Comp-defining match-up looms for rugby’s best
This article originally appeared on Stuff and is reproduced with permission
The Chiefs can lock down top spot in Canberra this weekend as the jostling for top-two, top-four and top-eight berths continues.
The penultimate round of the regular season begins with the Highlanders hosting the Reds, and every game has something riding on it in terms of the playoff permutations.
The Highlanders, Fijian Drua and Melbourne Rebels will all be finished unless they win this weekend, while the Blues-Hurricanes game will go a long way in deciding who secures a place in the top four – and a home quarterfinal.
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However, the game of the round is the first-versus-third clash between the Chiefs and the Brumbies across the ditch on Saturday.
A win for Clayton McMillan’s side would put them out of reach of the Crusaders at the top of the ladder, giving them their best chance of winning Super Rugby since 2013.
HIGHLANDERS vs QUEENSLAND REDS in Dunedin, Friday 5:05pm
Mitch Hunt has been handed the No 15 jersey for the must-win game against Brad Thorn’s dogged Queenslanders.
Hunt has not started a game since the loss to the Waratahs in round 10, but Connor Garden-Bachop has been moved to the bench after some errors against the Rebels last week.
Up front, Pari Pari Parkinson returns to the pack, but Josh Dickson and Will Tucker are still unavailable.
Parkinson’s return sees All Black flanker Shannon Frizell move back to his familiar position in the No 6 jersey.
HIGHLANDERS (15-1): Mitch Hunt, Jonah Lowe, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Freddie Burns, Aaron Smith; Hugh Renton, Billy Harmon (capt), Shannon Frizell, Max Hicks, Pari Pari Parkinson, Jermaine Ainsley, Andrew Makalio, Ethan de Groot.
RESERVES: Rhys Marshall, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma’u, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Sean Withy, Folau Fakatava, Connor Garden-Bachop, Scott Gregory
REDS: Jock Campbell, Suliasi Vunivalu, Josh Flook, James O’Connor, Mac Grealy, Tom Lynagh, Tate McDermott; Harry Wilson, Fraser McReight, Liam Wright (co-capt), Connor Vest, Angus Blyth, Zane Nonggorr, Matt Faessler, Peni Ravai.
RESERVES: Richie Asiata, Dane Zander, Sef Fa’agase, Jake Upfield, Seru Uru, Kalani Thomas, Lawson Creighton, Hunter Paisami.
MELBOURNE REBELS vs WESTERN FORCE in Melbourne, Friday 7:35pm
REBELS (15-1): Andrew Kellaway, Lachie Anderson, Lukas Ripley, Reece Hodge, Monty Ioane, Carter Gordon, Ryan Louwrens; Richard Hardwick, Brad Wilkin (capt), Josh Kemeny, Matt Philip, Josh Canham, Sam Talakai, Jordan Uelese, Matt Gibbon. Reserves: Theo Fourie, Isaac Aedo Kailea, Pone Fa’amausili, Trevor Hosea, Vaiolini Ekuasi, James Tuttle, Nick Jooste, Joe Pincus.
FORCE: Chase Tiatia, Zach Kibirge, Sam Spink, Hamish Stewart, Manasa Mataele, Max Burey, Issak Fines-Leleiwasa; Rahboni Vosayaco, Carlo Tizzano, Michael Wells (capt), Jeremy Williams, Felix Kalapu, Siosifa Amone, Angus Warner, Folau Fainga’a.
FIJIAN DRUA vs MOANA PASIFIKIA in Lautoka, Saturday 12:05pm
For the first time ever, the all-Pacific Island game will take place in the islands, as the Fijian Drua host Moana Pasifika in Lautoka.
If Aaron Mauger’s team are able to pick up their first win of the season in this game, they’d achieve something neither the Crusaders or Hurricanes were able to do this year, which was to win at one of Fijian Drua’s home grounds and clearly the Drua are a tougher proposition when they’re playing at home, then when they’re away.
For Mauger’s penultimate game as Moana Pasifika coach he has resorted prop Ezekiel Lindenmuth back into the starting lineup.
Michael Curry and Mike McKee were late scratches from the team that lost to the Crusaders last Friday, but are both back for this game, while Penitoa Finau will wear the No.6 jersey.
Henry Taefu will play at second-five, playing inside the departing Levi Aumua, it’s an experienced team selected, but will it be enough?
DRUA (15-1): TBC
MOANA PASIFIKA (15-1): William Havili, Tima Fainga’anuku, Levi Aumua, Henry Taefu, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Christian Lealiifano, Jonathan Taumateine; Solomone Funaki (capt), Alamanda Motuga, Penitoa Finau, Mike McKee, Michael Curry, Sosefo ‘Apikotoa, Luteru Tolai, Ezekiel Lindenmuth.
RESERVES: Samiuela Moli, Abraham Pole, Chris Apoua, Mahonri Ngakuru, Miracle Faiilagi, Ereatara Enari, Fine Inisi. Jonah Mau’u.
CRUSADERS vs WARATAHS in Christchurch, Saturday 2:35pm
Sam Whitelock is back, but the Crusaders will be without flanker Ethan Blackadder for at least another week due to his calf injury.
Veteran lock Whitelock’s return from an Achilles injury coincides with captain Scott Barrett taking his final All Blacks rest week, and fullback Will Jordan and centre Jack Goodhue also taking a breather.
In addition to Whitelock being back on deck, Richie Mo’unga, Leicester Fainga’anuku, David Havili, Braydon Ennor and Codie Taylor return to the starting side after sitting out last week’s game against Moana Pasifika.
Whitelock, who hasn’t yet played at home this season and will start alongside Quinten Strange in the second row, hurt his Achilles against the Chiefs a month ago.
CRUSADERS (15-1): Fergus Burke, Dallas McLeod, Braydon Ennor, David Havili, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Richie Mo’unga, Mitch Drummond, Cullen Grace, Tom Christie, Christian Lio-Willie, Sam Whitelock, Quinten Strange, Tamaiti Williams, Codie Taylor (capt), Kershawl Sykes-Martin.
RESERVES: Brodie McAlister, Seb Cader. Reuben O’Neill, Zach Gallagher, Sione Havili Talitui, Noah Hotham, Chay Fiahki, Will Gualter.
WARATAHS (15-1): Max Jorgensen, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Joey Walton, Mosese Tuipulotu, Dylan Pietsch, Ben Donaldson, Jake Gordon (capt), Langi Gleeson, Charlie Gamble, Taleni Seu, Hugh Sinclair, Jed Holloway, Harry Johnson-Holmes, David Porecki, Te Tera Faulkner.
RESERVES: Mahe Vailanu, Nephi Leatigaga, Tom Lambert, Ned Hanigan, Will Harris, Harrison Goddard, Tane Edmed, Harry Wilson.
BLUES vs HURRICANES in Auckland, Saturday 5:05pm
The Blues, like their mates from the capital, have brought back the big guns for this likely home quarterfinal decider, though have killed two birds with one stone by electing to give star No.10 Beauden Barrett this one off.
Blues coach Leon MacDonald confirmed after Thursday training that Barrett’s omission for the pivotal clash, which with a victory could seal fourth spot on the table, was a mixture of an All Blacks rest week which had to be taken one of the final two weeks of the regular season and a cut to the veteran playmaker’s heel suffered in last week’s win over the Reds in Brisbane.
The Blues have erred on the side of caution by giving Barrett this week to literally cool his heels. That sees Harry Plummer, who has been playing No.12 foremost of the back half of the season, moving back in to first five, and All Blacks backup man Stephen Perofeta returning from a long spell out with a shoulder injury via the bench.
Like the Canes, the Blues welcome back a raft of internationals off their rest weeks, with Ofa Tuungafasi (at loosehead), Caleb Clarke (left wing) Rieko Ioane (centre) and Fin Christie (halfback) all slotting straight back into the starting lineup.
There is also a start for All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala, after his stint off the bench last week following an extended spell out dealing with a calf injury.
Bryce Heem moves in a spot to No.12 this week to partner Ioane in midfield, while once again there is no place in the 23 for 2022 All Black Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, with MacDonald confirming his lack of versatility counted against him in deciding on bench makeup.
The Blues have Perofeta and, if fit, AJ Lam covering their outside back positions. Once again the Auckland outfit are captained by lock Patrick Tuipulotu, who makes his 98th appearance for the franchise, in the absence of the suspended Dalton Papalii.
BLUES (15-1): Zarn Sullivan, Mark Telea, Rieko Ioane, Bryce Heem, Harry Plummer, Finlay Christie, Hoskins Sotutu, Adrian Choat, Akira Ioane, Cameron Suafoa, Patrick Tuipulotu (capt), Nepo Laulala, Ricky Riccitelli, Ofa Tuungafasi.
RESERVES: Kurt Eklund, Jordan Lay, Marcel Renata, James Tucker, Anton Segner, Sam Nock; Stephen Perofeta, AJ Lam/Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens.
The Hurricanes have welcomed back most of their All Blacks for Saturday’s crunch clash with the Blues at Eden Park.
Captain Ardie Savea, prop Tyrel Lomax, hooker Asafo Aumua and second-five Jordie Barrett have been named in a near full-strength starting 15, while there is a surprise inclusion on the bench. The key quartet missed last weekend’s defeat to the Chiefs.
Savea, Lomax and Barrett were on All Blacks rest weeks, while Aumua was sidelined with a minor elbow injury.
With Devan Flanders ruled out with concussion, rising star Caleb Delany has been handed a start at blindside flanker.
First-five Brett Cameron is a notable inclusion among the reserves. The one-test All Blacks playmaker has not featured since suffering a frightening knee injury against the Western Force at the start of April but has made a speedier than expected return and should provide the Hurricanes with a big boost for such an important game.
All Blacks veterans Dane Coles (concussion) and TJ Perenara (Achilles) remained sidelined.
HURRICANES (15-1): Josh Moorby, Julian Savea, Billy Proctor, Jordie Barrett, Kini Naholo, Aidan Morgan, Cam Roigard, Ardie Savea (capt), Du’Plessis Kirifi, Caleb Delany, Isaia Walker-Leawere, James Blackwell, Tyrel Lomax, Asafo Aumua, Xavier Numia.
RESERVES: Hame Faiva, Tevita Mafileo, Owen Franks, Justin Sangster, Brayden Iose, Jamie Booth, Brett Cameron, Salesi Rayasi.
BRUMBIES vs CHIEFS in Canberra, Saturday 7:35pm
The Chiefs have rested All Blacks Tupou Vaa’i and Anton Lienert-Brown for Saturday night’s Canberra clash.
A win over the Brumbies would clinch top spot for the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Vaa’i and Lienert-Brown are among only three changes to the Chiefs’ starting line-up from last Saturday’s 23-12 victory against the Hurricanes in Hamilton.
The pair are on their All Blacks rest weeks – the last Chiefs are required to consider before the playoffs in June.
Laghlan McWhannell replaces Vaa’i for a rare start at lock and Lienert-Brown’s spot is taken by Rameka Poihipi in their midfield.
Josh Ioane is promoted for his first start of the season at first five-eighth, with Damian McKenzie shifting to fullback and Shaun Stevenson dropping to the bench.
Powerful loose forward Samipeni Finau returns via the bench after missing last week’s win because of a head knock.
BRUMBIES (15-1): Tom Wright, Andy Muirhead, Len Ikitau, Tamati Tua, Corey Toole, Noah Lolesio, Ryan Lonergan (co-capt), Pete Samu, Jahrome Brown, Rob Valetini, Tom Hooper, Nick Frost, Allan Alaalatoa (co-capt), Lachlan Lonergan, James Slipper
RESERVES: Ollie Sapsford, Jack Debreczeni, Klayton Thorn, Luke Reimer, Darcy Swain, Sefo Kautai, Blake Schoupp, Connal McInerney
CHIEFS (15-1): Damian McKenzie, Emoni Narawa, Alex Nankivell, Rameka Poihipi, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Josh Ioane, Brad Weber (co-capt); Luke Jacobson, Sam Cane (co-capt), Pita Gus Sowakula, Laghlan McWhannell, Brodie Retallick, George Dyer, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Aidan Ross.
RESERVES: Bradley Slater, Ollie Norris, John Ryan, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Samipeni Finau, Cortez Ratima, Daniel Rona, Shaun Stevenson.
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