It’s the penultimate Super Rugby round and with just two games left, the battle for finals spots is seriously hot.
So who will absorb the pressure and who will have to get out of the kitchen?
Blues vs Brumbies - Friday July 8, 5:35pm AEST
The Brumbies are sitting on top of the Australian conference with two matches left, but a win will be crucial to stay ahead of the Waratahs, with whom they sit equal on points but edge with more victories. The Blues could be the dream destroyers for one Australian team, facing the Brumbies and Waratahs last week.
The last three matches between the Brumbies and Blues have been low-scoring affairs, with just 33 points scored on average.
The Brumbies will be looking to shake off a losing run in New Zealand, after four consecutive losses in trans-Tasman trips, while the Blues have won 12 of their past 14 matches as hosts to Aussie sides.
Tomas Cubelli comes into the starting team for the Brumbies after starting on the bench against the Reds. His running game added spark to the ACT in his late-match cameo and on the hunt for bonus points, that will be crucial. Michael Wells will start at number eight replacing the injured Ben Hyne.
Where the match will be won
Defence. The Blues love to run the ball and the Brumbies have spoken all week about the need to shut that down. If they can put up a wall in Auckland, they will notch a victory. Their biggest challenge is adding a bonus point to that by scoring down the other end.
Melani Nanai, Matt Duffie, Male Sa’u/Matt Vaega, Piers Francis, Tevita Li, Ihaia West, Bryn Hall, Steven Luatua, Kara Pryor, Jerome Kaino, Josh Bekhuis/Scott Scrafton, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, James Parsons (c), Sam Prattley
Quentin MacDonald, Nic Mayhew, Sione Mafileo, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Blake Gibson, Billy Guyton, Matt Vaega/Michael Little, Lolagi Visinia
Aidan Toua, Nigel Ah Wong, Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Toomua, James Dargaville, Christian Lealiifano (co-captain), Tomas Cubelli, Michael Wells, Jarrad Butler, Scott Fardy, Sam Carter, Rory Arnold, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore (co-captain), Scott Sio
Josh Mann-Rea, Allan Alaalatoa, Ruan Smith, Blake Enever, Tom Staniforth, Joe Powell, Andrew Smith, Lausii Taliauli
Reds vs Chiefs - Friday July 8, 7:40pm AEST
The Reds are out of finals contention but it’s all about finding a positive in the final fortnight of the year. That won’t be an easy proposition against the Chiefs but the Reds have already pulled off an upset at Suncorp this season.
Hendrik Tui has emerged as an effective player for the Reds - he’s stolen more lineouts than any other Australian-based player this season.
The Chiefs have scored 23 more tries than their opponents this season, the best differential of any team in the competition.
Duncan Paia’aua will start at 10 for the Reds after Jake McIntyre was ruled out with injury. The former Broncos U20s player has had a mixed start to his Super Rugby career and will face another baptism of fire against the Chiefs. Kane Douglas will have his first Reds start this weekend, after playing off the bench against the Brumbies. Sam Cane will play at number eight for the Chiefs, in an unusual position switch after Brodie Retallick was rested.
Where the match will be won
Experience in attack. While the breakdown battle looms as an interesting one, it’s the Chiefs’ finishing that is the biggest threat. Fullback Damian McKenzie has gone off the boil since his blistering start to the year but they have no shortage of attacking threats in their side, something of which the Reds will need to be wary.
Jack Tuttle, Chris Kuridrani, Samu Kerevi, Henry Taefu, Eto Nabuli, Duncan Paia’aua, Nick Frisby, Curtis Browning, Liam Gill, Hendrik Tui, Kane Douglas, Cadeyrn Neville, Greg Holmes, Andrew Ready, James Slipper ©
Matt Mafi, Sef Fa’agase, Taniela Tupou, Lukhan Tui, Leroy Houston, James Tuttle, Anthony Fainga’a, Campbell Magnay
Damian McKenzie, Toni Pulu, Seta Tamanivalu, Anton Lienert-Brown, James Lowe, Aaron Cruden (co-captain), Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Sam Cane (co-captain), Lachlan Boshier, Tom Sanders, Taleni Seu, Dominic Bird, Atu Moli, Nathan Harris, Kane Hames
Hika Elliot, Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, Siate Tokolahi, Mitchell Brown, Liam Messam, Brad Weber, Andrew Horrell, Sam McNicol
Crusaders vs Rebels - Saturday July 9, 5:35pm AEST
The Rebels need wins from their final two matches to break a club record for most wins in a season and they can still make an impact on the makeup of the knockouts.
The Rebels won their last encounter in Christchurch, in rd 1 of 2015 and another victory would make them the first non-New Zealand team to notch back-to-back wins against the Crusaders.
That Rebels’ win against the Crusaders is their only win in new Zealand since their Super Rugby inception.
Where do you start? The Rebels have made seven changes to their starting XV for the match, with Sean McMahon (groin) to miss his first match since round 13 last year as well as Luke Jones and Lopeti Timani ruled out with concussion. Nic Stirzaker and Mike Harris will return to side, along with Adam Thomson (back). All Blacks captain Kieran Read is being rested from the Crusaders side.
Where the game will be won
The breakdown. The Rebels have plenty of talent in their backrow stocks and they have been destructive in the breakdown this season. However, without Sean McMahon they look that little bit less intimidating. Meanwhile, the Crusaders have rested All Blacks captain Kieran Read but the underrated Matt Todd is the danger for the Rebels, at number 7.
Israel Dagg, Johnny McNicholl, Ryan Crotty, David Havili, Nemani Nadolo, Richie Mo’unga, Andy Ellis, Jimmy Tupou, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua, Sam Whitelock (c), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Alex Hodgman
Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett, Mike Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Pete Samu, Mitchell Drummond, Mitch Hunt, Kieron Fonotia
Mike Harris, Sefa Naivalu, Sione Tuipulotu, Reece Hodge, Tom English, Jack Debreczeni, Nic Stirzaker (c), Adam Thomson, Colby Fainga’a, Jordy Reid, Culum Retallick, Sam Jeffries, Laurie Weeks, James Hanson, Toby Smith
Pat Leafa, Cruze Ah Nau, Jamie Hagan, Steve Cummins, Rob Leota, Ben Meehan, Paul Asquith, Jonah Placid
Waratahs vs Hurricanes - Saturday July 9, 7:40pm AEST
The Waratahs have been in must-win situations plenty of times this year and they face yet another on Saturday night against the Hurricanes. A bonus-point win over the Kiwis would all but put them in the finals. A loss would send them packing. As interesting as the final result, though, will be the matchups between key players - Barrett vs Foley, Hooper vs Savea, Naiyaravoro vs Julian Savea.
The Waratahs have won their past three home games comfortably after an unprecedented three-game home losing streak.
NSW has won six of its past eight clashes with the Hurricanes.
The Waratahs want to be physical against the Hurricanes and they’ve gone for size in their selections, with Wycliff Palu coming into number eight and Dave Dennis and Will Skelton teaming up in the locks. The hurricanes have made two changes with Chris Eves at tighthead and centre Willis Halaholo in the starting team.
Where the game will be won
The finishers, and this is two-fold. The Waratahs have had incredible impact from their bench players this season and while theirs is less experienced this week, expect them to come out firing. The second fold is the battle of supersized wingers Taqele Naiyaravoro and Julian Savea, who will face off for the first time in Super Rugby. The battle between Michael Hooper and Ardie Savea is possibly the most mouthwatering of the evening, with two high-endurance, high-impact athletes going against each other.
Andrew Kellaway, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Israel Folau, Rob Horne, Matt Carraro, Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps, Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper (c), Dean Mumm, Will Skelton, Dave Dennis, Tom Robertson, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Paddy Ryan
Hugh Roach, Jeremy Tilse, Angus Ta’avao, Sam Lousi, Jack Dempsey, Matt Lucas, David Horwitz, Reece Robinson
James Marshall, Cory Jane, Matt Proctor, Willis Halaholo, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Victor Vito, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Michael Fatialofa, Vaea Fifita, Chris Eves, Dane Coles (c), Reg Goodes.
Ricky Riccitelli, Ben May, Loni Uhila, Mark Abbott, Callum Gibbins, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ngani Laumape, Jason Woodward
Force vs Stormers - Saturday July 9, 9:55pm AEST
You could almost forget the Force actually have a game to play this week, after a debacle of a 24 hours, with the emergence of an alcohol-related incident in South Africa after the Cheetahs game. A loss would almost be a footnote on a week that has shown this franchise has much more work to do on and off the field.
The Force have lost nine home games in a row and 13 of their past 14 in Perth.
Dane Haylett-Petty notched over 1000 run metres in last weekend’s game, joining Israel Folau and Damian McKenzie as one of only three players to hit that milestone.
The Force has made five changes to the 23 to face the Stormers, with Luke Morahan to captain the side after Pek Cowan and Dane Haylett-Petty were overlooked for the leadership after breaching standards overseas. Ben Tapuai, Guy Millar and Richard Hardwick come into the starting team.
Where the game will be won:
Kicking. The Stormers have played field position against Australian sides all season and it has been pretty successful. The Force play less of a running game than their Aussie counterparts so it will be interesting to see if they can counter the South African style.
Dane Haylett-Petty, Marcel Brache,Ben Tapuai, Kyle Godwin, Luke Morahan (c), Jono Lance, Ryan Louwrens, Angus Cottrell, Chris Alcock, Richard Hardwick, Rory Walton, Ross Haylett-Petty, Guy Millar, Harry Scoble, Pek Cowan
Anaru Rangi, Francois van Wyk, Jermaine Ainsley, Matt Philip, Byrnard Stander, Ian Prior, Peter Grant, Semisi Masirewa
Jaco Taute, Kobus van Wyk, Daniel du Plessis, Damian de Allende, Leolin Zas, Jean-Luc du Plessis, Nic Groom, Schalk Burger (c), Siya Kolisi, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Vincent Koch, Bongi Mbonambi, Alistair Vermaak
Scarra Ntubeni, JP Smith, Wilco Louw, JD Schickerling, Rynhardt Elstadt, Louis Schreuder, Huw Jones, Scott van Bredaa