Crusaders to test reserve strength against lowly Lions

The Canterbury Crusaders will field a largely second-string line-up against bottom team the Lions as they look to extend their six-point lead at the top of rugby’s Super 14 series this weekend.

The six-time champions and the team to beat for this year’s southern hemisphere provincial crown are coming off a bye last weekend but are expected to prove too strong for the Johannesburg-based Lions, who have won only one of their seven games this campaign.

Coach Robbie Deans has rested champion All Black openside flanker Richie McCaw, while fellow internationals fullback Leon MacDonald (thigh) and flyhalf Daniel Carter (ankle) are not available.

Coach Eugene Eloff insists his lowly Lions will not roll over for the unbeaten Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday.

Eloff was dismayed by a lack of commitment from some of his senior players in last week’s 29-20 loss to the Otago Highlanders and has made seven changes.

The Sharks, who were fortunate to escape with a 13-13 draw against the Hurricanes in Wellington last weekend, will be looking for maximum points against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday.

The second-placed Sharks, the only other team unbeaten in this year’s tournament, have dropped winger JP Pietersen, last year’s leading try scorer in the competition but yet to register a try more than halfway through this season.

Coach Dick Muir said he is concerned with the form of some of his World Cup Springboks, and hopes with Pietersen’s demotion the rest of his players will get the message.

The Sharks are expected to be too strong for the Highlanders, but the home side will be buoyed by their breakthrough win of the season against the Lions last week.

Third-placed Auckland Blues will be looking for an improved showing after getting run over by the Waratahs in Sydney last week when they take on the ninth-placed ACT Brumbies at home on Saturday.

The Blues have stumbled to three defeats and two narrow wins since clocking up 127 points in their three opening wins and coach David Nucifora is hoping Isa Nacewa can be passed fit to start at fullback to boost his team’s attack.

The Blues have won 13 of their last 14 matches at Eden Park, and lead the Brumbies 9-5 in their meetings.

Fullback Mark Gerrard returns from a hamstring strain after missing the Brumbies’ loss to the Waikato Chiefs.

This weekend’s big Australian showdown is between fifth-placed Western Force and sixth-placed Waratahs in Perth, with rising youngster Kurtley Beale pitted against Wallaby star Matt Giteau.

In his second season of senior rugby, 19-year-old Beale looks to be second in line behind Giteau to claim the Wallaby number 10 jersey vacated by retired stalwart Stephen Larkham.

Saturday’s match also marks the return of Force winger Haig Sare, who has completed an eight-week suspension for his part in the fight with teammate Matt Henjak, which led to his jaw being broken and Henjak sacked.

Wellington Hurricanes launch their three-match South African tour against the defending champions the Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday.

The Stormers will resume their push for a semifinal place after last weekend’s bye—with the first of five consecutive home games—against the Cheetahs in Cape Town on Saturday.—Sapa-AFP

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