Super Rugby Round 14: Most important Reds-Waratahs clash in years

Round 14 of Super Rugby is highlighted by the second Reds-Waratahs derby for the season, with both sides requiring a win to keep pace in a tight Australian conference.

The actions kicks off in Wellington on Friday however, where the in-form Hurricanes face the Jaguares at Westpac Stadium.

Read on for some of the big talking points for Round 14.


We need some rugby to talk about

It's the contest Australian rugby sorely needs.

After battling through more than six weeks of the Israel Folau saga, Saturday night's local derby between the Reds and Waratahs comes at the perfect time.

For never has the Australian game needed its oldest rivalry to produce a contest that leaves people talking not only about the pride, passion and entertainment on show, but also the kind of skill and execution that suggest the Rugby World Cup might actually be worth watching.

There's no hiding from the fact that the Wallabies brand has taken a beating in the past couple of months. From the moment Folau reignited his social media commentary, the game has been dragged through a debate that has extended far beyond its loyal fans.

While all those who have but a passing interest in rugby will likely move on from the bitter discussion once a final sanction is handed down, rugby's diehard support base will attempt to find a reason as to why they should remain so rusted-on. And there can be no better justification than a good old-fashioned interstate contest that is full of running rugby, but also just that little extra edge only a NSW-Queensland clash can provide.

The Waratahs have completely dominated the fixture over the past few years. The last time the Reds won was way back in 2013 when Ewen McKenzie was coach and Wallabies stars Will Genia, Quade Cooper, James Horwill, Liam Gill and Digby Ioane were all still plying their trade at Ballymore.

This current Reds crop, and their second-year coach Brad Thorn, may be short on star billing but so far this season they have registered the same amount of wins they had for the entirety of last year; they are also right in contention for a return to playoffs for the first time since McKenzie's swansong.

Last week's loss to the Rebels was a disappointing result but they did well to lose by just six points given both skipper Samu Kerevi and veteran back-rower Scott Higginbotham were yellow-carded. Discipline appears to be somewhat of an issue, too, after Harry Hockings was red-carded for kicking a Sunwolves player in the face a week earlier.

Thorn will want his side to manage its aggression and discipline much better against the Waratahs, knowing the extra intensity the contest often generates.

Not that the Waratahs have been angels themselves, either. Just three weeks ago, lock Jed Holloway was sent off for lashing out in frustration with a forearm to the head of Sharks prop Thomas du Toit, for which he earned a three-week ban, while back-rower Jack Dempsey was yellow-carded for a lifting tackle during the same game.

The Waratahs have also just returned from a winless tour of South Africa, despite being in a position to beat both the Bulls and Lions. They have also been away from the spotlight surrounding the Folau saga, something they have had to readjust to this week.

How they would dearly love to render that episode to history and have the focus back on their on-field exploits. The Reds, on the other hand, must surely see this as their best opportunity to end a six-year, 10-game losing streak to their bitter rivals. This is the game Australian rugby needs right now - let's hope it delivers a contest that can help shift the game's current Armageddon narrative.


Back-row hopefuls can push Cup cause in Auckland

A season that seemed to be heading in the right direction is once again starting to feel upsettingly familiar for fans of the Blues ahead of Friday's visit from the Chiefs.

Having won four games on the trot between rounds four and eight, things finally looked to be coming together for the perennial underachievers. But five straight defeats, the last of which was a bumbling loss at home to the Hurricanes, through the middle part of the competition has the Blues' season hanging by a thread.

The Chiefs' situation is only slightly better but they at least enter Saturday's North Island showdown on the back an entertaining draw with the Highlanders and last week's grinding win over the Sharks.

Whatever the case, it's a virtual must-win game for both sides.

And it carries extra significance for a few All Blacks hopefuls in Akira Ioane and Dalton Papali'i, both of whom have claims to be part of New Zealand's back-row unit for the World Cup.

After making his now customary explosive start to the season, Ioane's form has slowly slightly. But his hard-working performance against the Hurricanes last Friday, which featured an astonishing 23 runs for 90 metres, suggest he may have been given a subtle nudge after a poor showing against the Brumbies the week before.

The All Blacks selectors want to see consistency from Ioane; it is no good merely producing one standout performance in every three.

His Blues teammate Papali'i was strong at No. 6 last weekend, getting the Blues back in the contest with a try midway through the second half, after taking over from the in-form Tom Robinson in the No. 6 jersey.

Unfortunately, Luke Jacobson, who has been the talk of New Zealand after a superb attacking game against the Highlanders and then a tireless defensive effort in the rain against the Sharks, misses with a head knock. But the All Blacks selectors will get a first glimpse of Sam Cane for the year, the veteran No. 7 named on the bench for his return from a neck injury.

With Liam Squire set to return from a long layoff after the Highlanders' South African tour and Shannon Frizell still proving his worth off the bench and Vaea Fifita in form at the Hurricanes among some other Test hopefuls, Papali'i and Ioane are battling each other for what may be just one remaining spot in the All Blacks' World Cup squad.

Both players will want to keep the Blues' lengthening playoff odds alive with a win, and by focusing on that, their own individual goals should take care of itself. After knocking off the Highlanders earlier in the year in Auckland, this also represents another opportunity for the Blues to take down a fellow New Zealand rival.


Pollard heading off, has tour to conquer beforehand

It's been a tough seven days for the Bulls. It started last Friday when they were embarrassed at home by the Crusaders and things only got worse when it was announced midweek star fly-half and franchise player Handre Pollard would be moving on at season's end.

This is not a new reality for the Bulls or South African rugby on the whole, but there is something that stings just a little bit more when it is a player of Pollard's quality.

No one can begrudge Pollard and his decision to chase the Euros on offer at Montpellier; it has become a well-worn path for the top Springboks players.

While the Bulls will be getting a former Springboks player back in Morne Steyn, he is well past his prime and has never quite possessed the same all-round talent Pollard possesses.

For now, Pollard has five games in which to lead the Bulls to the Super Rugby playoffs. The big issue is, four of those are on the road in Australia and New Zealand.

It all starts on Friday night against the Rebels against whom the Bulls have enjoyed a long run of success. The three-time Super Rugby champions have won five out of the six games the two sides have played since the Rebels' inception, their only loss coming at AAMI Park in 2015.

But this Rebels side is the strongest of their eight-year Super Rugby tenure, one further boosted by the presence of Matt Toomua who was named on the bench, and with a playoffs goal all their own.

Pollard's battle with the enigmatic Quade Cooper will be an intriguing contest, the South African surely desperate to prove his mind is still very much on the Bulls and not yet dreaming of the Top 14 and its many attractive destinations.

If he can lead the Bulls to victory in Melbourne, then suddenly games against the Brumbies, Blues and Highlanders won't look quite as daunting. But a loss to the Rebels will be tough to recover from, and be the beginning of the end for Pollard's Super Rugby career.