Crusaders threaten to open up big lead

Six-time champions the Canterbury Crusaders have boosted their team for an anticipated tough battle with the New South Wales Waratahs in this weekend’s feature Super 14 rugby clash in Christchurch.

The Crusaders have the opportunity to open up a potential eight-point gap at the top of the southern hemisphere provincial series with a bonus-point victory over the Waratahs on Friday.

Closest rivals, the unbeaten Sharks (21) and Wellington Hurricanes (18), have the weekend off and the Auckland Blues are currently eight points behind the Crusaders in fourth spot.

Canterbury crushed South Africa’s Cheetahs at home last weekend to swell their points to 24 out of a potential 25 in an ominous start to this season’s tournament.

Coach Robbie Deans has made seven changes to the team that belted the Cheetahs 55-7, bringing Mose Tuiali’i, Ali Williams, Kieran Read, Greg Somerville and Corey Flynn back into the pack for the expected forwards battle with the Waratahs.

Tim Bateman will start at inside centre in his fourth Super 14 match, replacing the injured Stephen Brett, and Kade Poki is in on one wing for Sean Maitland.

Deans acknowledged the sixth-placed Waratahs have always given his team a close battle—last year the Crusaders got home 34-33 in Sydney—even though his team have won nine of their 13 games, including the last four.

“Last weekend was a good performance against the Cheetahs, but on Friday night we’ll be playing a side that will offer more diversity in attack and compete with us for the full 80 minutes,” Deans said.

Coach Ewen McKenzie has maintained his winning Waratahs combination but high-profile rugby league convert Timana Tahu is out with a hamstring problem.

Flyhalf Nick Evans has overcome a head injury and will return to the Blues team for Saturday’s home match against the dangerous Stormers.

The Blues opened the season by winning their first three games but have dropped the last two, including giving up a lead to go down 27-17 to Australia’s Western Force at home last week.

Coach David Nucifora has reacted by dropping All Blacks winger Joe Rokocoko, flanker Justin Collins and prop Tony Woodcock to the reserves bench.

The Cape Town-based Stormers are bidding to become the first South African side to win three consecutive Super matches in Australasia

The Stormers lost their first three matches in South Africa but have rebounded spectacularly by winning their first two tour matches against the Queensland Reds and the Waikato Chiefs, and the shaky Blues look vulnerable in their current slump.

The Force have been Australia’s in-form province and coach John Mitchell is bringing in three fresh players for Saturday’s match against Otago Highlanders in Queenstown.

Mitchell is looking to build on last week’s ground-breaking first victory in New Zealand over the Blues, with the Force having lost both their previous encounters narrowly to the Highlanders, 8-7 in 2007 and 25-22 in 2006.

“The Highlanders are a team that will keep fighting until the last minute and they’ve been in a position to win every one of their matches so far this season,” Mitchell said.

The ACT Brumbies’ injury crisis is easing with Wallabies forwards Guy Shepherdson and Alister Campbell back for Friday’s match against the Cheetahs in Canberra.

Elsewhere, the Chiefs host the defending champions Northern Bulls in Rotorua and the Lions play the Queensland Reds in Johannesburg, both on Saturday.—AFP

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