Round 6 Super Rugby Preview...
March 20, 2014, 15:58:53
PREVIEW OF SUPER RUGBY ROUND SIX MATCHES (all NZ times):
FRIDAY, March 21
Highlanders v Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin 7.35pm
Head to Head: Played 21 Highlanders 9 Hurricanes 12
In Dunedin: Played 11 Highlanders 5 Hurricanes 6
Last clash: Round 19 2013 - Highlanders 49 bt Hurricanes 44 at Westpac Stadium
With the unbeaten Chiefs already clear of the pack, this shapes as a critical early-season derby in the New Zealand conference.
The last 10 clashes between the Highlanders and Hurricanes have been decided by seven points or less, even their 93-point try-fest last meeting in Wellington.
The Hurricanes will go a long way towards winning if they can find a way to contain in-form Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa, who is proving statistically to be the most elusive player in the competition. The Highlanders will be boosted by the return of ageless lock Brad Thorn after three weeks on the sidelines with a rib injury.
Tip: Highlanders by 5 points
NSW Waratahs v Melbourne Rebels at Allianz Stadium, Sydney 9.40pm
Head to Head: Played 6 Waratahs 5 Rebels 1
In Sydney: Played 3 Waratahs 3 Rebels 0
Last clash: Round 15 2013 - Rebels 24 bt Waratahs 22 at AAMI Park
Losing for the first time to the Rebels last season, and then again in this year's trials, should have the hosts wary enough of an ambush but any sense of complacency in the Waratahs ranks must surely have been distinguished by a last-up defeat against the Brumbies.
Suddenly the Tahs' two bonus-point wins to open 2014 seems a distant memory and they will be desperate to get their campaign back on track before embarking on a tough two-game stint in South Africa.
Expect a torrid battle at the breakdown with the Rebels eager to stop ball supply to Waratahs dangermen Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale.
It will be a special night for winger Lachlan Mitchell, who will become the first player to make 50 appearances for the Rebels.
Tip: Waratahs by 16 points
SATURDAY, March 22
Blues v Cheetahs at Eden Park, Auckland 7.35pm
Head to Head: Played 7 Blues 5 Cheetahs 2
In Auckland: Played 3 Blues 3 Cheetahs 0
Last clash: Round 19 2013 - Cheetahs 34 bt Blues 13 at Vodacom Park
The Cheetahs will be desperate to take some points home after an awful tour and will try to put the Blues under the pump early.
They are a better side than their lowly ladder position suggests and offer plenty in attacking threats. They have lost centre Francois Venter with a shoulder injury, while Raymond Rhule still has ankle troubles.
The home side welcomes back some pretty handy reserves in All Blacks Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino. Simon Hickey has been recalled to starting five-eighth and Benji Marshall, while in good form against the Lions, is again Benchy.
The Blues should continue the misery for the Cheetahs.
Tip: Blues by 7 points
Brumbies v Stormers at GIO Stadium, Canberra 9.40pm
Head to Head: Played 15 Brumbies 10 Stormers 4 drawn 1
In Canberra: Played 7 Brumbies 6 Stormers 1
Last clash: Round 6 2013 - Stormers 35 bt Brumbies 22 at Newlands Rugby Stadium
The Brumbies will have to protect their hard-earned Australian conference lead without the services of four key players after Test prop Scott Sio (ankle), classy winger Henry Speight (jaw), Wallabies centre Tevita Kuridrani (funeral), lock Leon Power (knee) and Test prop Scott Sio (ankle) were all ruled out of the match. Wallabies flyer Joe Tomane returns from an ankle injury to replace Speight as the Brumbies bid to back up their impressive home win over the NSW Waratahs. The Stormers have had a sluggish start to their campaign, winning just one of four matches, but the hardy South Africans have a habit of firing up in Australasia.
Tip: Brumbies by 6 points
Western Force v Chiefs at nib Stadium, Perth 12.00am
Head to Head: Played 7 Force 1 Chiefs 6
In Perth: Played 4 Force 1 Chiefs 3
Last clash: Round 13 2013 - Chiefs 22 bt Force 21 at Ecolight Stadium
The Force could come back to earth with a thud when they host the unbeaten defending champion Chiefs. Or not. The Perth side, who are coming off their first-ever back-to-back bonus-point wins, are high on confidence. However their chances of a massive upset took a blow with the suspension of in-form forward Ben McCalman for a lifting tackle. The Chiefs will be without utility back Charlie Ngatai (calf), winger James Lowe (knee) and Robbie Fruean, who will undergo a procedure to address a heart arrhythmia issue. Expect the Force to be in the hunt before another all too familiar tight loss.
Tip: Chiefs by 9 points
SUNDAY, March 23
Lions v Queensland Reds at Ellis Park, Johannesburg 4.05am
Head to Head: Played 15 Lions 3 Reds 11 drawn 1
In Johannesburg: Played 8 Lions 1 Reds 6 drawn 1
Last clash: Round 13 2012 - Reds 34 bt Lions 20 at Suncorp Stadium
The Reds fell to the Sharks by 15 points last week but coach Richard Graham was justifiably pleased with their efforts. If not for better handling in the clutch moments it was a game they could well have stolen after the Sharks made the most of some contentious penalties to be 25-6 up at halftime. Graham has stuck by his troops, making just one change with Ben Tapuai replacing the injured Chris Feauai-Sautia (hamstring). They're not taking the surprise-packet Lions lightly, especially after their third win of the season against the Blues. Radarboot Marnitz Boshoff is a major danger and Queensland must improve their discipline to stop his three-pointers.
Tip: Reds by 8 points
Bulls v Sharks at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria 6.10am
Head to Head: Played 21 Bulls 11 Sharks 9 drawn 1
In Pretoria: Played 10 Bulls 5 Sharks 4 drawn 1
Last clash: Round 1 2014 - Sharks 31 bt Bulls 16 at Kings Park Stadium
Four from four - Jake White's men couldn't have asked for a better start to the season. The air of expectation is building, which shouldn't be a surprise with 11 Springboks in their starting side. The Bulls like to outmuscle teams but they will more than meet their match in the Sharks, with skipper Bismarck du Plessis leading the way. The teams have already faced off once this season, in round one, with the Sharks running out 31-16 victors thanks to a last-gasp Pat Lambie try. With Dewald Potgieter coming straight from Japan into the Bulls No.8 jumper and Sevens speedster Sampie Mastrietit on the wing, it should be even closer this time but the Sharks still look the goods.
Tip: Sharks by 1 points