Super Rugby Round 10 preview: What mindset are Folau's Tahs teammates in?

The Easter weekend features six games of Super Rugby, with the Crusaders, Jaguares and Bulls able to indulge in a little extra chocolate via the Round 10 bye.

The pick of the action comes from Dunedin where the Highlanders host the Blues, while the Brumbies will attempt to be the first Australian team to win in South Africa this year when they face the Stormers in Cape Town.


Tahs' return goes one of two ways amid Folau firestorm

NSW Waratahs haven't experienced a week like this, well, ever.

There was Wendell Sailor's gameday suspension for cocaine use; Lote Tuqiri's shoving of Sam Norton-Knight after a quick-tap brain fade; and Jacques Potgieter's on-field anti-gay slurs; but nothing has shaken the franchise during the Super Rugby period quite like Israel Folau's social media campaign.

More than a week on from Folau's Twitter and Instagram posts, in which he condemned homosexuals, drunks, adulterers and others to hell, the Wallabies superstar has in no way backed down from his comments and will fight Rugby Australia at a Code of Conduct hearing.

Given the Easter break and ANZAC Day public holidays over the next week, it's unlikely that hearing will take place before the end of the month, casting a cloud over the Waratahs at the very moment when they need to really find their feet.

Lose at home to the Rebels this week, and the Waratahs will be 11, or even 12 points adrift of the Australian conference leaders. Then with a two-week tour of South Africa , where no Australian franchise has won in 2019, the Super Rugby playoffs will be disappearing beyond the horizon.

That's what makes the timing of Folau's social media posts, let alone their content, completely unfathomable. While he may not care for the greater community's well-being, nor the image of Rugby Australia, did he stop and think about his teammates at all? What about the fact that the Waratahs' season was on tenterhooks itself?

It's true that others within the Waratahs squad share similar beliefs to Folau, and are disappointed with how things have played out, but they remain committed to the club and have instead put the team's interests ahead of their own.

So just how will the Waratahs' players react? How focused can they be given Folau has virtually been front-page news every day since last Thursday?

It goes one of two ways, and no-one should recognise that threat more than the Waratahs themselves after they caught the Crusaders on the hop in the New Zealand side's first game after the Christchurch terror attacks. The two-time defending champions were, understandably, completely off their game that night, and the Waratahs took full advantage.

If NSW's focus isn't there, then the Rebels will do the same to them. Stung by their worst performance of the year, against the Stormers last Friday, Melbourne must surely understand what a golden opportunity this SCG game represents.

Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson on Thursday told reporters that he'd seen a "a release of a lot of energy that has been built up and some really good quality stuff."

They'll need it, too, as their unrivalled aerial asset and key attacking strike weapon won't be there come Saturday night, physically, at least. Just what kind of mental impact he's had, or continues to have, on his Waratahs teammates will, however, be the key influencer on this Australian derby.

As for Folau himself? He has even bothered to pick up the phone and talk to his coach. Gibson surely deserves that much, at least?


Crusaders off, but rest of Kiwi clashes full of intrigue

All Blacks rest weeks have been an ongoing issue for New Zealand's five Super Rugby franchises to confront this season and, for the most part, they've all been managed pretty well.

Of course it is impossible to get it exactly right, particularly when any preseason planning is made redundant by in-season injuries. You can't predict the future and so the planning process remains relatively fluid.

At the Hurricanes, John Plumtree has worked his way through a portion of the mandatory rest weeks that his key All Blacks -- Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, Ardie Savea, Dane Coles, Ngani Laumape, TJ Perenara -- must fulfill. But he has certainly rolled the dice in Round 10, in handing the Barrett brothers and Savea their second and final spells of the season while the rest of the Hurricanes head to Tokyo.

At the start of the season, a game against the Sunwolves, even on the road, would have appeared an almost guaranteed five competition points. But fast forward through nine rounds of the competition, and the Sunwolves have shown they belong in Super Rugby, even if administrators have deemed them surplus to requirements from 2021.

Wins over the Waratahs and Chiefs, away from home, and near misses in Tokyo against NSW, again, and Queensland Reds prove just how competitive the Sunwolves have been. In fact, they have really only been comprehensively outplayed by the Rebels and Sharks this season.

That Sunwolves' improvement won't have been lost on Plumtree, but he has clearly weighed that against what are seemingly tougher challenges on the horizon -- a trip to Africa included -- and he has told his two biggest assets, Beauden Barrett and Savea, to put their feet up alongside Jordie over Easter. It may be a nervous end to Good Friday for the all-star trio.

Some 18 hours or so later in Dunedin, the Blues face the first genuine test of their mini revival against the Highlanders. They may have won four on the trot, ending their long stretch of New Zealand defeats against the Southerners themselves, but all four of those wins came at home.

With a fifth straight victory on offer, against the Chiefs in Hamilton, the Blues were outplayed over the final quarter and so questions about their perceived improvement remain.

Furthermore, while their run of outs against New Zealand opposition finally came to an end this year, the Blues have lost six straight in Dunedin in a run that stretches back to 2011.

The Highlanders, meanwhile, are desperate for a win as they fight to keep their wafer-thin semifinal hopes alive, and will get a late injection from Aaron Smith and Luke Whitelock off the bench.

But if the Blues are serious about the playoffs themselves, but more importantly proving they are indeed a far superior team to that from recent years, they simply must get the job done in Dunedin.


You can't underestimate the value of excellent leadership

Warren Whiteley returns to the Lions side not a moment too soon after missing seven weeks with his chest injury, as the three-time losing finalists' season is threatening to spiral out of control, if it hasn't already.

The Lions have struggled this season having lost key players to Europe after the 2018 campaign, and that loss of experience and IP has been magnified by a series of injuries -- including that of Whiteley -- which has left coach Swys de Bruin to blood younger players perhaps before they were ready. There is also a sense that the Lions' all-out attacking DNA does not quite suit the squad now available, and the combination of all these factors has seen them shipping bucketloads of points.

Would Whiteley have made a difference had he not been injured?

That's difficult to answer, as he's just one player, but the Lions have missed him not so much because he's a world-class player; they have missed him more for his authority on the field, his calm and assured leadership, and his ability to sense when change is necessary on the field.

Malcolm Marx has worn the captain's armband in Whiteley's absence. He, too, is a world-class player - possibly the best hooker in the game right now - and his standards on the pitch have not slipped, but his leadership, at the moment, while he adapts to the role, is more a physical "follow me, brother" rather than Whiteley's cerebral and organisational assessment of the game in front of him; the Lions have needed the latter, and surely, had Whiteley been on the field, they'd have reined in the ball-playing while under severe territorial and scoreboard pressure.

The Lions, in many ways, have done well to still be in contention for the playoffs; they are the only team in the South African Conference that sits outside the playoff berths at the halfway point of the season, but their 4-4 win-loss record sees them just one win behind the log-leading Bulls. Of course their defensive record - they have conceded 234 points this season, more than all teams other than the Sunwolves and this week's opponents, the Chiefs - means they're more like two wins back from the lead, but they're in contention and that's probably more than most of their fans could have hoped for having seen their efforts at home this season (even the wins against the Jaguares and Rebels were deeply flawed).

Whiteley will offer leadership insight that they've missed hugely for seven games, and his return alongside Kwagga Smith in the backrow is hugely important; of course their return is offset, at least partially, by the management decision to rotate Elton Jantjies and Marx out of the starting side -- to the bench -- but this feels like a game, against rivals who are missing star players Damian McKenzie, Brodie Retallick, Nathan Harris and Solomon Alaimalo through injury, that even this season's Lions can contest.

The Lions hold playoff aspirations right now, realistic or not; defeat by the Chiefs, ahead of a fixture against the Crusaders in Christchurch, will likely nix them whatever the maths say. This is must win, and they'll be glad to have Captain Whiteley back at the helm.