After a flying start to the season, the powerful Canterbury Crusaders are giving key players a breather for their Super 14 match against tail enders the Cheetahs on Saturday.
Despite making six changes, the match remains crucial for the Crusaders with pressure on the regular bench-warmers to maintain the team’s unbeaten record.
After four rounds the Crusaders are just one point shy of a maximum 20, missing a bonus point against the Stormers, and are one point ahead of the second-placed Sharks, the only other unbeaten team.
The Sharks, who have yet to head overseas, this week play the Lions in Johannesburg, while the Blues, who suffered their first loss to the Sharks last week, return home from a rigorous South African tour to face the Western Force.
The Crusaders are also returning home from an arduous trek to South Africa and Western Australia, and coach Robbie Deans said it was an ”appropriate time to freshen the side up a little bit”.
Kingpins Richie McCaw and Dan Carter start their fifth consecutive match, while the resting sextet include All Blacks Ali Williams, Greg Somerville and Mose Tuiali’i.
The Central Cheetahs, although winless this season and having never beaten the Crusaders, have made a sweeping eight changes to the side which narrowly lost to the Waikato Chiefs 20-22 last week.
Coach Naka Drotske denies waving the white flag, explaining that he wanted to give the younger members of his squad a run.
South African frontrunners, the Sharks, have largely stayed with the run-on side which beat the Blues for their encounter with the lowly Lions whose sole win was over the Cheetahs in the first round.
The only notable change sees French import Frederic Michalak start from the bench with Frans Steyn moving up to flyhalf, Stefan Terblanche slotting in at the back and Odwa Ndungane returning to the right wing.
The third-placed Blues need to settle quickly following their loss to the Sharks and the wearying return flight from South Africa as they face the Force who ran the Crusaders close last week.
Blues coach David Nucifora rates the Force as the best of the four Australian teams with playmaker Matt Giteau key to their performance.
”He’s outstanding. He really is integral to the running of this team. A lot of things revolve around him,” said Nucifora who has the in-form All Black Nick Evans as his backline tactician.
He said improved concentration and winning the collisions would be the key to allowing Evans and the talented Blues backline to show their best.
”If you win that part of the game you dictate what happens next. It’s a pretty basic ingredient of the game. We were good at it until last weekend.”
The sixth-placed Force have made only two changes to the side that ran the Crusaders close with the return of halfback James Stannard and the omission of injured prop Gareth Hardy.
”The challenge for us is to back up with authority and improve on our performance last week,” said Force coach John Mitchell.
In Canberra, the inconsistent Wellington Hurricanes will be bolstered by returning All Blacks Chris Masoe and Neemia Tialata when they play the ACT Brumbies on Friday.
The Hurricanes have won three of four matches this season, to be equal fourth with the New South Wales Waratahs, but they have seldom played to the potential expected of an All Blacks-stacked side.
Although the Brumbies lie three points behind the Hurricanes, they are favoured by history having won five of their seven home games against the Wellington side, and are also enjoying a six-game winning streak at home.
The Waikato Chiefs host the Western Stormers in a clash of the ninth and 10th placed teams with the Western Stormers regaining Schalk Burger who was sidelined by a two-game suspension for unsportsmanlike behaviour against the Sharks.
The Queensland Reds play the Northern Bulls in Brisbane while the Otago Highlanders and New South Wales Waratahs have the week off. – Sapa-AFP