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15 May 2008 08:55
The Wellington Hurricanes and Auckland Blues kick off a climactic final Super 14 round on Friday in which six teams have a chance of joining the Canterbury Crusaders in the final four.
The make-up of the semifinalists is unlikely to be decided until the final match of the weekend when the Sharks play the Chiefs.
The table-topping Crusaders play the out-of-contention Highlanders and are assured of one home semifinal, but behind them there are multiple permutations that could decide the remainder of the play-off participants.
The second-placed Hurricanes have 40 points, just six ahead of the sixth-placed Chiefs, while sandwiched in between are the Waratahs (39 points), Stormers and Sharks (37) and Blues (36).
Adding to the intrigue there is added pressure in two crucial local derbies—the Hurricanes against the Blues and the Waratahs against the Reds—which double as de-facto national trials in several positions.
A draw should be enough to get the Hurricanes into the semifinals but the Blues will need to win, preferably with a bonus point and then hope other results go their way.
Recent history favours the Hurricanes, who have beaten the Blues the last three times they have met, and their chances have been boosted by the return of Jerry Collins after missing three games with a rib injury.
“Jerry’s obviously got the experience that you can’t ignore and brings a real physical presence,” said Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper.
Central figures in the contest will be rival hookers Andrew Hore and the Blues Keven Mealamu—with form favouring Hore ahead of All Blacks incumbent Mealamu—and midfield backs Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
The Waratahs are the only Australian team with a chance of making the play-offs but their fate hinges on another Australian side in their local derby with the Reds in Brisbane.
Although the Reds languish in 11th place, nothing fires them up more than the annual clash with their neighbours and fiercest rivals, and they will want to reproduce the same form that saw them go close to downing the Crusaders last week.
Key match-ups in include rival playmakers Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper, as well as the performance of former Waratahs centre Morgan Turinui, now with the Reds.
Of the play-off contenders, form throughout the season suggests the third-placed Stormers have the easiest match of the round when they play the bottom-placed Lions in Johannesburg.
But the Lions proved last week they cannot be taken for granted when they upset the Chiefs 33-27, leaving the injury-hit Waikato franchise needing a dramatic reversal of form to stay in contention when they play the Sharks.
Injuries and suspensions have led to five members of the Chiefs’ squad being flown home from South Africa this week, while All Blacks Sione Lauaki, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Tom Willis remain in doubt because of injury.
Meanwhile, in an ominous message to the six chasers, the Crusaders have strengthened their side to play the Highlanders, making seven changes to the run-on team against the Reds.
Coach Robbie Deans wants his side in winning form going into the business end of the competition and the changes include starting with Dan Carter, Ali Williams, Andrew Ellis and Corey Flynn.
“We want to come out of this game in a really good frame of mind, and the key to that is entering it in a good frame of mind,” said Deans.
“Sure, we have the luxury of knowing we’ve got a play-off, but the critical thing is being prepared for that and being in the best state of mind and body.”
The two other weekend matches see the Western Force play the Brumbies and the Cheetahs play the Bulls with all four teams in the also-ran category.—AFP
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