Friday 21 July
Brumbies vs. Hurricanes @ GIO Stadium, Canberra 7:35pm (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
The Brumbies have won five of their last seven games against the Hurricanes, although their two defeats in that run came in their last three meetings; they also conceded their equal most ever points against the Wellington side in their most recent clash.
The Brumbies had won six Finals games in a row on home soil before losing 15-9 against the Highlanders in 2016.
Brumbies: Tom Banks, Henry Speight, Tevita Kuridrani, Andrew Smith, James Dargaville, Wharenui Hawera, Joe Powell, Jordan Smiler, Chris Alcock, Scott Fardy, Sam Carter, Rory Arnold, Allan Alaalatoa, Josh Mann-Rea, Scott Sio. Reserves: Robbie Abel, Ben Alexander, Leslie Leulua'iali'i-Makin, Blake Enever, Jarrad Butler, Tomas Cubelli, Jordan Jackson-Hope, Christian Lealiifano.
Hurricanes: Nehe Milner-Skudder, Wes Goosen, Jordie Barrett, Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara (c), Brad Shields, Ardie Savea, Vaea Fifita, Sam Lousi, Mark Abbott, Jeff To'omaga-Allen, Ricky Riccitelli, Ben May. Reserves: Dane Coles, Chris Eves, Loni Uhila, Reed Prinsep, Callum Gibbins, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Otere Black, Cory Jane.
Christian Lealiifano will make his long-awaited return for the Brumbies this week after he was named on the bench following a 10-month break from the game due to his leukaemia diagnosis. Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham has made several changes to his starting line-up, reverting to his strongest forward pack with Scott Sio, Josh Mann-Rea,Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Sam Carter, Chris Alcock and Jordan Smiler all returning. In the backline Joe Powell, Tevita Kuridrani and Tom Banks also return.
The Hurricanes will be strengthened by the return of All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett after he was a late withdrawal last week with illness. There is further good news on the bench where hooker Dane Coles has been included after a long layoff with concussion.
Greg Growden's tip: Hurricanes. Sam Bruce's tip: Hurricanes.
TAB verdict: The Brumbies have been such a long price at home in any Super rugby match since 2005 (96 matches). The Hurricanes did not concede a try throughout the playoffs last year, so the Brumbies will have to crack that tough defence if they are a chance at stealing this one. With all that in mind the Brumbies look a little over the odds. Tip: Brumbies +11.5 @ $1.90 **
Saturday 22 July
Crusaders vs. Highlanders @ AMI Stadium, Christchurch, 5:35pm (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
This will be the first time these teams have met in the Finals since a 34-23 win for the Crusaders in the 2002 semi-finals; in fact, the Crusaders boast a 100% win rate from three Finals fixtures against the Highlanders overall.
The Crusaders will again hunt for a 15th win for the season after falling short in the final regular season round; a win would equal the record for the most wins by any team in a single Super Rugby season (Reds, 2011 & Hurricanes, 2015), a record the Lions could also equal with a win against the Sharks.
Crusaders: David Havili, Israel Dagg, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, Seta Tamanivalu, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall, Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua, Sam Whitelock (captain), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Reserves: Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Pete Samu, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, George Bridge
Highlanders: Ben Smith (co-captain), Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Rob Thompson, Richard Buckman, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, James Lentjes, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Ash Dixon (co-captain), Aki Seiuli, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Alex Ainley, Gareth Evans, Elliot Dixon, Kayne Hammington, Marty Banks.
Five All Blacks return to the Crusaders' starting line-up for this clash. Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks, rested following the Lions series, are back to form a formidable front row combination. Captain Sam Whitelock will start at lock, while Ryan Crotty returns from injury at inside centre. David Havili moves to fullback, with Israel Dagg returning to the right wing.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown has a near full roster to choose from and his gone with a tried-and-true combination that has performed well in the back half of the competition. Ben Smith and Aaron Smith return to the backline that features Richard Buckman on the left wing and the hard-running Rob Thompson in the midfield. Brown has also elected to go with a six forwards-two backs split on the reserves bench perhaps anticipating an intense forward battle.
Greg Growden's tip: Crusaders Sam Bruce's tip: Crusaders
TAB verdict: The Crusaders have covered the line in 60 percent of their home matches since 2005). They are 5-2 this year at the line, but the Highlanders would have drawn their fixture in Christchurch if not for Mitch Hunts dramatic late drop goal. Tip: Highlanders +6.5 @ $1.90 **
Lions vs. Sharks @ Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg, 10:30pm (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
The Lions have won the last five meetings between these teams, after earning just two wins and a draw from their 13 clashes prior. This will also be the first time these teams have met in the Finals.
The Sharks have scored just 12 points in their last three Finals fixtures away from home, including a tally of zero when they travelled to Wellington in last season's quarter-finals.
Lions: Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Courtnall Skosan, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Ruan Ackerman, Kwagga Smith, Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert, Andries Ferreira, Ruan Dreyer, Malcom Marx, Jacques van Rooyen. Reserves: Akker vd Merwe, Corne Fourie, Johannes Jonker, Lourens Erasmus, Cyle Brink, Faf de Klerk, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Sylvian Mahuza.
Sharks: Lwazi Mvovo, Kobus van Wyk, Lukhanyo Am, Andre Esterhuizen, S'busiso Nkosi, Curwin Bosch, Cobus Reinach, Daniel du Preez, Jean-Luc du Preez, Philip van der Walt, Stephan Lewies, Etienne Oosthuizen, Coenie Oostehuizen, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Thomas du Toit. Reserves: Franco Marais/ Stephan Coestzee, Juan Schoeman, Lourens Adriaanse, Jean Droste, Tera Mtembu, Michael Claassens, Garth April, Jeremy Ward.
The Lions have named an unchanged side from their win over the Sharks last weekend, while Ruan Combrinck will reach the milestone of 50 Super Rugby caps.
The Sharks have made only one change to their starting line-up with Curwin Bosch recalled to starting flyhalf with Garth April taking his place on the bench. While Franco Marais who has been on the sidelines with concussion is bracketed on the bench with Stephan Coetzee, pending a late call.
Greg Growden's tip: Lions Sam Bruce's tip: Lions
TAB verdict: The favourite has won the past 17 games at Ellis Park, and the minus is an incredible 14-3 at the line. These two produced an ugly match in Durban last week, but this should be much better. Tip: Lions -15.5 @ $1.90 **
Stormers v Chiefs @ DHL Newlands, Cape Town, 1:05pm (AEST)
Key stats (Opta Stats)
The Stormers earned an eight-point win against the Chiefs when they met in Round 7 this season and will search for back-to-back wins against them for the first time since 2008; however, the Chiefs earned a comprehensive 60-21 win when these teams met in last season's quarter-finals.
The Stormers have only one Finals Series win to their name in Super Rugby history despite playing in eight such fixtures (L7).
Stormers: SP Marais, Cheslin Kolbe, EW Viljoen, Damian de Allende, Dillyn Leyds, Damian Willemse, Jano Vermaak, Nizaam Carr, Rynhardt Elstadt, Siya Kolisi (c), Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, JC Janse van Rensburg. Replacements: Ramone Samuels, Oli Kebble, Wilco Louw, Chris van Zyl, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Justin Phillips, Seabelo Senatla, Juan de Jongh.
Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Solomon Alaimalo, Anton Lienert-Brown, Stephen Donald, James Lowe, Aaron Cruden (co-captain), Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Michael Leitch, Sam Cane (co-captain), Liam Messam, Mitchell Brown, Brodie Retallick, Nepo Laulala, Nathan Harris, Kane Hames. Replacements: Liam Polwart, Aidan Ross, Atu Moli, Dominic Bird, Lachlan Boshier, Finlay Christie, Tim Nanai-Williams, Shaun Stevenson.
The Stormers have made two changes for their showdown with the Chiefs, one apiece between the backs and forwards. In the backline, SP Marais has shaken off a knee injury to start at fullback which pushes Dillyn Leyds to wing while up front, Rynhardt Elstadt returns to the back-row with Sikhumbuzo Notshe shuffling back to the bench.
Stephen Donald has received the nod to replace the injured Charlie Ngatai at inside centre in the only change to the Chiefs backline that defeated the Brumbies. But there are a couple huge inclusions in the pack with All Blacks Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick both restored to the starting side after resting last week. There is also a start for veteran Liam Messam at No.6.
Greg Growden's tip: Chiefs Sam Bruce's tip: Chiefs
TAB verdict: The Stormers were smashed by the Chiefs in last year's semifinals, and they will be looking for more revenge after they beat the New Zealanders back in Round 7. The Chiefs will be getting key All Blacks back for this clash, but the Stormers are a better side than last year and will go very close. Tip: Stormers hd 2 hd @ $2.30