Round five of Super Rugby begins in Hamilton where the winless Chiefs welcome the Hurricanes to FMG Stadium. That match is followed by the huge Aussie derby between the Brumbies and Waratahs in Canberra.
Saturday’s action is headlined by the always entertaining Southern Derby. The Zoo will be rocking under the roof in Dunedin.
Read on as we preview some of the big storylines set to play out across the weekend.
Uh oh, Reds’ Tokyo task just got tougher
Ten months on from one of the most embarrassing defeats in Queensland rugby history, the Reds return to Tokyo facing what may be a tougher assignment than last year.
The Reds were smashed 63-28 by the Sunwolves at Prince Chichibu Stadium in Round 13 in 2018, the young Queenslanders unable to handle the warm conditions and a Sunwolves attacking onslaught led by Hayden Parker.
The New Zealand-born fly-half finished with a personal 33-point haul, kicking a perfect 12 from 12 along the way, as the Japanese side registered the finest win of their Super Rugby tenure to date.
Tenure is a timely word, too, as the state of the game hasn’t been this uncertain since the advent of professionalism in 1996. The Sunwolves find themselves at the centre of that, not from a Nations League perspective, although that affects the Japanese Union as well, but from a Super Rugby standpoint, as rumours circle the franchise is edging ever closer to the chopping block.
To their credit, the Sunwolves organisation has mobilised. The franchise put out a press release on Wednesday, declaring their “journey” anything but finished and encouraging fans to show their support by writing their wish on the “big jersey” that will be behind the grandstand on Saturday afternoon.
Whether a push for local support will be enough to save the franchise remains to be seen, with any decision possibly known by the end of the week. Both New Zealand and Australia support the Sunwolves’ involvement in Super Rugby, but the South Africa Rugby Union is keen to ease the travel burden on its players and revert to a 14-team competition.
Privately, many players are supportive of a 14-team competition, too.
While that narrative will only add motivation for the Sunwolves, the Reds’ task of avenging last year’s embarrassing defeat is likely to be made tougher on the field by the presence of disgraced former Rebels star Amanaki Mafi.
Mafi repeatedly topped the ball-carrying stats across the competition during his three-year stint in Melbourne, but his time at AAMI Park ended in controversy when he and fellow forward Lopeti Timani managed to put themselves in situation more akin to the NRL than Super Rugby.
Basically, Timani ended up with a horribly swollen melon, allegedly at the hands of Mafi. The duo shared a wild night in Dunedin, it seemed.
He returned to Japan thereafter and was last week added to the Sunwolves squad for the rest of the season. If he plays this weekend, an already hugely-improved Sunwolves pack will receive another shot of momentum; the Reds a significant obstacle as they search for a maiden win for 2019.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Highlanders’ best placed to end Saders’ Super run
They’ve won 19 games on the bounce, so tipping a Crusaders defeat carries more than just a smidgeon of risk and, err, cajones.
But at home, in the Southern Derby, with a pack that continues to play above its pay grade, the Highlanders are a real chance to knock off their local rivals on Saturday evening. They’re certainly a better shot than the $3.40 quote, courtesy of with tab.com.au, suggests anyway.
And here’s why.
Firstly, the Highlanders forwards can match it with the Crusaders; that depth extends through to their bench as well. While it hasn’t really been a factor this season, a large part of the Crusaders’ success over the past two years is the fact they lose next to nothing when replacements are introduced late on.
You only have to go back to the 2017 Southern Derby in Christchurch to find the 40-metre match-winning drop-goal Mitch Hunt knocked over for evidence of that. Hunt had come on as a replacement for Richie Mo’unga and knocked over a monster, from the less favoured pocket for a right-footer, after the siren.
Secondly, the Highlanders won’t play anywhere near as loosely as the Hurricanes and Chiefs have against the Crusaders through the opening weeks of Super Rugby. The Chiefs, in particular, chanced their arm from areas where they should have sought the safety of the touchline, and the Crusaders merely waited for the turnover and promptly stung them on the counter.
And finally, Aaron Mauger has just enough X-factor in his side to make the big play – that one fringe opportunity only few players have the ability to capitalise on – that the Crusaders are offering up in even shorter supply these days.
Neither Ben Smith, Aaron Smith nor Waisake Naholo have really shone this season. But what better game to deliver than at home in what every Highlanders player regards as the biggest game of the regular season. Returned to the starting side at No.6, Shannon Frizell is another man capable of producing a match-turning moment.
Another reason to predict a Crusaders slip-up? They have to lose sometime, surely?
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
Why Stormers won’t fix what isn’t broken
The Stormers will find themselves in a highly unusual position when they host the Jaguares at Newlands in Cape Town, and not just because they’re playing on Friday evening. They are short-priced favourites with the bookmakers, and likely they’ll be a strong fancy for most anyone playing Footytips Super Rugby, despite being possibly the most limited side in the competition.
That’s not a position too many people – fans and pundits alike – saw them occupying anytime soon after their horror showing against the Bulls in Round 1. Things have changed since in the South African conference, however, with the heart and spirit of the Stormers to record shock victories over the Lions and the Sharks among the most impressive aspects of the season. Not Crusaders-thrashing-the-Chiefs impressive, but…
A cursory glance at the stats leads one to wonder how on Earth the Stormers claimed either win. The same glance also will give heart to the Jaguares, as the Stormers have produced zero attack this season. The Stormers have posted just two tries in their three games — the first with the last play deep into time added-on against the Lions while the score against the Sharks resulted from an intercept as the hosts’ backs looked overconfident in shifting ball that wasn’t really there to be shifted – and their goal-kicking has been less than deadly at 77 percent; hence they have posted just 38 points in three games, and frankly it’s often been difficult to see where the next score will come from. So how can they boast two wins against one loss in hard local derbies?
For all that they have struggled to get across the gain line (much less score points) they have shown great ability to stop the opposition. They produced lock-tight defence against the Lions and Sharks, and the Bulls and Waratahs alone have conceded fewer points; that’s a result mostly of missing fewer tackles (15 per game) than any other team this season, and remember the Points Against column includes the 43 shipped against the Bulls in Round 1. Remember the truism that defence is a state of mind.
The hosts, coming off the bye, now are boosted by four changes to the side — Steven Kitshoff, Scarra Ntubeni and Juarno Augustus in the pack each make their first start of the season, while Dillyn Leyds replaces Damian Willemse at fullback – to indicate they’ll look to overpower their rivals. And in truth that’s likely their best hope in a game they likely labelled as “must win” before they head to New Zealand and Australia; the selections, in particular the benching of Willemse, seem to indicate that Robbie Fleck’s side will accentuate the strengths they have displayed this season rather than attempting to address the weaknesses.
The changes to the pack improve their scrummage, and they’ll be targeting the set-piece given the Jaguares’ woes last week (three lost, penalties conceded) and the fact the visitors boast a dreadful 68 percent success rate this season. The Stormers will also look to attack the Jaguares hard at the breakdown, where the visitors have been awful in conceding 17.8 turnovers per game. The Jaguares, who have named a strong side, have way more strike than their hosts, and normally that should be enough to get a verdict against limited opponents. But do they have the mentality? They were not in the game against the Lions last week until they were out of the game, but then we have two questions. Can the Stormers punish errors as did the youthful Lions? Can the Jaguares’ strike players outflank the hard-hitting home D?
This is a game that will be played in the head more than with the ball, and it will be tremendously interesting as a result.