Super Rugby Preview Round 14 Dark arts at play, Blues struggles to continue

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Super Rugby enters into new territory this week as the Sunwolves, who finally registered a win for 2018 against the Reds last week, take their game against the Stormers to Hong Kong. The Japanese side have previously taken games to Singapore but this will be a first for Hong Kong as the Sunwolves hope to lure in some of the supporters who attend the Hong Kong Sevens.

The Jaguares, meanwhile, return to action at home after their unbeaten four-match Australasian tour. The Argentines look a different outfit under Pumas great and former Wallabies assistant Mario Ledesma, but need to win this key African conference clash with the Bulls.

The Reds and Waratahs have the chance to end the trans-Tasman drought for Aussie teams with NSW the more likely given they’re playing at home. Daryl Gibson’s side are still the outsiders with the bookies however.

Read on for some the key storylines for Round 14.

Australian Conference

Opportunity to challenge the ‘dark arts’

You could have been forgiven for thinking Super Rugby was a Harry Potter novel this week, given all the discussion about the game’s dark arts. But as far as we can remember Harry’s game was quidditch and he who cannot be named finally met his match in the teenage wizard.

Stephen Hoiles’ idea that Australian teams need to “cheat better”, a statement he later softened to an improvement in the dark arts of rugby, certainly whipped up a storm following the Crusaders’ comeback victory over the Waratahs. There’s no doubt the Cantabrians got away with a few key calls, but it would be crazy to think Australia teams will head out this week with forearms raised in the style of Joe Moody.

Matt Todd’s second-half cameo in the front-row, which helped secure a penalty try, could be worth a shot however and so too the odd hand in the ruck. It’s all about avoiding the referee’s eye and, for the Reds, they have the opportunity to test Ben O’Keeffe’s resistance on Friday night.

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Kurtley Beale says despite losing to the Crusaders, their performance shows they can hang with the New Zealand sides.

O’Keeffe has been retained by SANZAAR, again for a trans-Tasman showdown, with his appointment for the Hurricanes’ game against the Queenslanders in Brisbane. O’Keeffe last week blew a penalty county of 17-7 against the Waratahs, missing the blatant offences on the part of the hosts mentioned above. He received little help from his all-Kiwi assistant party, too.

Reds captain Scott Higgintbotham, who returns after a four-week layoff with injury, says it has a lot to do with the age of players; with playing experience comes education and an appreciation for what you can, and can’t, get away it.

The Reds have a mixture of experience and youth but have one of the game’s best ever at the breakdown in George Smith; the veteran No.7 might just push the limits given O’Keeffe’s name has been akin to that of Voldemort in Australia this week. You’d wager there will be a far more even penalty count this week, though, and at least some interjection from the TMO.

Meanwhile in Sydney, the Waratahs have another opportunity to snap Australia’s trans-Tasman losing streak when they entertain the Highlanders back at Allianz Stadium. The referee? Kiwi Brendon Pickerill.

SANZAAR has long defended its merit-based referee system, and they certainly haven’t been shaken by the negative media coverage this week. You get the feeling the Waratahs are the team most likely to snap the streak but they need their own version of Harry, Hermione and Ron at their absolute best.

The Waratahs need every possible conversion and penalty Bernard Foley can kick. He missed a couple last week, and the brilliant work of Folau and Beale came to nothing. As old Dumbledore said: “with great power comes great responsibility”. A truer word has never been spoken about No.10.

A little magic from Michael Hooper wouldn’t go astray, either.

Match Centre: Sunwolves vs. Stormers

Match Centre: Waratahs vs. Highlanders

New Zealand Conference

Tana’s extension sorted, but Blues another matter

It was once the great derby of New Zealand rugby. But nowadays the Blues-Crusaders clash is well down the pecking order in terms of interest and intensity. The Crusaders have certainly done their part to keep the rivalry alive but the Blues have degenerated into somewhat of a clown franchise that again find themselves at the bottom of the New Zealand conference.

In what appears a reward for failure, they this week re-signed coach Tana Umaga for another season. In fairness to the All Blacks great, he hasn’t had a lot of luck this season. Riddled by injury all year, the Blues have been forced into blooding a number or rookies, many of whom stood up against the Waratahs a fortnight ago but were then exposed by the Hurricanes a week later.

Meanwhile, the Crusaders produced the greatest comeback in Super Rugby history to beat the Waratahs 31-29. Woeful for much of the opening 30 minutes in Christchurch, the Crusaders finally found their game towards the end of the first half and rode the subsequent shift in momentum right through to an astonishing victory. But you can bet coach Scott Robertson took them to task over a poor opening first half hour and demanded they improve this week in Auckland.

Given the tightness of the New Zealand conference, games against the lowly Blues represent key competition points; the Aucklanders have not tasted victory in 16 matches with fellow New Zealand opposition while they remain winless at home for 12 months.

And it’s hard to see that changing this Saturday. Umaga may have secured himself another year but it is clear there are issues within the organisation he himself has yet to conquer. That may all change when Leon McDonald joins as an assistant later this year, that appointment a touch ironic given the former Test fullback’s success with the Crusaders as player.

As was the case with McDonald’s days in the red and black, there is far too much class in this current Crusaders outfit, and the four points far too valuable, for them to slip up here. He may have job security, but Umaga should expect further questions about his coaching ability later on Saturday night.

Match Centre: Hurricanes vs. Reds

Match Centre: Blues vs. Crusaders

African Conference

Chiefs hold no fear for Jekyll and Hyde Sharks

The Sharks have reserved their best displays for New Zealand opposition this year, as they have won two of the three matches played against Kiwi sides.

It should really have been three out of three, as the Durban team threw away a golden opportunity to beat the Hurricanes. But the one-point defeat at McLean Park came in between a 63-40 win over the Blues away and an impressive 38-12 demolition of the Highlanders a couple of weeks ago at Kings Park.

These days South African wins over teams who make up the All Blacks are a dime a dozen, and are almost viewed as unexpected bonuses to help bolster ladder positions. But the Sharks’ form against Kiwi opposition hasn’t exactly helped them in their quest to make the playoffs.

The 10 points they took off the Blues, Hurricanes and Highlanders have basically kept them in the hunt for a wildcard spot, because they have been below par in quite a number of matches they played this season.

The Sharks have only managed three points in three matches against Australian opposition this year. They seemed to be sleepwalking in the second half of their 24-24 draw against the Waratahs at home, while they also didn’t have any rhythm against the Rebels and the Brumbies.

The Sharks have also won only one of the four South African derbies this far. They beat the Stormers a few weeks ago in an error-strewn match, but have twice lost to the Bulls and succumbed to the Lions in their first match of the Super Rugby campaign.

Now, going into the last two matches before the June break, they find themselves level on 24 points with the Jaguares and the Bulls, and one point ahead of the Stormers, in the fight for a wildcard position.

So, based on their previous results this year, one would assume that coach Robert du Preez is actually looking forward to hosting the Chiefs this weekend. It may be a fixture that sparks the Durban side back into life following last week’s defeat against the Bulls.

Match Centre: Sharks vs. Chiefs

Match Centre: Lions vs. Brumbies

Match Centre: Jaguares vs. Bulls



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