SYDNEY – Five talking points ahead of this weekend's round of Super Rugby matches:
Rebels get good news
The Melbourne Rebels go into their crunch game at home to the NSW Waratahs on Friday buoyed by Will Genia being cleared to play after he was knocked out last weekend.
The Wallabies scrum-half took a nasty hit from Amanaki Mafi against the Sunwolves in Tokyo, with fears he was concussed and wouldn't recover in time.
But Rebels coach Dave Wessels delivered good news as his team look to close a one-point gap on the Brumbies at the top of the Australian conference with three games left.
"Head injuries are a serious one, so we're very much guided by the medical staff because there's very strict protocols that have to be followed and tests and things that have to be passed," said Wessels.
"So we're delighted for Will that he's passed all of those things."
Wessels said he will also give World Cup hopeful Matt To'omua a first start, replacing Billy Meakes at inside centre after his return to Australia from the Leicester Tigers.
Golden crown slipping
The Lions' three-season dominance of the South African conference will be in jeopardy if they lose at home to the bottom-of-the-table Stormers Saturday.
The Johannesburg outfit lie fourth on 30 points - ahead of the Stormers only on matches won - and trail the table-topping Argentine Jaguares by six points with just three rounds left.
"We have had a good run-in the last four to five seasons," said coach Swys de Bruin. "Dominance in any sporting competition is cyclical and does not last forever."
The Lions, winners of the last three South African conference editions, have lost all four matches against domestic rivals this season, including away to the Stormers in Cape Town.
The 2016, 2017 and 2018 Super Rugby runners-up will be lifted by the return of Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx, who was rested for last weekend's defeat at the Coastal Sharks.
Coles, Cane fitness boost
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will be pleased to see some of his injury concerns ease as he prepares his team to defend their title in Japan.
Hooker Dane Coles, who has been sidelined since March with a calf injury, emerged unscathed from a provincial game last weekend and has been named in the Wellington Hurricanes' touring squad for South Africa.
Flanker Sam Cane has also returned in recent weeks from a broken neck and Waikato Chiefs assistant coach Nick White said Brodie Retallick should be ready to face Melbourne Rebels on June 14.
White said they would be taking no chances with the big lock. "He's been doing a lot more training in the last few weeks and if he's good to go he'll play. If it's touch and go we won't risk it," he said.
Tahs on Cup trial
NSW Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson says the team's final three games are crucial for players looking to press their case to be in the Wallabies squad for the World Cup.
Gibson still needs to rest Sekope Kepu and Rob Simmons under an agreement with the national team in a World Cup year, while Michael Hooper, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley must sit out a second week at some point.
But they've all been included for the must-win clash against the Rebels despite the Tahs only having a slim chance of making the Super Rugby finals.
"The next two games are derby games and are essentially Australian trials in my eyes," Gibson said in explaining why they were all still playing.
"They are not only playing hard for the Waratahs but are also putting their hands up for Wallabies selection. So there is plenty at stake for them."
(Stadium) Size matters
The South African Super Rugby sides, based in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria, should use smaller stadiums to generate more atmosphere, says columnist Gavin Rich.
Attendances at Sharks, Lions, Bulls and Stormers matches are no longer disclosed, but have dropped alarmingly to below 10,000 in many cases.
With the teams playing in Test venues that can accommodate crowds of more than 50,000, there is often a lack of atmosphere and rows of empty seats do not make for good TV.
"The days of huge crowds turning up for (Super Rugby) games have forever been consigned to history," wrote Rich in his weekly Business Day column.
"Smaller more functional stadiums for most games with only the really big games being played at the super stadiums is the way to go."
Agence France-Presse (AFP)