Super Rugby Round 7 Preview Part 1

Super Rugby Round 7 Preview Part 1

First up on Friday we have the unbeaten log-leading Hurricanes hosting the struggling Rebels in Wellington. The Hurricanes are resting three All Blacks though and have two key players injured, which means an easy win is unlikely. The Lions, with two highly commendable performances and one disappointing game on tour, face the beleaguered Reds, for whom the cavalry vanguard has returned to help salvage a hitherto dismal season. The Chiefs return from their won-one, lost-one South African fortnight to take on the Cheetahs, who need to make amends after their abysmal second half capitulation in Christchurch last weekend.

Hurricanes v Rebels

The last time the Hurricanes played the Rebels at home, they posted their biggest points total ever (66) in Super Rugby. The Hurricanes are the pacesetters in the competition this year but with All Blacks Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea, and Ben Franks resting this week, and Dane Coles (shoulder) out for another week and Ardie Savea (finger) out for a few weeks at least, they are somewhat disrupted.  Talented individuals as they are, James Marshall is no Barrett and Matt Proctor is no Julian Savea.

But do the Rebels, willing and clever but too often outgunned, have the firepower to spring a surprise? It’s doubtful. Dom Shipperley’s hand injury does them no favours either.

The Rebels may well offer stronger resistance and be more competitive at Westpac Stadium than their critics predict, but with the depth in personnel they have to cover the players sitting this one out, the Hurricanes should retain their unbeaten record.

Scott Higginbotham plays his 100th Super Rugby game, while the return from injury of Jack Debreczeni allows Mike Harris to move back to fullback – which makes the Rebels a more formidable combination.

Key players: We know that Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu and Cory Jane are class acts, but for the home team, Jason Woodward (at 15), Proctor (11), and Marshall (10) have the opportunity to show they’re worthy of first-choice status. With a new 10, scrumhalf/halfback TJ Perenara, in his 50th start for the Hurricanes, takes on a crucial role. For the visitors, their standout performers, blindside flank Sean McMahon, lock Luke Jones, and inside centre Mitch Inman.

The big match-ups: Two of the best number 8s in Super Rugby, Higginbotham vs Victor Vito. At outside centre we have Tamati Ellison returning home to Wellington to take on Conrad Smith, whom he partnered in numerous in the Hurricanes midfield. At blindside flank, McMahon vs Brad Shields.

Reds v Lions

The vanguard of the cavalry has arrived to rescue the Reds, and not a moment too soon. Quade Cooper is back at 10 to direct an up-to-now largely directionless Reds, James O’Connor is back and playing left wing – from where he can wreak havoc with defences, unlike at 10, where he is too restricted  – Samu Kerevi returns at outside centre and Lachie Turner at fullback. Props Greg Holmes and Ben Daley are back as well, though both are on the reserves’ bench. The Reds – and their under-siege coach Richard Graham – need these returning stars to turn the team’s fortunes around in Brisbane on Friday. Clearly, it would help if the rest of the squad lifted their performances hugely too.

The Lions come off narrow wins over the Blues and Rebels, with a thumping by the Crusaders in between, and it would be a big boost to their campaign and confidence  if they were to win a third game from four before returning to Johannesburg. With Elton Jantjies moving back from 12 to 10, Harold Vorster back at inside centre, Ruan Combrinck on the wing, Andries Coetzee at fullback, and Ross Cronje at scrumhalf/halfback, their selections make more sense this week and they have a stronger line-up than the team which beat the Rebels.

You’d expect the reinforced Reds to assert themselves with assurance for the first time this year, as you would expect the Lions to play with their usual creativity and commitment. If the home team don’t pull off a convincing win, the alarm bells may just sound career changing decisions by the Queensland hierarchy.

Key players: For the Reds, Cooper and O’Connor obviously, because they are skilful playmaking catalysts who can revive the team’s sagging fortunes. And blindside flank, 29-Test cap All Black Adam Thomson, who has been a rare shining light in an underperforming team. For the Lions, the 15-10-9 combination of Coetzee, Jantjies, Cronje, plus their tackling machines Warren Whiteley – one of the standout players in Super Rugby through the first six rounds – and Warwick Tecklenburg.

The big match-ups: Out wide, O’Connor vs Combrinck. At 10, Cooper vs Jantjies. At 4 lock, James Horwill vs Robert Kruger, who needs to show he is a better selection for the Lions than Martin Muller, which he hasn’t done yet.

Chiefs v Cheetahs

The Chiefs return from SA after beating the Stormers at Newlands and then going down by a point to the Sharks, despite scoring the only try, in a 14 men vs 13 men game which did rugby discredit. After leading at halftime against the Crusaders in Round 6, the Cheetahs capitulated in the second half, conceding 28 points in 10 minutes and 47 points in 40 minutes – by any standards a miserable collapse.

Can the Chiefs pick themselves up after long flights from Durban to Hamilton? Can the Cheetahs regain their pride and deliver a more worthy performance?

Expect a high-scoring encounter. The Chiefs last home match against the Cheetahs provided their biggest ever Super winning margin (42 points), while the last meeting between these teams provided a crazy 43-43 draw in Bloemfontein.

The Cheetahs cause will not be helped by having to rest Springboks Coenie Oosthuizen and Willie le Roux and by the injury to Oupa Mohoje, but they are boosted by the return of Sarel Pretorius from paternity leave. These disruptions do nothing to settle an already unsettled team and unless the Chiefs are badly affected by the physical battering of the Kings Park mini-war and by the long flights, the Cheetahs may well get well beaten again.

The return from injury of Sonny Bill Williams to the Chiefs midfield presents the visitors with an additional factor to test their porous defence.

However, the Cheetahs have nothing to lose, and if they pass and support and run at the opposition, as is their natural wont, they could just surprise all and sundry.

Key players: Joe Pietersen, who provides skill and composure at 10, Sarel Pretorius, who has X-factor at 9, and skipper François Uys, back from injury to provide the leadership they appeared to lack last week. For the Chiefs, Sonny Bill Williams at 12, another new front row combination in Pauliasi Manu, Quentin MacDonald, and Ben Tameifuna, plus Aaron Cruden, who has been good at 10 but has missed vital goalkicking and drop-goal opportunities that have contributed to tight defeats.

The big match-ups: Talented young Cheetahs inside centre Michael van der Spuy has the challenge of his career in facing up to Sonny Bill Williams. At openside, the classy and consistently good Sam Cane in a face-off with Heinrich Brussow, rated highly by some but not all in South Africa. BG Uys scrums against the massive Tameifuna.

*     Stats courtesy of Opta Sports

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