We’ve reached the penultimate of Super Rugby’s regular season, and amazingly all but Queensland Reds and the Sunwolves retain hope of .playing finals football.
The action kicks off with the Highlanders hosting the Bulls in a key fixture, and it’ll be no less intense between the Waratahs and the Brumbies in Sydney. Elsewhere the Crusaders can lock up top spot and the Jaguares can confirm themselves champions of the South African conference for the first time.
Read on for some of the key storylines to keep an eye on this weekend.
Mind games and resting stars
After a flying start to the season, many pundits began to believe this was the Rebels’ year; but with just two wins over cellar dwellers the Sunwolves and the Reds in their past seven games, it appears they have been found out and the mind games are about to begin.
Five points adrift of Australian conference leaders the Brumbies, and just holding onto a playoff position, the Rebels have a mammoth task ahead as they take on the Crusaders in Christchurch in the penultimate round; they then finish off the regular season at home to the Chiefs. This is where the mental leadership guru comes into play.
According to assistant coach Kevin Foote, the side has been working with Tom Dawson-Squibb throughout the season to get their ‘head in the game’. After a booming start to the year to a slow crawl to the finish line, you’d be wondering what he’s been doing for the past seven weeks as the Rebels’ season slowly drifted, and they now find themselves contemplating yet another missed finals series.
Quade Cooper is perhaps one of the key people Dawson-Squibb could have worked with this week. His early performances elevated him into national conversation, but he has been found out several times in the closing rounds and was again outplayed by the Wallabies’ incumbent fly-half, Bernard Foley.
Full of creativity and flair early in the season, he seems to have become a passenger in past weeks, while he was played out of the game by his own teammates Will Genia and Dane Haylett-Petty through their insistent kicking game in a wet and windy affair against the Waratahs. But if he had any chance of playing himself into Wallabies contention, starting from the bench this weekend wouldn’t have been written into his plan.
With so much on the line, Dave Wessels has chosen to follow the Wallabies workload policy and implement a new halves pairing, with Genia rested and Cooper moved to the bench. Wessels said Genia’s absence had been penciled months ago, and he was adamant that resting his two stars this week wasn’t about targeting a more beatable Chiefs the following week. No match is easy and every win is important, so with Cooper not part of the Wallabies resting policy, you’ve got to think Wessels is hedging his bets on a final-round win, otherwise it’s bust.
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson has continued his policy of ignoring the Wallabies resting mandate, and he has again named a full strength side to take on the Brumbies, despite five players still requiring one match rest. Gibson even refuses to guarantee that he will rest any of his stars in their final round of the season. Whether there is a punishment, or if the Wallabies could even implement a punishment, is yet to be determined, but Gibson is be sure to anger a number of Australian conference coaches if he fails to rest Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale, Sekope Kepu and Rob Simmons.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Has Squire’s absence made the heart grow fonder?
Blindside flanker is one of the few All Blacks positions for which there is genuine uncertainty ahead of the Rugby World Cup, but the conundrum may become just a little bit clearer after Friday’s game between the Highlanders and Bulls.
The fixture marks the much-anticipated return of the powerful Liam Squire, the back-rower having spent the entire Super Rugby season to date on the sidelines.
Squire has been named in the run-on side to face the Bulls, giving the Highlanders a huge injection of power and skill as they chase the two wins they need to reach the playoffs.
While a number of players have added their name to All Blacks mix in Squire’s absence, no-one has mounted a significant and consistent case to demand selection. Akira Ioane has had his moments; so too Vaea Fifita and Whetukamokamo Douglas; Luke Jacobson and Tom Robinson have arrived on the scene; while Squire’s Highlanders teammates Elliot Dixon, Luke Whitelock and Shannon Frizell have been solid yet short of outstanding.
It’s a situation that even has All Blacks coach Steve Hansen pondering the possibility of playing Scott Barrett at No. 6, against certain opposition anyway, while he could even give Kieran Read a spell at some point and combine Sam Cane and Ardie Savea at No. 7 and 8 respectively.
“That’s where we believe his [Barrett’s] career is. Against those big sides, where you don’t have hard and fast speedy games, he can definitely play there (at No 6),” Hansen said at an All Blacks foundation day earlier this week.
“The game in Twickenham (against England) he was outstanding and the game in North Harbour (against South Africa), which was a faster game but against a big pack he was outstanding.
“Would you want to play him there if you were playing someone who had two sevens playing? Not sure. They are good conundrums we have got to solve.”
But that does little to clear up who exactly the All Blacks will play at No. 6 for their massive World Cup opener against the Springboks on September 20. And why Hansen and his fellow selectors will be glued to Friday’s Round 17 opener in Dunedin.
At his best, Squire looms large in the wider channels; his speed, size and footwork often causing headaches for opposition defences, as it has the Wallabies, who have been sucked closer in by more recognisable backline threats.
But he can also step in and handle the hard work through the middle of the field while being a key set-piece target at lineout time.
Given injury and “personal reasons” have already twice delayed his return this season, the site of Squire back in the blue jersey holds plenty of intrigue and probably just a few nerves for the man himself, too.
But under the roof of Forsyth Barr, where the Highlanders have not lost to a non-New Zealand team since the midway point of the 2016 season, it would hardly be a surprise to see him in the thick of the action and eventually end up on the scoresheet.
That would be the dream result for Hansen, who’d probably instead settle for a 50-minute effort and a substitution made purely for match fitness reasons.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
Pote Human has gone all in on Handre Pollard
Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus must be delighted to see all four of the South African Super Rugby franchises in contention for the finals. Perhaps not as delighted as he might have been if, say, one team had pulled clear of their conference rivals, as the Jaguares have done; but delighted none the less, for his Test players — key players, in particular — have for the most part shown good form this season.
But still you get the impression that he’ll be barely able to breathe while watching the action this week, such has been the injury toll taken on prime Springboks. He might also want to sit on his hands to preserve his fingernails.
Just in the past 10 days, he has seen Springboks captain Siya Kolisi ruled out for the remainder of the Super Rugby competition with a knee injury sustained playing for the Stormers against the Highlanders the previous weekend. Stormers coach Robbie Fleck had a “gut feeling” that Kolisi would be fit to face the Lions last week, but, no; that feeling passed, and his captain was ruled out for at least six weeks.
Pieter-Steph du Toit also missed the Lions match after aggravating a shoulder injury early against the Highlanders; he’s missing the Sunwolves fixture, and there remains a doubt about his fitness to return next week week.
Eben Etzebeth fronted up against the Lions only to sustain a serious hand injury, believed but not yet confirmed to be a break, that will rule him out for the remainder of the Super Rugby season and maybe the Rugby Championship. It’s just another injury for the world-class second-row, who has previously missed matches this season with concussion and a calf problem.
Skihumbuzo Notshe is on crutches with an ankle injury that will have him out perhaps for another eight weeks.
Lions captain Warren Whiteley confirmed during the week that he was definitely out for the remainder of the Super Rugby season and most likely the Rugby Championship, saying his own knee problem needed more time to come right.
And then on Thursday, news broke that Damian Willemse will be out for a month at least with a knee injury.
Elsewhere, we’ve known for a while that Tendai Mtawarira, Lwazi Mvovo, Jesse Kriel and Lood de Jaeger would not be in contention for selection until beyond the abbreviated Rugby Championship.
None of the players above are yet believed to be in danger of missing the Rugby World Cup, but Kolisi, Etzebeth, du Toit, Mtawarira and Kriel, certainly, are first XV players whom the coach does not what to consider being without; nor does he want them anything but match hardened when the Springboks open their Rugby World Cup campaign against the All Blacks..Notshe and Willemse would likely be on the bench to face the All Blacks, and Erasmus can be excused for feeling nervously concerned.
Same goes for Handre Pollard, but relief that the playmaking star is considered fit to play a week earlier than had been expected will be mitigated by the journey he has undertaken to start for the Bulls.
Indeed, in a quiet moment, even with a season on the line, one might ponder the wisdom of picking Pollard a week earlier than had been suggested and then sending him to Dunedin to face the Highlanders? It’s the longest trip the Bulls can make in Super Rugby, remember.
Erasmus will understand the Bulls’ needs as they fight for the right to play post-season football, possibly for the last time in a long time given that eight players, including Pollard and five Springboks teammates, have signed to leave post-World Cup, but still he would likely prefer to have seen his No. 1 playmaker staying home to take another week’s rehab before returning to face the Lions at home in the final round. That’s wearing his Boks’ cap, though.
The Bulls need Pollard every bit as much as the Boks do, however, and their coach, Pote Human, has absolutely shown his hand in selecting the fly-half. He’s gone all-in as he tries to secure a finals berth. No sense in hanging on for what could be a loser-stays-home Jukskei Derby at Loftus Versfeld when you can play Pollard against a team only just about in playoff contention who have recalled Liam Squire to play his first match of the season.
The Bulls have missed Pollard through the past couple of games, for his leadership and calm assurance as much as for his goal-kicking. Hence his presence in Dunedin will be key.
If he is truly fully recovered — and that’s not a given, despite his selection, as physios say that calf muscle problems can be tricky to rehabilitate — he could prove the difference between winning and losing for the Bulls.
Win in Dunedin — and claim four or five competition points — and the Bulls are almost certainly assured of post-season action; that will justify the decision to travel Pollard, and they may then choose to sit him from the closing Lions fixture.
Win, lose or draw, Pollard will be the centre of attention on Friday; rarely will one man’s calf be watched so thoroughly.