘Tahs with a golden opportunity to pressurise the ‘Canes half-back pairing for a change.

We shall have to wait and see, but I am not holding my breath.

Team News:

The Waratahs:

Waratahs head coach Daryl Gibson has loaded his team with Wallabies for their Super Rugby opener against the Hurricanes in Sydney,

Karmichael Hunt comes into the team for the first time in Super Rugby and forms a brand new midfield with veteran Adam Ashley-Cooper. The combined age of the two midfielders is 66 years, with the 32-year old Hunt alongside the 34-year old Ashley-Cooper.

Youngsters Rory O’Connor and Lachlan Swinton will start on the bench, looking to get their first Super Rugby caps. The other new face on the bench is Chris Talakai.

Kurtley Beale is being rested in this first match of the season. The rest of the team is pretty predictable, Israel Folau, Alex Newsome, Curtis Rona, Bernard Foley, Jake Gordon, Jack Dempsey, Michael Hooper, Ned Hanigan, Rob Simmons, Jed Holloway, Sekope Kepu, Damien Fitzpatrick, and Harry Johnson-Holmes.

The Hurricanes

TJ Perenara will captain the Hurricanes in their Super Rugby opener against the Waratahs.

Perenara will lead the side with club captain Dane Coles named on the bench.

Hurricanes head coach John Plumtree has named a starting XV that contains plenty of Super Rugby experience mixed with a couple of new Hurricanes players.

Former Highlanders fly-half Fletcher Smith will wear the number 10 jersey while young lock Liam Mitchell will make his debut in the run-on side.

Mitchell will combine in the second-row with James Blackwell who has been a stand-out through the pre-season while 78-game veteran Chris Eves will start at loosehead prop.

The back-line is an experienced unit with Ngani Laumape and Matt Proctor combining in the midfield, with a back three consisting of last season’s top try scorer Ben Lam, 2017’s top try scorer Vince Aso and Jordie Barrett.

The bench is highlighted by the inclusion of Coles while there are potential Hurricanes debuts for promising prop Xavier Numia and the oddly named loose forward Du’Plessis Kirifi.

James Marshall, who won the 2016 Super Rugby title with the Hurricanes in his last appearance in New Zealand, has been named on the bench.

The Teams:

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Karmichael Hunt, 11 Curtis Rona, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Jack Dempsey, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Harry Johnson-Holmes.
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Rory O’Connor, 18 Chris Talakai, 19 Lachlan Swinton, 20 Will Miller, 21 Mitch Short, 22 Mack Mason, 23 Cam Clark.

Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Vince Aso, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Fletcher Smith, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Liam Mitchell, 4 James Blackwell, 3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Chris Eves
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Xavier Numia, 18 Ben May, 19 Isaia Walker-Leawere, 20 Du’Plessis Kirifi, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 James Marshall, 23 Wes Goosen

Thoughts:

Even without Beauden Barrett calling the shots, this Hurricanes backline looks scarily potent. Matt Proctor and Ngani Laumape both have a point to prove with All Black selection for the World Cup in mind. They face a new, albeit well experienced, midfield combination of Ashley-Cooper and Hunt, one of whom is two weeks away from his 35thbirthday and has been out of Super Rugby for an extended period of time, the other is already 32 and has had a year out of the top-level game. Methinks this will be the focus area of the Hurricanes attack, with Laumape designated as the powerful straight runner to test the reactions and resilience of the two older men.

Jordie Barrett is another with a point to prove – sidelined by the All Blacks after the loss to the Springboks, he is desperate to get back into the national set-up on a permanent basis. Ben Lam and Vince Aso know exactly where the tryline is and are amongst the top try-scorers in the business. Lam, in particular, is desperate for an All Black call-up, having been somewhat mysteriously ignored last year.

The ’Tahs do have Israel Folau, a player of undeniable class, when he is focussed and involved, but he does have the tendency to drift in and out of a game, sometimes seeming to be nothing more than an observer. If he gets the bit between his teeth, he may cause the ’Canes a lot of trouble.

That ‘Canes front row looks formidable!

Prediction:

I know that the ‘Tahs have home advantage. I know the ‘Canes are missing their talismanic Beauden. I know the ‘Canes have early season wobbles at times, but I just cannot see past the overall class of the New Zealanders. The Hurricanes. By 10, or more.

Sunwolves vs Sharks

Venue Singapore National Stadium
Date Saturday 16 February
Kick-off 18:55 local, 10:55 GMT, 12:55 SA Time
Referee Nic Berry
AR1 Marius van der Westhuizen
AR2 AJ Jacobs
TMO Minoru Fuji

Will this be the last season for the Sunwolves? If the talk about a further reduction of the Super Rugby team count to 14 is true, and we all hope and pray that it is, the most obvious head on the chopping block will be in the shape of a Japanese wolf.

Jamie Joseph took over as coach of the Sunwolves for the 2018 Super Rugby season, and promptly set the lofty target of finishing in the top five of the competition. Considering that the Sunwolves had finished stone last in both their previous seasons of Super Rugby, Joseph’s goal was somewhat close to lunacy. And so it was again in 2018, a season that saw yet another last place. 

In fact the Sunwolves have only won five games in their three years of exsistance.

Their continued presence in the competition must be subject to some very serious doubt. They already cause every team they face at home all manner of logistical problems, with extended travelling times and airport lounge layovers, changes in time zones, and heading north into the tropical summer from the southern winter all adding to the problems. (The reverse is true for the Sunwolves, playing most of their games out of a hotel room and suitcase in a foreign land.)

Quite simply, none of the problems they cause have had any positive benefit for rugby as a spectator sport, or for rugby in Japan.

There seems to be no logical reason for their continued existance.

Their 2019 season kicks off, away from their Japanese “home” in Singapore (also, somehow, designated as a “home” game)against the visiting Sharks, who have more than a point to prove in 2019.

It is not going to be pretty.

Team News:

The Sunwolves

The Sunwolves will be without the bulk of their internationals and their head coach when they take on the Sharks in Singapore on Saturday.

Coach Tony Brown is away on national duty – assisting Japan coach Jamie Joseph with preparations for the World Cup.

Sunwolves assistant coach Scott Hansen will take charge of the side until mid-March.

The team is without the bulk of their Japanese internationals – including Michael Leitch, Keita Inagaki, Shota Horie, Fumiaki Tanaka and Kazuki Himeno.

New Zealander Craig Miller will captain the team against the Sharks.

Other noteworthy selections include the South African duo of Gerhard van den Heever and Shane Gates.

Van den Heever lines up at fullback in a back three that includes a Sunwolves debut for All Black Rene Ranger.

Gates will make his first appearance for the Japanese franchise in a centre partnership with New Zealand-born Scotland international Phil Burleigh.

Twelve of the starting team are NOT Japanese, in a so-called Japanese franchise!

The Sharks

Coach Robert du Preez will unleash almost all his big guns on the Sunwolves, e on Saturday.

Only a handful of players are unavailable due to injury.

With Curwin Bosch unavailable due to a shoulder injury – sustained in their pre-season draw with the Bulls last week – Robert du Preez junior will start his first game of the year.

Other than that, there are no surprises in the team named to front up to the Sunwolves.

Louis Schreuder, who missed last Saturday’s game due to illness, has returned and will lead the side on Saturday.

Aside from one debutant in the starting XV, this is a side mixed with grizzled veterans and those who are making a name at this level – having experienced a season or two of Super Rugby action.

Aphelele Fassi, one of four youngsters making their debuts on Saturday, will start at fullback – with Kerron van Vuuren, Khutha Mchunu and Phendulani Buthelezi all coming off the bench, having earned their positions in the match 23 following outstanding performances against the Lions and Bulls in the two pre-season hit-outs.

The Teams:

Sunwolves – 15 Gerhard van den Heever, 14 Semisi Masirewa, 13 Shane Gates, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Rene Ranger, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Kaito Shigeno, 8 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 7 Ed Quirk, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 James Moore, 4 Luke Thompson, 3 Asaeli Valu, 2 Jaba Bregvadze, 1 Craig Millar.
Subs: 16 Atsushi Sakate, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Hiroshi Yamashita, 19 Awe Helu, 20 Shuhei Matsuhashi, 21 Keisuke Uchida, 22 Rikiya Matsuda, 23 Michael Little.

Sharks – 15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Rob du Preez, 9 Louis Schreuder (c), 8 Dan du Preez, 7 Tyler Paul, 6 Jacques Vermeulen, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Hyron Andrews, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Akker van Merwe, Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Kerron van Vuuren, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Khutha Mchunu, 19 Gideon Koegelenberg, 20 Phendulani Buthelezi, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Rhyno Smith, 23 Jeremy Ward.

Thoughts:

I have very little to say about this game. On paper and logically, the Sharks should hammer the Sunwolves into the Singaporean turf.

For once, even the weather in Singapore will be to the Sharks liking. 28C and 70% humidity, air pressure of 1011 hPa, 99% cloud cover up high above. Pretty much the same as in Durban at this time of the year, except that on Saturday Durban is expecting some rain, with slightly higher humidity at 83%.

Pretty much like playing at home then?

Given the paucity of the recent crowds at Kingspark, and the few Singaporeans that have shown any interest in the game, even the spectator numbers are likely to be familiar to the Sharks.

Of course, the Sharks have proclaimed that they would not be making the mistake of underestimating the Sunwolves, but even that statement is to be expected.

History tells that the Sharks have won each of their three games against the Sunwolves by an average margin of 20 points. However, there is always an unknown factor to consider when it comes to a season-opening fixture.

Unless they contrive to implode, as the Blues and the Reds did so spectacularly in recent times,  the Sharks should have the easiest of the seven opening games of the 2019 season. They should come away with a bonus-point. 

Prediction:

The Sharks, by plenty.

Bulls vs Stormers

Venue Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Date Saturday 16 February
Kick-off 17:15 local, 15:15 GMT, 17:15 SA Time
Referee Jaco Peyper
AR1 Paul Williams
AR2 Egon Seconds
TMO Marius Jonker

What can one say about a Bulls/Stormers derby? North vs South. Northern Transvaal vs Western Province. Over the decades this has been the biggest game of the South African rugby calendar. A true derby in an era where the word “derby” has been attached to every game between any two teams from the same country.

 Two of the proudest, most powerful rugby unions in the world facing off against each other. A game that made every rugby lover salivate with excitement. The fans would be out in force, whether the game was played in Pretoria or Cape Town, the stadium would bulge, filled to its very capacity by partisan spectators howling for the blood of their bitter rivals.

At least, that is how it used to be.

2019 is a bit different.

Both these mighty unions have been brought to their knees, financially and in playing terms, by some of the worst decision-making, strange player retention processes, management strategies, investment mismanagement, and dysfunctional factionist infighting ever seen in sport. 

The demise of these two iconic unions has been an utter disgrace for all those who have contrived to gain election to high office for their own personal reasons.

The Bulls, once one of the most feared opponents on a rugby field, have become one of the least respected of them all. They have been in an almost precipitous decline since 2011, with a last-place finish in the South African conference and a strange, secretive, and laboured process to attempt to identify and then recruit a replacement for John Mitchell, a process that ultimately failed to find anyone outside of the previous assistant coach, Pote Human.

Much like the Stormers, who scrambled to dispose of Allister Coetzee and make room for Eddie Jones, who promptly abandoned them to their own devices when England came calling. Given the minimal time they had available after Jones’ desertion, they too could not find a suitable replacement coach, and elevated Robbie Fleck as an interim head coach – a position he has somehow clung to for yet another season.

The sudden departure of John Mitchell left the Bulls in dire straits. Blue Bulls president Willem Strauss, new director of rugby Alan Zondagh and Human made all the right noises facing the media. However, there is no doubt that the late appointment of Human as coach compromised the team before this, their first fixture against the Stormers.

Of course, the Stormers are really no better off. Off-field shenanigans, managerial infighting, hidden agendas in the board room, clashes between coaches, a union on the verge of financial collapse, and a coach who takes no advice from anyone have resulted in a team that is loaded with potential but often seems weirdly without direction on the field of play. A commitment to all-out attack is all good and well, but allowing the opposition to score tries at will is never a good thing. In 2018 they conceded more tries than they scored, 56 to 46.

As we head into the first weekend of Super Rugby, the Stormers have still not announced their full coaching squad for the season.

The Stormers are also wandering around in yet another rugby wilderness as they contemplate having to leave their iconic old stadium Newlands for a new home on the other side of the Peninsula.

Two teams with so much potential, and so little to show for it.

Team News:

The Bulls:

New head coach Pote Human has unveiled a team with five tournament rookies but will also see the return of Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Brits to Super Rugby.

Vermeulen returns to the competition for the first time since 2015 having represented the Cheetahs and Stormers in 109 matches, while Brits, who played for the Cats and Stormers in his career, last saw action in the Southern Hemisphere showpiece in 2011.

Rosko Specman will be the only tournament debutant in the run-on team as the former Springbok Sevens player starts on the wing. 

Human also named Corniel Els, Simphiwe Matanzima, Eli Snyman and Dylan Sage on the bench, with all due for a first appearance for the home side in the competition.

Apart from Vermeulen and Brits, there will also be a Bulls debut for replacement prop Dayan van der Westhuizen. The Bulls player represented the Southern Kings in the tournament before as a loan player to the Eastern Cape franchise, playing for them 11 times.

Ruan Steenkamp, who missed the entire 2018 Super Rugby tournament due to injury, was named on the flank.

Lood de Jager will lead the team for the first time in the tournament and the lock will combine with Jason Jenkins. The duo last started a match together as the lock combination in March 2018 against the Crusaders in Christchurch.

The two locks are amongst the 10 Springboks named by Human for the season’s opener.

The Stormers:

Centre Ruhan Nel and prop Corne Fourie are set to make their Stormers debut on Saturday.

Nel starts in midfield alongside Damian de Allende and loosehead prop Fourie finds himself on the replacements bench for the opening round encounter at Loftus Versfeld.

At the back Dillyn Leyds links up with wings SP Marais and JJ Engelbrecht, with Jano Vermaak and Damian Willemse forming the half-back pairing.

Up front hooker Bongi Mbonambi will be alongside props Ali Vermaak and Wilco Louw, while Salmaan Moerat and JD Schickerling are the starting lock duo.

Sikhumbuzo Notshe is at the back of the scrum, with the SA Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit and captain Siya Kolisi on the flanks.

The Teams:

Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Johnny Kotze, 13 Jessie Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Rosko Specman, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Embrose Papier, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Hanro Liebenberg, 6 Ruan Steenkamp, 5 Lood de Jager (captain), 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Replacements: 16 Corniel Els, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Dayan van der Westhuizen, 19 Eli Snyman, 20 Thembelani Bholi, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Dylan Sage.

Stormers: 15 Dillyn Leyds, 14 JJ Engelbrecht, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 SP Marais, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 JD Schickerling, 4 Salmaan Moerat, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Ali Vermaak
Replacements: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Neethling Fouche, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Kobus van Dyk, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 23 Dan du Plessis

Thoughts:

There are a number of match-ups worth watching in this game. The Stormers centre pairing of De Allende and Ruhan Nel has so much potential, they will be facing the Bulls’ Burger Odendaal and Jesse Kriel. The current Springbok midfield pairing of De Allende and Kriel indirectly facing each other, with Ruhan Nel pushing hard for consideration as an alternative to Kriel in the ‘Bok squad! This could get very interesting!

Handré Pollard and Embrose Papier, both current Springboks in their preferred positions facing the young upstart and wannabe Springbok starting 10 Damian Willemse and the experienced head of Jano Vermaak, yet another match-up worth watching. Game management and on-field decision making will be a highlight, as will the goal-kicking of the two flyhalves.

The two loose-trios are also worth a watch – Notshe, du Toit, and Kolisi are all current Springboks, facing off against fellow ‘Bok and ex-Stormer Duane Vermeulen, Hanro Liebenberg and Ruan Steenkamp. The Stormers loosies look to have the edge in pace, and are more likely to range far and wide across the field running support lines and carrying the ball out to the backs, while the Bull’s trio are more of the close-in muscle ball-carrying type. Much will depend on where the game is played out on the Loftus turf.

The Stormers are missing some of their serious forward muscle with all three of Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, and Steven Kitshoff on the injured list, so much will be asked of Wilco Louw, Bongi Mbonambi, and Ali Vermaak to provide that muscle. They face a powerful scrumming unit of Trevor Nyakane, Schalk Brits, and Lizo Gqoboka.

Lood de Jager will also be looking to make a statement of his intent for 2019..

Prediction:

Home ground advantage counts for so much in these early season encounters, and this year it is the Bulls that are playing at Loftus. They must have the edge, especially at altitude this early in the season, before visiting teams a fully and truly match fit.

Add in the turmoil in the back-rooms at the Stormers’ headquarters, and you have a team that is probably struggling to get fully focussed on the job at hand.

The Bulls will win this one, but it will be close.

Jaguares vs Lions

Venue Jose Amalfitani Stadium, Buenos Aires
Date Saturday 16 February
Kick-off 18:40 local; 21:40 GMT, 23:40 SA Time
Referee Mike Fraser
AR1 Brendon Pickerill
AR2 Rasta Rasivhenge
TMO Santiago Borsani

The Lions do not have a great record over in Argentina. They have lost there in their last three visits to the country. There must be a sense of trepidation in the camp as they head over to Argentina to start their campaign for a fourth chance at the Super Rugby title, with the ghosts of previous visits looking over their shoulders.

The Jaguares will be hoping to build on their improved performances of 2018, but have a couple of problems and hurdles in their way – they have lost their inspirational coach, Mario Ledesma, to the national team and World Cup preparations. Not the most devastating of departures, Ledesma is likely to have a hand in the Jaguares preparations simply because most of them will be in his 2019 World Cup squad in any event.

The biggest problem is to find an adequate replacement for Nicholas Sanchez, who is playing his rugby in France. Sanchez was their match-winner in 2018, and provided the team with both leadership and superior game management skills in addition to an unerring boot. He will be missed.

Team News:

The Jaguares:

New coach Gonzalo Quesada has surprised with his selection of both flanker Rodrigo Bruni and prop forward Mayco Vivas to start this game ahead of Test internationals Marcos Kremer and Juan Pablo Zeiss, who will play off the bench. Both Bruni and Vivas will make their Super Rugby debuts against the Lions in Buenos Aires on Saturday.

The rest of the match-day squad is pretty much as expected, with Joaquín Díaz Bonilla claiming the No 10 jersey following the departure of Nicolás Sánchez.

Centre Jerónimo de le Fuente has been named as captain for the 2019 season, taking over that responsibility from Pablo Matero, a somewhat surprising move as many thought Matero did a sterling job in 2018.

The Lions:

Warren Whiteley will lead a strong team with a number of current and ex-Springboks in the lineup.  He is joined by fellow current Springboks, hooker Malcolm Marx, flyhalf Elton Jantjies, midfielder Lionel Mapoe, and start winger Aphiwe Dyantyi in the starting line-up in Buenos Aires. Others who have previously worn the green-and-gold include Andries Coetzee, Cortnall Skosan, and Ruan Combrinck, with the latter set to start off the bench later in the game.

Carlu Sadie and Stephan Lewies will make their Super Rugby debuts for the Lions.

The bench includes new faces Frans van Wyk, Ruan Vermaak, Gianni Lombard and Wandisile Simelane.

The Teams:

Jaguares – 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Bautista Delguy, 13 Matías Orlando, 12 Jerónimo de le Fuente (c), 11 Ramiro Moyano, 10 Joaquín Díaz Bonilla, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Javier Ortega Desio, 7 Rodrigo Bruni, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Santiago Medrano, 2 Agustín Creevy, 1 Mayo Vivas.
Replacements:16 Julián Montoya, 17 Juan Pablo Zeiss, 18 Enrique Pieretto, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Marcos Kremer, 21 Martín Landajo, 22 Juan Cruz Mallía, 23 Matías Moroni.

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Courtnall Skosan, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Hacjivah Dayimani, 6 Marnus Schoeman, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Rhyno Herbst, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith
Replacements: 16 Pieter Jansen, 17 Frans Van Wyk, 18 Jacobie Adriaanse, 19 Ruan Vermaak, 20 Robert Kruger, 21 Gianni Lombard/Dillon Smit, 22 Wandisile Simelane, 23 Ruan Combrinck

Thoughts:

The Lions have, understandably, taken a full-strength side to Buenos Aires in an attempt to turn around their dismal record in Argentina..

The Lions also know that they need to lay down a marker this Saturday. Three finals in three years, yet the trophy cabinet stays empty! 

After a host of off-season departures, there are those who doubt whether the Lions really do have the depth and ability to once again compete for the title. They will want to answer those doubts this weekend.

The Jaguares will be equally motivated to lay down a marker of their own – in 2018 they started to show what they are capable of, and in 2019 they want to hammer home that point. They will also be eyeing the oncoming World Cup as extra motivation to find form, fitness and focus.

Much will depend on individual performances. The Lions loose trio of Marnus Schoeman, Hacjivah Dayimani and Warren Whiteley looks to be very quick and likely to run out wide a lot, but seems a little light for the heavy work closer in. At flyhalf, Elton Jantjies simply has to show that he still has the game and BMT to maintain his challenge for a ‘Bok jersey – he has some serious threats looking over his shoulder, none more so than Damian Willemse and Curwin Bosch. 

This game will be about forward dominance and control. And, critically, accuracy out back. If the Lions give away unnecessary ball through inaccurate kicking and passing or poor ball retention, the Argentineans will punish them. Although they are missing the massive presence of Boffelli, the Jaguares have the counter-attacking and broken play exploiting Joaquín Tuculet, Bautista Delguy, Matías Orlando, Jerónimo de le Fuente, and Ramiro Moyano just waiting for an error to pounce on!

The fitness of the Jaguares might be questionable, as they have not had much in the way of pre-season practice.

Prediction:

Based simply on the Lions’ record in Argentina, they might be the underdogs going into this one, but I believe that the Jaguares are going to miss Sanchez more than they realise.

The Lions will win in Argentina for the first time in four seasons. It will, however, be close – around 6 points.