A local derby between the Rebels and Reds in Melbourne will at last shift the focus on-field after Australian rugby headlines have been focused on the Israel Folau decision.
AAMI Park is the venue for that clash while Round 13 kicks off earlier Friday in New Zealand with an all-Kiwi contest between the Blues and Hurricanes in Auckland.
On Saturday, the Sharks will be looking to sign off their three-week tour of Australasia with a win over the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Read on for some of the key storylines from Round 13.
Rebels must roll behind Naisarani, Meakes
Staring down the barrel of a fourth straight defeat, Melbourne Rebels’ season has reached its critical point as the Reds prepare to hit AAMI Park on Friday night.
Seemingly tracking nicely towards a maiden playoff berth after the 42-15 victory over the Sunwolves on April 6, the Rebels fell into a hole a week later against the Stormers and have been struggling to dig their way out of it ever since.
There were signs of life in Wellington last week but only after they had given the Hurricanes a 22-point head start.
Quade Cooper earlier this week spoke of how he, personally, was ‘wrecked’ by a return to Super Rugby after sitting out last year’s competition in exile. But truthfully, the Rebels have looked a little bit tired as a team and last week arrived at Westpac Stadium anything but ready to play.
The Reds certainly don’t have the Hurricanes’ strike power, but they do have momentum on their side after signing off in South Africa with a win over the Sharks, who have since defeated the Waratahs and drawn with the Crusaders, both away from home, and backed that up with a workmanlike win in the card-fest against the Sunwolves.
Last week’s win against the Japanese side was anything but flattering and one coach Brad Thorn will have surely condemned to history shortly after fulltime, but, crucially, the young Reds outfit didn’t panic when the unusual situation could have so easily have seen them make some curious attacking decisions.
But this is certainly the Rebels’ game to lose. They have the knowledge that they were far too strong for the Reds, on their home patch, earlier in the year and that they actually started to play some excellent rugby in the second half in Wellington last week.
Central to that was back-rower Isi Naisarani and replacement Billy Meakes, who has been restored to the starting side. Meakes is an interesting case, particularly given he will this week face up against Samu Kerevi who has arguably been Super Rugby’s standout player this season.
The one criticism of Kerevi’s game has been an equal-most 20 missed tackles [centres], continuing a theme that has been an ongoing problem for the Reds skipper over the last few years.
Meakes has been on the fringes of Wallabies selection in recent times, but a strong game against the likely Test No. 12 Kerevi would surely improve his chances of a ticket to Japan. And knowing Kerevi’s flimsy defence, Meakes has the perfect opportunity to impress.
But the Rebels will need front-foot ball for that to be the case, so too if they are to win what looms as a tight and hugely influential Australian derby. Now eligible for the Wallabies with his residence period served, Naisarani must set the tone for that.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Crusaders in foreign territory on foreign soil
Is discipline the only thing standing between the Crusaders and a third straight Super Rugby title?
It’s certainly a question worth asking, particularly after the Sharks went within a whisker of handing the defending Super Rugby champions their first loss at home in 25 games, but for a post-siren converted try from fly-half Mitchell Hunt.
The Crusaders had earlier conceded 13 penalties, seven of which resulted in all of the Sharks’ 21 points, via the boot of Curwin Bosch, in a worrying turn of events for coach Scott Robertson.
Now in South Africa, where they first face the Bulls and then the Lions, Robertson is confident the Crusaders can adjust their game after they fell afoul of referee Brendon Pickerill in Christchurch last Friday.
“Really, for us, trust our game and also be disciplined in it, especially when we haven’t got the ball,” Robertson said of how his side could reverse last week’s penalty count. “Enough has been said about the scrums, we’re confident Rasta [Rasivhenge] has been fed all the information he needs to make good decisions,” Robertson said.
“[It’s about us] making good decisions around the breakdown and seeing clear pictures. It’s all up for interpretation and making sure we’re as clean as possible.”
Along with their discipline, the Crusaders may also want to throw more numbers at the breakdown after the Sharks had great success in flooding the contact zone and earning just reward from referee Pickerill.
Robertson has retained the same forward pack that drew 21-all with the Sharks, with the unit no doubt desperate to atone for last week’s inadequacy; so, too, the 13 penalties that took them into second spot behind only the Sunwolves for penalties conceded this season.
The Crusaders confront a Bulls side coming off a less than flattering 28-21 victory over an under-strength Waratahs side, but one that sits equal top of the South African conference with an Australasian road trip still to come.
While the New Zealanders certainly weren’t happy with what they produced in Christchurch last week, Saturday’s game in Pretoria affords them the perfect opportunity to respond to those who might just be poking a few holes in their title defence.
A comprehensive victory would go a long way to dismissing those suggestions, and put the onus firmly back on Super Rugby’s chasing pack.
A loss, however, combined with a Hurricanes’ victory, would certainly add a touch more spice to what was a seemingly academic run to the playoffs in New Zealand.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
Can Jaguares repeat 2018 tour heroics?
The Jaguares are riding a four-match winning streak. Oh, you weren’t aware of that? No bother, you’re certainly not alone.
The Argentine outfit have quietly crept up to third in the incredibly tight South African conference, occupying one of the wildcard spots in process, ahead of their four-game Australasian tour, which kicks off against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday.
It’s a trip that should hold few fears for the Jaguares, too, after they swept a perfect four from four across the same journey in 2018. In knocking over the Rebels, Brumbies, Blues and Chiefs, the Jaguares recovered from 2-5 to be 6-5 ahead of the run to finals.
At 6-4 in 2019, a similar return would entrench the Jaguares in the playoff mix and likely have them on top of the South African conference altogether.
And the South Americans will fancy their chances of a first-up tour victory, too, with the Highlanders having lost co-captain Ben Smith to a serious hamstring injury. The southerners are also coming off a deflating 31-all draw with the Chiefs, a game which they appeared to have wrapped up on more than one occasion.
A key part of the Jaguares’ tour success last year was their ability to grind out each of their four wins. After defeating the Rebels by three points in Melbourne, they then knocked over the Brumbies, Blues and Chiefs by five, seven and four points respectively.
Having beaten the Stormers by a similarly-narrow margin before departing Argentina last week, they look to be of a similar mindset this year.
If the Jaguares can grind past the Highlanders on Saturday, they will head to Westpac Stadium with all the confidence in the world and the belief that they can match the enigmatic Hurricanes on their own turf.
From there, games against the Waratahs and Reds in Australia look particularly winnable and so, too, would a home final, which they would be on the cusp of if this year’s tour follows the same script of 2018.