Super Rugby Pacific preview: Repeat of 2022’s final and battle of the behemoth wings in Wellington
Making its return, we bring you Super Rugby Pacific’s Round Four preview, in which we look at the main talking points ahead of this weekend’s action.
Games to watch
Chiefs v Rebels
As the pacesetters after three rounds of Super Rugby Pacific action, the Chiefs will be in a confident mood ahead of this encounter against the Melbourne Rebels in Hamilton on Saturday.
After securing bonus-point victories in all three of their previous matches – against the Crusaders, Moana Pasifika and the Highlanders – the home side are sitting pretty at the top of the standings with a full house of 15 points.
Clayton McMillan’s charges have set the tournament alight with their brilliant attacking displays so far this season and the likes of Shaun Stevenson, Damian McKenzie, Brodie Retallick and Samisoni Taukei’aho were amongst their best performers in the matches.
However, McKenzie and Retallick are being rested this weekend, along with co-captains Sam Cane and Brad Weber, while Taukei’aho starts on the replacements bench against the Rebels, who have a spring in their step after beating the Waratahs in Melbourne last weekend.
That victory got the Rebels’ campaign on track after they lost their opening matches to the Western Force and Hurricanes. They will be looking to build on their most recent result with players like Carter Gordon, Lachie Anderson, Reece Hodge, captain Brad Wilkin and Matt Gibbon all catching the eye with superb showings.
But they face a tough assignment against their hosts, who despite being without the services of several senior players, can still call on experienced campaigners like Stevenson, stand-in skipper Luke Jacobson and Alex Nankivell for this encounter.
The previous match between these sides was a tight affair although the Chiefs eventually secured the result in the game’s closing stages.
Blues v Crusaders
The big game of the weekend is a repeat of last year’s final with the Blues hosting their arch rivals and defending champions, the Crusaders, at Eden Park on Saturday.
Despite finishing on the losing side at the same venue in that encounter last year, the Blues will fancy their chances of beating the holders as Leon MacDonald’s troops have made a better start than Scott Robertson’s charges, who have delivered a mixed bag of results during the earlier rounds.
The Blues hit the ground running with an impressive 60-20 victory against the Highlanders in their tournament opener in Dunedin, before suffering a narrow 25-20 loss to the Brumbies in the Super Round in Melbourne a fortnight ago.
Despite that setback, the men from Auckland bounced back with an impressive 25-19 triumph over the Hurricanes in Wellington last weekend. They face a Crusaders outfit who will be smarting after suffering a shock 25-24 loss to the Fijian Drua in Lautoka.
Prior to that, the Christchurch-based side lost their opening match at home to the Chiefs (31-10) but returned to winning ways when they cruised to a 52-15 win over the Highlanders in their next game.
They will be hoping to return to winning ways against the Blues, who are set to play their first home match of the year. Despite being under pressure ahead of this fixture, the Crusaders are a side who cannot be underestimated and they will gain confidence from their previous clash against the Blues at Eden Park – last year’s final when they proved too strong for their hosts.
Player to watch – Meli Derenalagi (Fijian Drua)
After being responsible for arguably the biggest upset in Super Rugby history, when they beat the Crusaders a week ago, the Fijian Drua will be keen to show that that result was not a flash in the pan when they take on the Reds in Brisbane on Sunday.
With their confidence at a high after that momentous result against the perennial champions, the Drua received another shot in the arm when it was confirmed that their captain, Derenalagi, is set to return to action this weekend after a lengthy stint on the sidelines due to injury.
The 24-year-old ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in May last year and has been working hard on his recovery and rehabilitation after undergoing surgery during the latter part of 2022.
A dynamic ball carrier, who also shines in the execution of his defensive duties, the 2020 Olympic gold medalist comes into the Drua’s run-on side at number eight with Elia Canakaivata dropping down to the replacements bench.
Derenalagi will be expected to put his side on the front foot with his excellent attacking ability and if he hits his straps the Drua will fancy their chances of causing another upset, albeit away from home this weekend.
One-v-one battle to watch – Julian Savea (Hurricanes) v Nemani Nadolo (Waratahs)
There’s plenty of interest around this match-up as this duo are attendance-drawcard players and it will be a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object when they face off in Wellington on Friday.
As far as direct duels go, this one pits two genuine superstars of the game against each other as both players are renowned for their powerful ball carrying skill and ability to destroy the tightest defences with their barnstorming runs.
Savea is one of the most prolific scorers in the history of Super Rugby and he heads into this encounter with 58 tries scored in total, which is just two adrift of the record held by former Waratahs and Wallabies full-back Israel Folau.
Although he would love to break that record against the Waratahs, he faces a tough adversary in Nadolo, who, like his direct opponent, has the ability to prove a real handful with his destructive running style once he builds up a head of steam.
That sets the scene for a mouth-watering battle and it will be interesting to see which one of these behemoth wings comes out on top after 80 minutes.
Subplot to watch – Desperate Highlanders still pointless
Although we’re still in the early stages of Super Rugby Pacific, these are desperate times for the Highlanders as they are languishing at the bottom of the table with no points amassed from their three matches played so far.
Under the guidance of Clarke Dermody, the Dunedin-based franchise have made an underwhelming start to this year’s campaign as they have lost all three their matches – against the Blues, Crusaders and Chiefs – by huge margins.
The Highlanders’ first two matches were disastrous affairs as they conceded more than a half century of points against both the Blues (60-20) and the Crusaders (52-15).
They fared a little better against the Chiefs last weekend as they suffered a more respectable 28-7 loss but, like those previous matches, they failed to secure even a losing bonus point.
That means that along with Moana Pasifika, the Highlanders are the only winless team in the competition after three rounds – although Moana are above them in the standings as they have secured two losing bonus points, against the Drua and the Force.
The men from Perth are up against the Highlanders in Invercargill on Sunday and the home side can ill afford another defeat against a team who have already won two out of three matches.
Best of the rest
There is one other fixture taking place over the weekend with the high-riding Brumbies going up against Moana Pasifika in Canberra in Saturday’s late game.
The Brumbies have made a fine start to their campaign as they have won all three their matches in this year’s tournament.
Stephen Larkham’s charges have beaten the Waratahs, Blues and Reds but on each occasion they failed to secure a bonus point and that is the reason why they are currently in second position on the table, three points adrift of the Chiefs.
Although they will fancy their chances against Moana – who are winless after losing all three their matches, against the Drua, Chiefs and Force – they should not underestimate their opponents who suffered a last-gasp defeat in Perth last week.
READ MORE: Super Rugby Pacific Team Tracker: Ben Donaldson starts at fly-half for the Waratahs against Hurricanes
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