Super Rugby Round 6: Are midfield opposites Wallabies teammates?

Samu Kerevi slides over for a try during the Reds' clash with the Waratahs in Sydney, March 9, 2019 Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Round six of Super Rugby begins in Auckland where the Blues welcome the Highlanders to Eden Park. The hosts will be without Sonny Bill Williams who has been granted leave to go down to Christchurch and meet with his fellow Muslims following the terror attacks from last Friday.

The entire competition continues to hold a heavy heart but it's the Crusaders who will be feeling it the most. Scott Robertson's side returns to action against the Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday night after having last week's Southern Derby cancelled.

Read on for some of the big storylines across the three conferences.


Can Kerevi and Kuridrani be Wallabies' 'Special Ks'?

At halftime in Tokyo last week, Queensland Reds' season was all but over. After a poor first half, where they had been outplayed by the Sunwolves, the Reds went into the break 21-5 down.

But they returned with a renewed focus and rode a significant shift in momentum all the way to a dramatic 34-31 victory, their 2019 campaign still alive as a result.

It was a team-wide response and a realisation that something needed to change, but one driven by their skipper and the man who has been the standout Australian performer in Super Rugby so far: Samu Kerevi.

If rumours are correct and Kerevi plans to head for Japan after the World Cup, then the Queensland Rugby Union and Rugby Australia should be doing everything it can to persuade him to stay instead. Kerevi is getting better every week as a leader.

After last week's comeback win in Tokyo, Kerevi immediately shifted the focus to the Christchurch terror attack and passed on his "prayers and thoughts" to those affected. One week earlier, he chose not to blame a dodgy SCG surface for his side's loss to the Waratahs when it was clear they would have had a dominant set-piece otherwise.

But he has also led through his actions. After a dominant first-up outing at inside centre, Kerevi was forced one spot wider to the No. 13 jersey, due to the injury to Jordan Petaia, where he has excelled ever since. The Reds skipper is second only to Ngani Laumape for metres run [404] but tops the charts for tackle busts [22], sits third for line breaks [6], second for offloads [8] and has added two tries and two try assists for good measure.

The captaincy seems to be sit perfectly with Kerevi; rather than feel the weight a leadership role can carry, Kerevi appears to be flourishing. He returns to No. 12 for the Reds this week, with Chris Feauai-Sautia shifted in from the wing to outside centre.

But he also comes up against probably his biggest test so far this season on Sunday when a midfield showdown with Tevita Kuridrani plays out on Suncorp Stadium. Kuridrani, too, has been in sparkling form this season, compiling a stats sheet of similar quality to that of Kerevi.

Interestingly, both men missed a large chunk of 2018 through injury. For Kerevi, that came in the form of a torn bicep while Kuridrani was sidelined by a pectoral injury. Kerevi did make it back for a cameo on the spring tour, but Kuridrani was instead sent for an extended preseason at the Brumbies.

It is clear that both men may have benefited from the unplanned absence and have come back in supreme condition as they push for a World Cup berth later in the year.

The big question is whether or not the new Wallabies selection panel can see them forming a midfield partnership together, or whether Kerevi is only in line to play outside centre.

If it's the latter, then Sunday's battle doubles as a virtual Wallabies audition. But if they both perform, and the Wallabies' desire is for a ball-carrier at No. 12 rather than a second playmaker, then we may get a glimpse of the power-running Australia will have to get on the front foot and over the advantage line in Japan.


Crusaders right team for terrible situation

The concerns around the SCG surface from 12 days ago suddenly seem pretty trivial now. After the Christchurch terror attack, the bigger question is whether or not the Crusaders can be in the right frame of mind to play a game of rugby just eight days on from the unspeakable horror that hit Christchurch.

Riding a 19-game winning streak, the Crusaders saw their game against the Highlanders, the eagerly-anticipated Southern Derby, called off after the events of last Friday.

It was completely the right decision, just as it is for them to return to the paddock this week in Sydney, however difficult that might be.

If it's any team that can play under these terrible circumstances, it is the Crusaders. The nine-time champions have leaders across the paddock. From Sam Whitelock and Matt Todd in the pack, to Bryn Hall and Ryan Crotty in the backline, the Crusaders have a number of experienced players who guide this group through the 80 minutes on Saturday night.

It will be a game full of emotion, one preceded by a minute's silence to remember the victims from Christchurch, but when the opening whistle blows the Crusaders will understand they have a job to do once again.

Coach Scott Robertson will have this week faced the greatest challenge in his hugely-successful coaching career thus far. He will have had to balance the emotion and sense of loss everyone in the Crusaders organisation will have been feeling, but also have his matchday 23 ready to play a hugely physical contact sport. It is not one where the mind can afford to wander.

Just how both those factors flow through remains to be seen, while the Waratahs themselves are in an extraordinary situation in that many will find themselves considering the mental welfare of their Crusaders counterparts.

It is a highly unusual and terribly-sad turn of events, all the players can do is go out and give their best, ensure the game is played in the right spirit, and honour the fallen with a great game of rugby.

It is a difficult thing to contemplate, but the road back from the horrors of last Friday takes a significant turn on Saturday night. The Crusaders will want to honour those who lost their lives and all the people from around the Christchurch region in the best way they can, by bringing up a 20th straight victory.

It will be one they will never forget if so, and an emotional night for all.


Fresh challenges a new yardstick for African teams

This might just be the most interesting weekend of the Super Rugby campaign to date for the South African teams, with all four involved in inter-conference action on the same weekend for the first time this season. For all that there is quiet optimism in the country about their teams and their performances, there is also a sense that much of the goodness has been produced against South African conference rivals; still the Sharks and the Lions, the only South African teams to play non-conference rivals are a combined 3-0 against those opponents so make of that what you will.

Each of the four teams will face a very different challenge this week, and it will be, perhaps, most interesting to see what the Bulls turn up against the Chiefs.

The Bulls have produced a string of excellent performances, both as a team and as individuals - with Schalk Brits, Duane Vermeulen, Handre Pollard, Jesse Kriel, Rosco Spekman and Warrick Gelant key players. Pollard, perhaps, is in career-best form in most everything he has done this season, and he might just be the player of the season in any conference to date, but, still, Gelant is a key absentee. Gelant, who suffered a shoulder injury in training, has been excellent both with ball in hand and with his boot adding an extra dimension to the Bulls' territorial pressure game; Divan Rossouw will have to be on his game if Gelant's absence is not to represent a release valve for the Chiefs, but it's entirely probable that the Namibian adds an extra dimension that we've not yet seen from the men in blue.

Down on the coast in Durban, the Sharks have to get their season back on track after back-to-back defeats by the Stormers and the Bulls in which they were outmuscled horribly. Fresh off the break, they host a Rebels team that must be smarting having held what seemed to be an unassailable advantage against the Lions. The Aussies will surely have addressed the discipline issues that saw them lose the penalty tally 20-1, but still the seems like a good match-up for the Sharks, who will surely find this encounter less physical encounter more to their liking. The Sharks say they are not panicking after two losses, but this feels like a must-win fixture for them.

The Lions surely would normally be licking their lips at the prospect of facing the Sunwolves, opponents who seem ripe for the picking given the way both teams have seemingly adopted a "touch footy" approach to defence. But then comes the news that we're expecting official confirmation that the Sunwolves are being cut from Super Rugby, and Lions announce fresh injury issues - most notably the absence of Kwagga Smith with a groin problem. The Lions have been wholly unconvincing this season, and this might shape as a shock in the making for ESPNfootytips players.

And so to the Stormers, who have shown tremendous resilience in compiling three straight wins since their opening-day horror show in Pretoria. They were really impressive in defeating the Jaguares last week - albeit that the Argentine side, not for the first time, proved predictable as a toothbrush in their tactics; Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth in particular, showed their qualities last week, with performances that surely will have delighted Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus every bit as much as Robbie Fleck. Still the problem with the Stormers is what's behind their excellent pack: they surely don't possess the strikepower to claim their first win in New Zealand in 10 games since beating the Hurricanes in Palmerston North in 2013.