Super Rugby Trans-Tasman looks to be a race in four, after the Chiefs became the first New Zealand team to lose to an Australian outfit when they were beaten 40-34 by the Reds at the weekend.
But it was otherwise four comfortable victories for New Zealand opposition, which has only added to the discussions around what is the best tournament structure -- or structures -- for Australia's franchises for next season. The ESPN Scrum reset crew discussed that and more in their latest podcast.
The Blues and Hurricanes sit atop the Trans-Tasman ladder after three rounds, but both teams face their biggest challenges yet in Round 4 away to the Reds and Brumbies respectively.
Stay across all the line-ups for Round 4 as they're named below, as we analyse each fixture and its respective odds.
Friday, June 4
Crusaders: Will Jordan, Manasa Mataele, Braydon Ennor, David Havili, Leicester Fainga'anuku, Fergus Burke, Bryn Hall; Cullen Grace, Sione Havili Talitui, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Mitchell Dunshea, Scott Barrett, Michael Alaalatoa, Codie Taylor, Tamaiti Williams. Replacements: Nathan Vella, Isileli Tu'ungafasi, Oliver Jager, Luke Romano, Tom Sanders, Mitchell Drummond, Dallas McLeod, Josh McKay.
Force: Jake Strachan, Toni Pulu, Tevita Kuridrani, Kyle Godwin, Richard Kahui, Domingo Miotti, Tomas Cubelli, Ollie Callan, Kane Koteka, Fergus Lee-Warner, Sitaleki Timani, Jeremy Thrush, Sanitago Medrano, Feleti Kaitu'u, Tom Robertson. Replacements: Andrew Ready, Angus Wagner, Greg Holmes Ryan McCauley, Tom Anstee, Ian Prior, Jake McIntyre, Jordan Olowofela.
Odds [tab.com.au]: Crusaders $1.01 -30.5 $1.95; Force $26 +30.5 $1.85 [Odds correct as of 9am 2/6]
Verdict: The Crusaders have taken the opportunity to give star fly-half Richie Mo'unga and veteran lock Sam Whitelock a spell, but that's unlikely to spare the Force more carnage on their New Zealand tour. Tim Sampson's side never really looked like troubling the Hurricanes last week and the Crusaders will be intent on shoring up their defence after an uncharacteristically leaky start to Super Rugby Trans-Tasman. Young Fergus Blake steps into Mo'unga's shoes and he will look to play a simple game that ensures the vast array of attacking threats outside him enjoy just as much time and space as they do with Mo'unga at the wheel. This looks like being an ugly evening for the Force on their first trip to Christchurch in four years. Crusaders by 37.
Reds: Bryce Hegarty/Hamish Stewart, Suliasi Vunivalu, Hunter Paisami, Isaac Henry, Filipo Daugunu, James O'Connor/Bryce Hegarty, Tate McDermott; Harry Wilson, Liam Wright, Angus Scott-Young, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Ryan Smith, Taniela Tupou, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Feao Fotuaika. Replacements: Josh Nasser, Dane Zander, Zane Nonggorr, Angus Blyth, Sam Wallis, Moses Sorovi, Hamish Stewart, Ilaisa Droasese.
Blues: Zarn Sullivan, Bryce Heem, Rieko Ioane, TJ Faiane, Mark Telea, Otere Black, Finlay Christie; Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson, Patrick Tuipulotu (capt), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Ofa Tuungafasi, Kurt Eklund, Karl Tu'inukuafe. Replacements: Soane Vikena, Alex Hodgman, Nepo Laulala, Jacob Pierce, Hoskins Sotutu, Jonathan Ruru, Harry Plummer, AJ Lam.
Odds: [tab.com.au] Reds $3.10, +7.5 $1.90; Blues $1.38, -7.5 $1.85 [odds correct as of 9am 2/6]
Verdict: The game of the weekend and the toughest test yet of the Blues' title aspirations. The Kiwis have so far done exactly what they needed to, earning three bonus-point wins and building their for-and-against to sit on top of the ladder. But dig a little deeper into those victories over the Rebels, Waratahs and Brumbies and you discover just how close things were through the first 40 minutes. There is no doubting their attacking firepower and ability to sting teams from anywhere on the paddock, but the Reds, at home, represent a sizeable step up to anything they have faced so far in Trans-Tasman. Brad Thorn's team will also be buoyed by their win over the Chiefs last week, though surely receiving a bollocking themselves after they almost let a 32-point lead slip inside 23 minutes. Look for further improvement from Suliasi Vunivalu on the wing, the NRL convert making a late surge for a spot in the Wallabies 23 vs. France. And the back-row battle in this one should be a beauty. Reds by 2.
Saturday, June 5
Highlanders: Josh Ioane, Sio Tomkinson, Michael Collins, Scott Gregory, Jona Nareki, Mitch Hunt, Kayne Hammington; Kazuki Himeno, Billy Harmon, James Lentjes, Bryn Evans, Pari Pari Parkinson, Siate Tokolahi, Ash Dixon (cc), Ethan de Groot. Replacements: Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Josh Hohneck, Josh Dickson, Hugh Renton, James Arscott, Sam Gilbert, Teariki Ben-Nicholas
Waratahs: Jack Maddocks, Alex Newsome, Izaia Perese, Lalakai Foketi, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Will Harrison, Jake Gordon, Jack Dempsey, Carlo Tizzano, Lachlan Swinton, Jack Whetton, Jeremy Williams, Darcy Breen, David Porecki, Andrew Tuala. Replacements: Robbie Abel, Chris Talakai, Sam Caird, Will Harris, Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, Jack Grant, Tane Edmed.
Odds: [tab.com.au] Highlanders $1.02 -27.5 $1.90; Waratahs $13, +27.5 $1.90 [odds correct as of 9am 2/6]
Verdict: The Waratahs have just two games to ensure they don't finish the season without a win and, for a while on Thursday, it appeared they would have a reasonable chance of securing a victory in Dunedin. That was when the Highlanders team was announced and both Aaron Smith and Shannon Frizell were found to be absent; but then a few hours later the Waratahs team was revealed with the omissions of in-form props Angus Bell and Harry Johnson-Holmes. Young fly-half Ben Donaldson is also missing, though that has created the opportunity for Will Harrison to return to the fly-half role. There likely won't be too much in this match with the Highlanders needing a bonus-point win to really put themselves back in the frame for the final. Watch for the Highlanders to put the squeeze on at the set-piece and for them to play territory through fly-half Mitch Hunt; given Smith usually plays such a key role in their attacking framework, they may look to simplify their game plan. For the Waratahs, keep an eye out for Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco off the bench. Highlanders by 12.
Brumbies: Tom Banks, Solomone Kata, Len Ikitau, Bayley Kuenzle, Mack Hansen, Noah Lolesio, Ryan Lonergan; Henry Stowers, Luke Reimer, Rob Valetini, Nick Frost, Darcy Swain, Allan Alaalatoa, Lachlan Lonergan, Scott Sio. Replacements: Folau Fainga'a, Harry Lloyd, Sefo Kautai, Tom Hooper, Tom Cusack, Nic White, Irae Simone, Tom Wright.
Hurricanes: Jordie Barrett, Julian Savea, Billy Proctor, Ngani Laumape, Salesi Rayasi, Ruben Love, Luke Campbell; Ardie Savea (captain), Du'Plessis Kirifi, Devan Flanders, Scott Scrafton, James Blackwell, Tyrel Lomax, Dane Coles, Xavier Numia. Replacements: Ricky Riccitelli, Pouri Rakete-Stones, Alex Fidow, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Brayden Iose, Gareth Evans, Cam Roigard, Wes Goosen.
Odds: [tab.com.au] Brumbies $2.65, +5.5 $1.90; Hurricanes $1.48, -5.5 $1.90 [odds correct as of 9am 2/6]
Verdict: The most even game of the weekend, at least according to the bookmakers, the Hurricanes know they are in for a real battle in Canberra. Skipper Ardie Savea is back in the run-on team after making his return from injury via the bench, while veteran All Blacks hooker Dane Coles is also included in the front-row. Having swatted aside the Force in Napier last week, the Hurricanes' attack is humming with winger Salesi Rayasi getting better with every game in the top grade. The Brumbies, meanwhile, have endured a tough few weeks on the road and coach Dan McKellar has looked to freshen up his side once again, promoting Mack Hansen, Bayley Kuenzle and Ryan Lonergan back into the run-on side in the backs while rookie flanker Luke Reimer gets a start at No. 7. Make no mistake, this will be a tight contest. The Brumbies are a far different proposition at home in a chilly Canberra and know how to play to the corners and attack teams with their driving maul, which admittedly had its issues in Auckland last week. If the Hurricanes' defence holds up, they should have too many points in them to hold of the Brumbies but let their hosts start well and settle into their usual rhythm and it could be a different story. Hurricanes by 3.
Sunday, June 3
Odds: [tab.com.au] Chiefs $1.08, -20.5 $1.90; Rebels $8, +20.5 $1.90 [odds correct as of 9am 2/6]