Super Rugby Preview R17: Tension as playoff hopes tested
Thu, 05 Jul 2012 11:51a.m.
The Chiefs will stake their ambitions for a first Super Rugby title against the playoff hopes of the seven-time champion Crusaders in the feature match of the tournament's penultimate regular-season round.
The match, which carries serious ramifications for the first-place Chiefs and fifth-place Crusaders, will be played out in a series of intensely personal contests between All Blacks teammates and positional rivals.
Crusaders first-five Dan Carter will return from injury to oppose his All Blacks understudy Aaron Cruden and New Zealand captain Richie McCaw will compete on the openside flank against his likely international successor Sam Cane. And new All Black and former schoolmates Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano will face off at lock.
In other 17th-round matches, the defending champion Reds face a testing match against the Highlanders as they attempt to lift themselves above their current seventh place and into the top six playoff zone. The Reds still have a slight chance of wresting first place in the Australian conference from the ACT Brumbies, who face interstate rivals the Waratahs.
The second-place Stormers play their compatriots the Cheetahs and could move into first place overall if the Chiefs are beaten by the Crusaders. At the same time, the Pretoria-based Bulls, three-time champions, face the Sharks in Durban as they attempt to keep up their challenge to the Stormers' first placing in South Africa.
The Sharks, in eighth place with 49 points, are likely the lowest-placed team still in with a chance of making the top six and contesting the playoffs beginning in two weeks.
The Hurricanes will take four points from their scheduled bye, a week after their upset win over the Crusaders disrupted their seemingly inexorable challenge for a place in the playoffs, making its clash with the Chiefs more vital. Those points may keep the Hurricanes inside the top six, if the Reds and Sharks are unable to win to improve on their current positions.
The Crusaders have signaled the importance of the match by rushing back All Blacks Carter, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg, who all missed the Hurricanes match because of injuries suffered during New Zealand's June test series against Ireland.
"The news was really encouraging earlier in the week that they would all be fit to play this week, so we counted on that and it's great that they have come through," Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said. "We really needed them to with such a big game this week."
The Chiefs have recalled try-scoring prop Sona Taumalolo to their starting lineup for the match in anticipation of a specific challenge from the Crusaders' formidable scrum. Alex Bradley has replaced injured Samoan international Kane Thompson at No. 8, Andrew Horrell replaces Jackson Willison at center and Cane returns to the starting lineup after spending last week on the bench.
"It's the same front row that played the Crusaders last time (when the Chiefs won 24-19) and there have been a fair few comments made in the media about their scrum and that challenge there," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said.
"We're pretty comfortable with the group we've chosen."
The Reds need wins from their last two regular-season matches against the Highlanders and Waratahs to be certain of making the playoffs and defending their title.
"It's coming to the pointy end of the season and everyone's desperate, but if anything, we're hungrier than any other team," Reds centre Anthony Faingaa said. "For us, it's not just making the finals. We want to win this Super championship."
The Stormers have significantly strengthened their lineup for Saturday's match against the Cheetahs at Bloemfontein.
Winger Bryan Habana and fullback J.P. Pietersen, who both missed last week's match against the Lions because of the flu, return to join Gio Aplon in a full-strength back three. Steven Kitshoff also returns after playing for champions South Africa at the under-20 World Cup to join Deon Fourie and Frans Malherbe in the front row.
Rynhardt Elstadt returns from suspension to play on the blindside flank, Canada international Jebb Sinclair has been promoted from the bench to No. 8 and Siya Kolisi takes over on the openside.
"This is the best loose trio available for this match," coach Allister Coetzee said. "We are expecting an interesting clash at the breakdowns between Heinrich Brussouw and Deon Fourie. "When we go about the breakdown play we must take the ref out of the equation and rather ensure greater accuracy on our part."
Bulls captain Pierre Spies said his team was continuing to focus on its aim of overtaking the Stormers to claim a home semifinal.
"Last year we were in a situation where we had to win every game to make the playoffs," Spies said. "Our motivation to win is still the same and we would like to get a home quarter or semi."
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