Super Rugby Preview - Round 12: Here come the Highlanders

Rob Thompson of the Highlanders runs with the ball to score his side's fifth try during the round 11 Super Rugby match between Sunwolves and Highlanders at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Ground. Matt Roberts/Getty Images

Round 11 last week opened with predictable victories for the Crusaders, the Highlanders and the Hurricanes, and concluded with the Jaguares defeating the Brumbies to hint at a major charge in the South African Conference? The other two matches continued the trend of "tipping nightmare performances".

Round 12 kicks off, again, in Christchurch, where the Crusaders will be strong favourites, again, to defeat the Sharks. Tipsters will likely consider the Reds equally solid candidates in the match against the Sunwolves.

The Hurricanes, Highlanders, Bulls and Jaguares will also be firm favourites in their home fixtures, against the Rebels, Chiefs, Waratahs and Stormers respectively, which leaves the Brumbies and the Blues as the most likely split choice this week.

Read on for some of the key storylines to follow this weekend.

Australian Conference

Key weekend for national pride and confidence

The Australian Super Rugby Conference remains incredibly close, with all bar the Sunwolves still capable of finishing on top of the division and earning the automatic playoff spot.

Should the Reds defeat the Sunwolves on Friday night, with a bonus point to boot, they will be just one point shy of the Rebels, who face the Hurricanes on Saturday. Later that day, the Brumbies welcome the Blues to Canberra.

And it's those two Saturday fixtures that carry the most intrigue, not just for how the conference will look come Sunday morning -- the Waratahs face the Bulls in Pretoria late Saturday night [AEST] -- but as a true indicator of the progress of the Australian teams this season.

Australia's franchises already have three wins over New Zealand opposition in 2019, which is a marked improvement on recent years, but only the Brumbies' thrashing of the Chiefs can be seen as a real performance of note.

While the Waratahs defended stoutly to upset the Crusaders, the two-time defending champions were playing their first game since the Christchurch terror attacks. The Crusaders didn't use it as an excuse, but it was clear their collective minds were elsewhere.

As for the Rebels' victory over the Highlanders in Melbourne in Round 3, the New Zealanders were playing without key All Blacks Aaron Smith and Ben Smith, and even then Shannon Frizell dropped the ball over the line when presented with a chance to bring the visitors level right on fulltime.

Were the Rebels and Brumbies both to win this weekend, it would certainly add a much-needed boost of confidence in the collective ability of Australia's teams, with a genuine flow-on effect for the Wallabies ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

The Rebels will certainly need to arrest an alarming slide in their recent form if they're to even be in the contest with the Hurricanes, who last week blew the Chiefs off the paddock with a devastating display of attacking rugby. But the Brumbies, who registered five competition points from a two-week tour of South Africa and Argentina, should be riding a growing wave of confidence ahead of their showdown with a Blues side that has rested Rieko Ioane.

If both Australian teams were to lose, however, it could herald the beginning of a trans-Tasman slide across the closing weeks of the competition, and that would only make Michael Cheika's increasingly problematic Wallabies preparations just that little bit tougher.

Two trans-Tasman defeats on Saturday, amid the Israel Folau Code of Conduct hearing, would place Australian rugby deeper into the hole the Wallabies fullback created a month ago.

New Zealand Conference

Here come the Highlanders

After looking all but dead and buried following five straight defeats between Rounds 3 and 9, the Highlanders have surged back into playoff contention ahead of this week's visit from the Chiefs.

And they look to be in imperious form following the 52-0 thrashing of the Sunwolves in Tokyo last week.

The Sunwolves, you ask?

Yes the same Sunwolves who went within a whisker of defeating the Hurricanes a week earlier; the Highlanders also ran up those 52 points without their star attacking weapon, Ben Smith.

To be fair, the only occasion in which they were truly disgraced in those five straight losses was a 43-17 thrashing by the Crusaders; plenty of other teams have suffered the same fate, however.

These next two matches are critical, too, if the Highlanders are to keep their unlikely playoff push alive. Following Saturday's game against the struggling Chiefs, the Highlanders are then at home once more to the Jaguares before a two-week tour of South Africa.

Pending other results, wins over the next two weeks could leave the Highlanders firmly entrenched within the top eight as they head off to Africa.

With Aaron Smith well rested after a few weeks off through injury, and Ben Smith having completed his mandatory rest weeks, it is only the longer-term concerns of Liam Squire and Waisake Naholo that are keeping the Highlanders from full strength.

Veteran back-rower Elliot Dixon seems to be getting back to his best form while fly-half Josh Ioane gets better with every game.

But behind it all has been coach Aaron Mauger, who at no stage hit the panic button or looked to make excuses while his team were riding a run of defeats. Mauger is now reaping the rewards of that, and deservedly earning plaudits along the way.

In a nation flush with high-quality coaches, Mauger is proving just as capable.

South African Conference

Injuries threaten to play a major part on condensed log

Injuries are a constant in sport -- always have been, always will be -- yet acceptance of that truism doesn't ever make it easier to cope with the reality when it dawns.

South Africa's Super Rugby teams -- who all still hold a strong claim of featuring in the playoffs along with conference rivals the Jaguares, as noted in Super Rugby Round 11: Rebooted -- each received injury news this week that caused shivers to run down spines.

Beyond the crossing of fingers at the franchises, Springboks head coach Rassie Erasmus may also have taken pause to reach for his depth charts such were the names featured in the various injury reports.

Erasmus may have had less reason for concern given the Rugby World Cup in Japan does not kick off until September, but still there really is no such thing as "a good time" to have an injury. And still, or course, we are left to ponder if the Springboks-mandated rest periods, the details of which have never been announced or clarified publically, have been managed as well or as thoughtfully as they might have been.

Erasmus likely is already without Lood de Jager for Japan after the Bulls captain suffered a serious shoulder injury in Round 2 that required surgery, and he's also seen Eben Etzebeth, a key component of his plans and a man with a lengthy injury history, play just 238 minutes in five games this season.

Etzebeth returned from his latest calf problem to play 30 minutes off the bench against the Bulls in Cape Town last week, but that boost, for the Stormers as well as Erasmus, was offset in part by the sight of Pieter-Steph du Toit, no less a key component of plans, leaving the field with a shoulder injury. The Stormers have reported that Du Toit's problem is not as bad as had been feared, but still it's serious enough to mean he misses the trip to Buenos Aires to face the rising Jaguares this weekend, when the Cape Town-based side have captain Siya Kolisi and Frans Malherbe also absent on Springboks-mandated rest.

The Lions, meanwhile, lost skipper Warren Whiteley, again, before kick-off in Christchurch last week, after he was rubbed out with what has been described subsequently in a press statement as "a small cartilage tear in the knee, which will settle over the next few weeks".

We saw what happened to the Lions when Whiteley missed eight weeks earlier in the season with a chest injury, and there's surely a fear that another extended absence could be hugely damaging, if not fatal, to their hopes. They've also lost Gianni Lombard for the season, with an "ACL rupture and two separate tears", and that news is another blow to their hopes given the success of his newly established twin-playmaking partnership with Elton Jantjies against the Chiefs in Hamilton in Round 10.

The Sharks have seen Tendai Mtawarira return home to South Africa from their tour of Australia and New Zealand with a knee injury. The prop, who captained the Sharks to victory over the Waratahs in Sydney last week, was not named in the team to face the Crusaders on Friday, and the franchise confirmed subsequently that he was heading back to Durban for scans on an MCL injury to his left knee.

And then we come to Jesse Kriel, the Bulls star who has been ruled out for at least six weeks with an ankle injury that requires surgery. The centre has been in career-best form for the Bulls, and his absence leaves a very big hole for Pote Human to fill; the coach has gone with Johnny Kotze against the Waratahs this week, in a much-changed backline.

The South African teams are not alone in suffering high-profile injuries -- Brodie Retallick and Owen Franks in New Zealand are key names in fresh injury reports this week -- but the conference is so tight, with all five teams boasting five wins, and four teams currently in a playoff position, that any slight issue or drop in performance, injury related or not, could be costly. Certainly it will be interesting to see how the teams each cope with the absence of key players in the coming weeks.