Wellington. Derby matches between South Africa’s Stormers and Bulls and New Zealand’s Waikato Chiefs and Auckland Blues will determine which team holds the lead in the Super 15 when the competition goes into recess for the June test matches.
The Cape Town-based Stormers and Pretoria-based Bulls will meet in the last match before the break, and in a vital 15th-round clash which will determine which team leads the South African conference into the regular-season stretch.
The Chiefs lead the overall standings by three points from the Stormers who, in turn, are two points clear of the Bulls. The Chiefs need only beat their nearest neighbors, the 14th-place Blues, to preserve their overall lead until the Super 15 resumes on June 29.
The ACT Brumbies can’t be dislodged from the lead in the Australian conference prior to the mid-season break, regardless of the outcome of the result against Melbourne on Friday.
The Brumbies lead by five points from the Queensland Reds, who will pick up four championship points when they share their scheduled bye week with the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs and the Perth-based Western Force.
The Brumbies need to beat the injury-hit Rebels, who are coming off a 66-24 thrashing by the Wellington Hurricanes, to at least maintain their margin over the Reds before the break. A bonus-point victory would give the Brumbies a six-point lead which the Reds may find hard to bridge with three rounds remaining.
The three-time champion Bulls will regain their formidable home advantage when they return to Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria for Saturday’s critical clash with the Stormers. They ended a four-match tour to Australia and New Zealand with losses to the Otago Highlanders and Chiefs and now need to regather momentum as they end the regular season with all-South African matches against the Stormers, Cheetahs, Sharks and Lions.
“It’s a tough task playing against the Stormers, but we are glad that we are playing at home,” Bulls captain Pierre Spies said. “We knew this derby was waiting for us. Stormers-Bulls games are always filled with hype, so this weekend is set up for another match like that.”
The Stormers have lost lock Andries Bekker to an injury which has also ruled him out of the Springboks’ June tests against England. His absence forces one of four changes to the Stormers lineup which lost last week to the Durban-based Sharks.
De Kock Steencamp replaces Bekker in the second row while Siya Kolisi returns on the blindside flank. Frans Malherbe will start at tighthead prop and Deon Carstens at loosehead in place of Steven Kitshoff, who has been released to the South Africa under-20 team.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee expected the Bulls to be more formidable after losing their last two matches.
“I can count on one hand the number of sides that have beaten the Bulls at Loftus after they’ve come back from a Super rugby tour,” he said, noting the Bulls have won seven of eight homecoming matches since 2004.
The Chiefs face a much easier task in preserving their lead in the New Zealand conference which is currently seven points over the Canterbury Crusaders. Matches between the Chiefs and Blues are usually among the most hard-fought in New Zealand but the Blues’ poor season suggests Saturday’s match in Auckland will be less compelling.
The Blues lost to the Chiefs 29-14 in the second round of the season and in a match which started the losing streak.
“There was a 15-to-20 minute spell [against the Chiefs] where we got blown away,” Blues coach Pat Lam said. “That was probably the start of a lot of things, too.”
Last week’s narrow loss to the Reds cut into the Brumbies’ Australian lead but, under former Springboks coach Jake White, the Canberra-based team remain strong candidates for the playoffs.
“It’s not all doom and gloom. We’ve still got destiny in our own hands,” White said. “We don’t have to worry about anyone else beating anyone else not to make it.”
In other matches, the Crusaders and Highlanders meet in Christchurch in a match which bears heavily on the playoff hopes of both teams. The seven-time champion Crusaders are second in New Zealand and fifth on the overall standings while the Highlanders are seventh, one point outside the top six.
All Blacks No. 8 Kieran Read returns from injury for Canterbury, re-forming his backrow partnership with Richie McCaw who moves to his regular role on the openside flank.
England flanker James Haskell rejoins the Highlanders’ starting lineup after completing a three-match suspension. He will be joined in the breakdown contest against McCaw and Read by Nasi Manu, the industrious No. 8 who has carried the ball for more meters this season than any other Super 15 player.
The New South Wales Waratahs play the Hurricanes, who hold an outside chance of making the playoffs, while the sixth-place Sharks travel to Johannesburg to meet the Lions.
On Thursday, the Waratahs said Wallabies prop Benn Robinson would once again assume the captaincy from the injured Rocky Elsom for the match. Elsom sustained nerve damage to his shoulder in the Waratahs’ loss to the Stormers in Cape Town two weeks ago.
The Waratahs are on a five-match losing streak and well out of contention for the playoffs.