Friday 14 July
Highlanders vs. Reds @ Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin 5:45pm (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
Each of the past eight games between these teams has seen the losing team pick up a bonus point; Queensland has emerged victorious on six occasions in that span.
The Highlanders have won their past three games played on a Friday, scoring an average of 51 points per game across that period.
Highlanders: Richard Buckman, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Rob Thompson, Tevita Li, Lima Sopoaga, Kayne Hammington, Luke Whitelock (co-captain), James Lentjes, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Reserves: Ash Dixon (co-captain), Aki Seiuli, Guy Millar, Gareth Evans, Dan Pryor, Josh Renton, Marty Banks, Patelesio Tomkinson.
Reds: Karmichael Hunt, Izaia Perese, Campbell Magnay, Duncan Paia'aua, Eto Nabuli, Quade Cooper, James Tuttle, Adam Korczyk, George Smith, Caleb Timu, Izack Rodda, Rob Simmons, Taniela Tupou, Stephen Moore (captain), Sef Fa'agase. Reserves: Alex Mafi, Markus Vanzati, Sam Talakai, Kane Douglas, Reece Hewat, Moses Sorovi, Hamish Stewart, Jayden Ngamanu.
Liam Squire returns to the Highlanders' starting line-up having been sidelined with injury since round 11 after breaking his thumb against the Cheetahs. All Blacks Aaron and Ben Smith will be rested for this game, Liam Coltman, Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo will run out against the Reds. Maori All Blacks representatives,Tom Franklin and Rob Thompson make the starting line-up and Ash Dixon is in the reserves.
Reds coach Nick Stiles has made two changes to his starting side, with Caleb Timu to make his run-on debut at blindside flanker, after making his Super Rugby debut off the bench last weekend, and Rob Simmons returning to his regular role of starting lock with Kane Douglas shifting to the bench. Stiles has also named two potential debutants on the bench, with Australian Under-20 captain Reece Hewat named as a reserve flanker and Jayden Ngamanu as a reserve outside back.
Greg Growden's tip: Highlanders Sam Bruce's tip: Highlanders
TAB verdict: A last-minute penalty goal by Quade Cooper sealed an upset win for the Reds last week and they'll be hoping to spring another surprise in Dunedin. That won't be an easy task however as they'll be up against a Highlanders side that has won nine of their last 10 and scored over 40 points in six of those victories. It's difficult to see the Reds winning this, but given their very generous head start (+22.5), they are certainly worth considering at the line.
Rebels vs. Jaguares @ AAMI Park, Melbourne, 7:45 (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
The Jaguares (11) and Rebels (10) have kicked the second- and third-most penalty goals respectively in the opening quarter of games this season; only the Sharks (14) have kicked more in that period.
Marika Koroibete has scored four of the Rebels' past six tries, with two doubles in his past three games.
Rebels: Jack Maddocks, Tom English, Mitch Inman, Reece Hodge, Marika Koroibete, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Nic Stirzaker (captain), Amanaki Mafi, Colby Fainga'a, Sean McMahon, Lopeti Timani, Steve Cummins, Laurie Weeks, James Hanson, Toby Smith. Reserves (one to be omitted) Jordan Uelese, Cruze Ah Nau, Fereti Sa'aga, Esei Haangana, Murray Douglas, Ben Meehan, Sione Tuipulotu, Semisi Tupou, Jonah Placid.
Jaguares: Joaquín Tuculet, Matías Moroni, Matías Orlando, Bautista Ezcurra, Emiliano Boffelli, Nicolás Sánchez, Martín Landajo, Leonardo Senatore, Rodrigo Báez, Pablo Matera, Benjamin Macome, Guido Petti, Enrique Pieretto, Agustin Creevy (captain), Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro. Reserves: Julián Montoya, Ramiro Herrera, Lucas Noguera, Ignacio Larrague, Juan Cruz Guillemain, Gonzalo Bertranou, Juan Martín Hernández, Santiago Cordero.
Rebels head coach Tony McGahan has made just two changes to the starting line-up, with the return of flanker Sean McMahon and fullback Jack Maddocks. McMahon missed the game against the Brumbies before the four-week international break and the side's return against the Force last weekend after he suffered a wrist injury against the Crusaders in Round 14. Maddocks will make his third Super Rugby start after McGahan promoted the rising star to the run-on team following the 20-year-old's return from injury off the bench against the Force in Perth last weekend.
Jaguares head coach Raúl Pérez has made two changes, with Rodrigo Báez replacing Juan Manuel Leguizamón in the back-row and Bautista Ezcurra replacing Jerónimo de la Fuente at inside centre.
Greg Growden's tip: Jaguares Sam Bruce's tip: Jaguares
TAB verdict: The Jaguares recorded their first-ever victory on Australian soil last week in an impressive five-try performance against the Waratahs. In that respect, there won't be too many willing to back against them when they take on the Australian Conference wooden spooners this week. Although the Rebels showed some promise in their Round 16 clash against the Force, they ultimately went down by nine-points, slipping to their 12th loss of the season in the process. The Rebels by 10+.
Saturday 15 July
Southern Kings vs. Cheetahs @ Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth, 3am (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
The Cheetahs have won all three previous meetings between, winning each by 12+ points. The Kings win an average of 9.4 turnovers per game this season, the most of any team in the competition and more than three more than the last-ranked Cheetahs (6.1).
The Cheetahs, meanwhile, have made 16.6 offloads per game, the most of any team in the competition and more than five more per game than the Kings (11.4).
Kings: Malcolm Jaer, Wandile Mjekevu, Berton Klaasen, Luzuko Vulindlu, Makazole Mapimpi, Lionel Cronjé (captain), Louis Schreuder, Andisa Ntsila, Tyler Paul, Chris Cloete, Wilhelm van der Sluys, Lubabalo Mtyanda, Ross Geldenhuys, Michael Willemse, Mzamo Majola. Reserves: Martin Bezuidenhout, Schalk Ferreira, Dayan van der Westhuizen, Irne Herbst/Mzwanele Zito, Thembelani Bholi, Rudi van Rooyen, Masixole Banda, Waylon Murray/Yaw Penxe.
Cheetahs: Clayton Blommetjies, William Small-Smith, Francois Venter (captain), Clinton Swart, Raymond Rhule, Fred Zeilinga, Tian Meyer, Niell Jordaan, Oupa Mohoje, Uzair Cassiem, Reniel Hugo, Carl Wegner, Johan Coetzee, Elandré Huggett, Ox Nche. Reserves: Joseph Dweba, Charles Marais, Tom Botha, Armandt Koster, Junior Pokomela, Chris Dry, Ruan van Rensburg, Niel Marais.
Cheetahs coach Franco Smith has made six xhanges to his starting team, with Oupa Mohoje back in the starting side in the backrow. Uzair Cassiem moves to left flank while Mohoje is back at right flank after Henco Venter received a red card against the Stormers. Carl Wegner replaces Armand Koster at lock, with two changes also in the backs. Fred Zeilinga starts at flyhalf, with Niel Marais on the bench, while William Small-Smith replaces injured Sergeal Petersen at right wing.
The Southern Kings have made just a single change for their last ever Super Rugby fixture, with Wilhelm van der Sluys returning at lock. He replaces Irne Herbst in the starting line-up that defeated the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld last weekend. There are two more possible injury changes among the replacements, with Mzwanele Zito on stand-by for Herbst, and Yaw Penxe pencilled in for Waylon Murray.
Cheetahs coach Franco Smith has made five changes to his starting team, with Oupa Mohoje back in the starting side in the backrow. Uzair Cassiem moves to left flank while Mohoje is back at right flank after Henco Venter received a red card against the Stormers. Carl Wegner replaces Armand Koster at lock, with two changes also in the backs. Fred Zeilinga starts at flyhalf, with Niel Marais on the bench, while William Small-Smith replaces injured Sergeal Petersen at right wing.
Greg Growden's tip: Kings Sam Bruce's tip: Kings
TAB verdict: A converted penalty goal after the final siren handed the Kings their first-ever win over the Bulls last week. The Port Elizabeth side has now finished a 31-30 victor in both of their last two games and has a win percentage of +70% across their last seven encounters. On that note, they're expected to brush aside a Cheetahs team that has struggled defensively this season, allowing 531 points to be scored against them. Kings to cover the line.
Sunwolves v Blues @ Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo, 1:05pm (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
The Blues are only the second New Zealand team to visit the Sunwolves in Super Rugby history, after the Hurricanes won 83-17 in the opening round of this season.
The Blues boast a ruck success rate of 96 percent this campaign, the best of any team in the competition.
Sunwolves: Riaan Wiljoen; Kotao Matsushima, William Tupou, Timothy Lafaele, Kenki Fukuoka; Yu Tamura, Keisuke Uchida; Willie Britz, Shuhei Matsuhashi, Malgene Ilaua; Uwe Helu, Kotaro Yatabe; Koo Jiwon, Takaeshi Hino, Koki Yamamoto. Reserves: Yusuke Niwai, Keita Inagakim Yasui Yamaji, Yuyya Odo, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Kaito Shigeno, Jumpei Ogura, Ryohei Yamanaka.
Blues: Michael Collins; Matt Duffie, George Moala, TJ Faiane, Melani Nanai; Ihaia West, Augustine Pulu; Steven Luatua, Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane; Scott Scrafton, Gerar Cowley-Tiooti; Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons, Ofa Tu'ungafasi. Reserves: Hame Faiva, Pauliasi Manu, Sione Mafileo, Josh Goodhue, Jerome Kaino, Sam Nock, Stephen Perofeta, Rene Ranger.
Sunwolves coach Filo Tiatia has made four changes, with Timothy Lafaele and William Tupou named as an all-new centre combination and Koo Jiwon, in the front-row, making his first start this season. Yuya Odo will get an opportunity off the bench.
Charlie Faumuina and Steven Luatua will play their last games for the Blues in their Super Rugby season finale, with coach Tana Umaga naming his strongest possible combination including the Blues' All Blacks Jerome Kaino, Faumuina, Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Akira Ioane.
Greg Growden's tip: Blues Sam Bruce's tip: Blues
TAB verdict: The Sunwolves were beaten by over 35 points for the third consecutive match last round, which extends their points differential across the season to -383. They're not expected to offer too much resistance to a Blues side that has averaged over 30 points in attack across their last five Super Rugby games and recently beaten the British & Irish Lions. Blues to cover the line.
Chiefs v Brumbies @ FMG Stadium, Hamilton, 3:15pm (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
The Chiefs have won nine of their past 10 games against Australian opposition, and they haven't lost to an Australian team when playing at home since 2014.
The Brumbies have lost on their past eight visits to New Zealand by an average margin of 15 points; they last won in New Zealand, against the Hurricanes, in Round 4, 2014.
Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Solomon Alaimalo, Alex Nankivell, Charlie Ngatai, James LoweAaron Cruden (captain), Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Michael Leitch, Lachlan Boshier, , Liam Messam, Mitchell Brown, Michael Allardice, Nepo Laulala, Nathan Harris, Kane Hames. Reserves: Liam Polwart, Aidan Ross, Atu Moli, Tom Sanders, Mitchell Karpik, Finlay Christie, Stephen Donald, Shaun Stevenson.
Brumbies: Jordan Jackson-Hope, Henry Speight, Nigel Ah Wong, Andrew Smith, James Dargaville, Wharenui Hawera, Tomas Cubelli, Lolo Fakaosilea, Jarrad Butler, Scott Fardy (captain), Blake Enever, Tom Staniforth, Leslie Leulua'iali'i-Makin, Robbie Abel, Nic Mayhew. Reserves: Josh Mann-Rea, Scott Sio, Ben Alexander, Ben Hyne, Tom Cusack, Jordan Smiler, Ryan Lonergan, Tom Banks.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie has rested All Blacks Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and Anton Lienert-Brown from Stephen Donald's 100th match for the franchise, and Tim Nanai-Williams will rejoin the side next week following his commitments with the Samoan national team. Brad Weber, Mitchell Graham, Glen Fisiiahi, Sam McNicol, Toni Pulu, Taleni Seu and Dominic Bird were all unavailable for selection.
Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham has made 12 changes to his team that was beaten by the Reds in Brisbane last week. Only wing Henry Speight, fly-half Wharenui Hawera and flanker Scott Fardy remain from the side that went down by a point at Suncorp Stadium, with Larkham taking the opportunity to rest players ahead of the quarterfinal clash on 21 July.
Greg Growden's tip: Chiefs Sam Bruce's tip: Chiefs
TAB verdict: The Brumbies three match win-streak dating back to Round 12 was snapped by the Reds last week. Will they be able to bounce back to winning ways just prior to the Finals? In any event, a close game could be on the cards as seven of the Brumbies' eight losses this season have ended with a final margin of seven points or less. Brumbies at the line.
Hurricanes v Crusaders @ Westpac Stadium, Wellington, 5:35pm (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
The Crusaders hunt for their 15th win of the campaign, which will equal the Super Rugby record for the most wins by a team in a single season (including finals). In fact, anything more than a loss for the Crusaders will see them become just the third team in Super Rugby history to progress undefeated through the regular season.
The Crusaders kept the Hurricanes tryless when they met in Round 12 this season, the only team to keep the reigning champions from breaching their line in the past three years.
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder 13 Vince Aso 12 Ngani Laumape 11 Julian Savea 10 Beauden Barrett 9 TJ Perenara (c) 8 Brad Shields 7 Ardie Savea 6 Vaea Fifita 5 Sam Lousi 4 Mark Abbott 3 Jeff To'omaga-Allen 2 Ricky Riccitelli 1 Ben May Reserves: 16 James O'Reilly 17 Chris Eves 18 Loni Uhila 19 Reed Prinsep 20 Callum Gibbins 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi 22 Wes Goosen 23 Cory Jane.
Crusaders: Israel Dagg, Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall, Kieran Read, Matt Todd (captain), Jordan Taufua, Scott Barrett, Luke Romano, Michael Alaalatoa, Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Andrew Makalio, Tim Perry, Oliver Jager, Sam Whitelock, Jed Brown, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Sean Wainui..
All Blacks T.J. Perenara, Beauden Barrett and Ardie Savea return to the Hurricanes starting side against Crusaders, ans the only changes to the team that started the famous 31-31 draw with the the British & Irish Lions.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson has named eight All Blacks players who were involved in the test squads against the British & Irish Lions, namely Wyatt Crockett, Luke Romano, Scott Barrett, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg in the starting XV. Sam Whitelock is on the bench. Matt Todd and Jack Goodhue, who were included as injury cover in the All Blacks squad, will also take starting spots and Todd will captain the team.
Greg Growden's tip: Crusaders Sam Bruce's tip: Hurricanes
TAB verdict: Unbeaten this year, the Crusaders are the pre-finals favourite for the Super Rugby title. However, their credentials will be tested this week when they face last year's champions. Although the Hurricanes lost to this opposition on May 13, they've won three of four matches since and scored a competition high 565 points this season. In what is shaping as the match of the round, the Hurricanes will be popular, but the Crusaders at generous +$2 odds is our bet of the week.
Force v Waratahs @ nib Stadium, Perth, 7:45pm (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
The Waratahs have won their past four games away from home within Australia, including wins after trailling at halftime in each of their past two such fixtures.
Bernard Foley has scored an average of 11.9 points per game this season, the second most of any player in the competition behind Curwin Bosch (12.7).
Force: Dane Haylett-Petty; Marcel Brache, Curtis Rona, Bill Meakes, Alex Newsome; Peter Grant, Michael Ruru; Isi Naisarani, Matt Hodgson, Ross Haylett-Petty; Adam Coleman, Matt Philip; Tetera Faulkner, Tatafu Polota-nau, Pek Cowan. Reserves: Anaru Rangi, Francois van Wyk, Shamebeckler Vui, Lewis Carmichael, Richard Hardwick, Ian Prior, Jono Lance, James Verity-Amm..
Waratahs: Israel Folau; Taqele Naiyaravoro, Rob Horne, David Horwitz Cam Clark; Bernard Foley, Jake Gordon; Michael Wells, Michael Hooper, Jack Dempsey; Dean Mumm, Ned Hanigan; Sekope Kepu, Damien Fitzpatrick, Tom Robertson. Reserves: Hugh Roach, David Lolohea, Angus Taavao, David McDuling, Ryan McCauley, Nick Phipps, Mack Mason, Andrew Kellaway.
Club legend and retiring great Matt Hodgson will start in his No.7 in his final appearance for the Western Force, while in further changes to the side, Tetera Faulkner comes into the starting XV at tighthead prop with Marcel Brache starting on the wing. In the reserves, Anaru Rangi and Shambeckler Vui come into the 23 while scrumhalf Ian Prior is in line to earn his 50th cap for the Force when he comes off the bench.
The Waratahs have made one change to the starting line-up with Taqele Naiyaravoro returning to the right wing, replacing Bryce Hegarty who was forced from the field in last weekend's game against the Jaguares, with a hamstring strain. Mack Mason returns to the squad covering a number of backline positions,while prop David Lolohea comes into replace Paddy Ryan, who is out through injury.
Greg Growden's tip: Force Sam Bruce's tip: Force
TAB verdict: After their home loss to the Jaguares last week, the knives have been out for the Waratahs and their coach Daryl Gibson. The Sydney based outfit has lost four of their last five matches, and worryingly, has conceded 40+ points in each of those defeats. Having beaten the Force in Round 1, the Tahs will be hoping to complete a season double over their opposition, however, plenty of early money is heading the way of the Force who have won two of their last three. The Force in a close one.
Bulls vs. Stormers @ Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria 11:05pm (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
The Stormers have won eight of their past 11 games against the Bulls, including five of their past six, though each of their losses in that period has come on the road.
The Bulls have now gone four games at home without victory (L4), the last time they lost more home games in succession was a run of nine losses from 2001 to 2003.
Bulls: Warrick Gelant, Travis Ismaiel, Jesse Kriel, Jan Serfontein, Duncan Mathews, Tian Schoeman, Rudy Paige, Nick de Jager, Jannes Kirsten, Shaun Adendorff, RG Snyman, Jason Jenkins, Conraad van Vuuren, Adriaan Strauss (captain), Pierre Schoeman. Reserves: Jaco Visagie, Trevor Nyakane, John-Roy Jenkinson, Ruben van Heerden, Ruan Steenkamp, Piet Van Zyl, Tony Jantjies, Burger Odendaal.
Stormers: Dillyn Leyds, Cheslin Kolbe, EW Viljoen, Damian de Allende, Seabelo Senatla, Damian Willemse, Jano Vermaak, Nizaam Carr, Rynhardt Elstadt, Siya Kolisi (captain), Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, JC Janse van Rensburg. Reserves: Ramone Samuels, Steven Kitshoff, Wilco Louw, Chris van Zyl, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Justin Phillips, Juan de Jongh, Dan Kriel.
The Bulls have nothing but pride to play for as they host the Stormers, and that has given coach Nollis Marais the opportunity to do some tinkering -- handing a first start to flank Shaun Adendorff. The only other chance from the side that lost 31-30 at home to the Southern Kings last weekend sees Pierre Schoeman start at loosehead prop, with Lizo Gqoboko out with injury.
The Stormers resisted the urge to rest players ahead for this "meaningless" clash, seeking to keep up their momentum heading into the quarterfinals. Coach Robbie Fleck has restored prop Frans Malherbe and lock Eben Etzebeth to the line-up after they missed out last weekend with flu. Rynhardt Elstadt returns from suspension to take his place on the side of the scrum, while centre Juan de Jongh and loose-forward Sikhumbuzo Notshe are named among the replacements.
Greg Growden's tip: Stormers Sam Bruce's tip: Stormers
TAB verdict: A heartbreaking loss to the Kings at Loftus Versfield last week condemned the Bulls to four consecutive home defeats. Do they stand any chance of preventing number five when they meet the side at the top of the Africa 1 Conference this Sunday? For their part, the Stormers should enter this fixture with plenty of confidence given they have returned two straight victories, scoring 40+ points in each. Stormers to cover the line.
Sunday 16 July
Sharks vs. Lions @ Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban, 1:15am (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
The Sharks have won their final regular season game in each of their past seven campaigns, winning their past five such fixtures by an average margin of 24 points.
The Lions' Franco Mostert has stolen 13 lineouts this season, six more than any other player in the competition, though Sharks duo Ruan Botha (7) and Stephan Lewies (7) are ranked equal second.
Sharks: Lwazi Mvovo, Kobus van Wyk, Lukhanyo Am, Andre Esterhuizen, S'busiso Nkosi, Garth April, Cobus Reinach, Daniel du Preez, Jean-Luc du Preez, Philip van der Walt (captain), Stephan Lewies, Etienne Oosthuizen, Coenie Oosthuizen, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Thomas du Toit. Reserves: Stephan Coetzee, Juan Schoeman, Lourens Adriaanse, Jean Droste, Tera Mtembu, Michael Claassens, Curwin Bosch, Jeremy Ward.
Lions: Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Courtnall Skosan, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Ruan Ackermann, Kwagga Smith, Jaco Kriel (captain), Franco Mostert, Andries Ferreira, Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx, Jacques van Rooyen. reserves: Akker van der Merwe, Corne Fourie, Johannes Jonker, Lourens Erasmus, Cyle Brink, Faf de Klerk, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Sylvian Mahuza.
Sharks coach Robert du Preez has made a number of changes to his side for the visit of the Lions, restoring Lwazi Mvovo to fullback and dropping Curwin Bosch to the bench. Lukhanyo Am is back from injury to take up the outside centre position, with Kobus van Wyk moving to the wing. There are also two changes among the forwards, Chilliboy Ralepelle replaces Franco Marais at hooker, while Jean-Luc du Preez comes in for Tera Mtembu in the No. 7 jersey.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann has kept the same starting line-up that thumped the Sunwolves 94-7 a fortnight ago for their crucial trip to the Sharks. Centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg returns to the bench after being sidelined since April with a knee injury.
Greg Growden's tip: Lions Sam Bruce's tip: Lions
TAB verdict: The Lions have feasted on their opposition this year, winning 13 of 14 games (nine of which with the bonus point) and have created a points differential that is now out to 305 points. They're expected to easily account for a Sharks outfit that slipped to a 13-point loss to the Bulls in their last match at this venue. Lions to cover the line.