Super Rugby Preview: Questions loom after 4-week break
Thu, 28 Jun 2012 4:33p.m.
The effects on leading teams of the first midseason break in Super Rugby will be determined this weekend as players battered and bruised from June tests return to their sides for the tournament's last three rounds.
The Chiefs led the competition from South Africa's Stormers, the Brumbies and the Crusaders when the season was interrupted for test series between New Zealand and Ireland, South Africa and England and Australia and Wales.
The southern hemisphere nations comfortably won those series, but at the cost of injuries which may impact on the form of Super Rugby teams in the crucial final weeks of the season.
The Chiefs, who have a four-point lead in the standings over the Cape Town-based Stormers, have been luckier than most with the fitness of their international players.
First-five Aaron Cruden left the field with an Achilles tendon injury during New Zealand's third test against Ireland and after playing a pivotal role in the All Blacks' 60-0 win. He passed a fitness test this week and will start for the Chiefs in the opening match of the 16th round against the Highlanders at Dunedin on Friday.
Cruden will resume his All Blacks' backline partnership with Sonny Bill Williams, who is coming off his two-try performance against Ireland. Lock Brodie Retallick and flanker Liam Messam, who also played in the third test, have been named in the Chiefs' starting lineup while young flanker Sam Cane, who also scored two tries against Ireland last weekend, has been named on the bench.
Veteran halfback Brendon Leonard said the Chiefs had done their best to minimise the disruption caused by the test break.
"It's a bit different but we knew it was coming so we planned pretty well for it," he said. "Hopefully it won't hurt our momentum too much. We'll keep building it and keep trying to get better."
Leonard hoped the Chiefs' All Blacks would be able to bring some of their test match form to the Super 15.
"They played extremely well the last three weeks so it was good to see," he said. "Hopefully they can bring back some experience and what they learned and they're as hungry as what they were before they went away."
The Stormers have the luxury of resting some of their top players for their match against their lowly compatriots, the Lions. Centre Jean de Villiers will return after leading the Springboks to two wins and a draw against England to captain the Stormers, who lead the South African conference by five points from the Bulls.
Coach Allister Coetzee has rested Springboks lock Eben Etzebeth, named winger Bryan Habana on the bench and has allowed loose forwards Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen and Nick Koster more time to recover from injuries.
He has named youngster Siya Kolisi to start at No. 8 in an inexperienced backrow.
"These injured players are still suffering with bone bruising and they are unable to start training because of pain," Coetzee said. "I expect them to start training in the week of the Rebels match but in the meantime, I want Siya to get used to that position."
Australian conference leaders the Brumbies had nine players in the Wallabies squad for midseason test matches, though only inside centre Pat McCabe had a regular starting role. The Brumbies play the Western Force in Perth, Western Australia.
Halfback Nic White, who was an understudy to Will Genia in his first test series, welcomed the opportunity to experience international rugby at close range.
"Being two meters from the sideline and kitted up ready to play, it makes me want to play even better in these next three games," White said. "I've been itching to get out there and having three weeks off has really been burning at me."
The Crusaders, who rose steadily in the standings to third place before the June break, hope to regain that momentum, though they have been harder-hit by injuries than most teams. They have lost All Blacks stars Dan Carter, Israel Dagg and Kieran Read for Saturday's match against the Hurricanes, who are in sixth place and still in playoff contention.
Carter may miss the rest of the regular season while Dagg and Read are likely out for shorter periods because of injuries sustained on test duty.
The Hurricanes lost flanker Victor Vito to an injury suffered in the first test against Ireland while winger Cory Jane remains out of action because of a leg injury which kept him out of the Irish series. Halfback T.J. Perenara suffered a broken ankle in a friendly match against the Reds, organised to bridge the gap in the season, and won't play again this year.
The Reds had almost half their squad on international duty but only Genia, winger Digby Ioane and backrower Scott Higginbotham played all four tests against Scotland and Wales. Genia will captain the team against the Melbourne Rebels, in the absence of Wallabies lock James Horwill.
The match at Melbourne features a clash at first-five between international teammates and close friends Quade Cooper for the Reds and James O'Connor for the Rebels. Cooper is returning from a hamstring injury and O'Connor from a lacerated liver.
Rebels captain Stirling Mortlock, who will retire at the end of the Super Rugby season, will be playing his final match in Australia and will end his career in South Africa where the Rebels will play their last two matches.
Flanker Jacques Potgeiter, who made his test debut for the Springboks against England, has forced his way into the Bulls starting lineup for their home match at Pretoria against the Cheetahs.
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