Hurricanes storm to first position, but not yet satisfied

Wellington captain Rodney So’oialo believes the Hurricanes haven’t found top form even though they lead the Super 14 rugby table entering Friday’s 12th of 14 regular-season rounds.

The Hurricanes’ 56-7 win over the ACT Brumbies last week was their best performance of the season, So’oialo said, but was not indicative of their full ability.

”The boys [are] not happy just being where they are at the moment. They want to continue what they’re doing and obviously get better as they go on,” So’oialo said.

The win pushed the Hurricanes from fourth to first place in a rapidly changing table and made their qualification for the semifinals almost certain, with matches remaining against the troubled Auckland Blues, Waikato Chiefs and Queensland Reds.

The Blues appear in disarray ahead of Friday’s New Zealand derby in Wellington, having been hard-hit by injuries after last week’s shock 31-24 loss to the Reds. Auckland remains in fifth place, only a point outside the top four.

Injuries to All Blacks lock Anthony Boric, loose-forwards Chris Lowery, Justin Collins and Josh Blackie, prop John Afoa, halfback Chris Smylie and flyhalf Tasesa Lavea have left the Blues with a makeshift side for Friday’s match. All Blacks Ali Williams and Anthony Tuitavake have been named in Auckland’s starting XV, although they skipped training midweek with minor injuries.

Winger Rene Ranger has also been named in the Blues starting side but is due to appear in court on an assault charge at Warkworth near Auckland on match day. Against that background of injuries and other disruptions, Auckland must win to keep its playoff chances alive.

”It is not ideal but these are the challenges you have every week,” Blues coach Pat Lam said. ”And we have been having them every week.”

The Hurricanes face far fewer problems with only the loss of All Blacks fullback Cory Jane to a calf muscle injury altering their starting lineup. All Blacks halfback Piri Weepu remains on the bench as coach Colin Cooper keeps together his form 15.

So’oialo said the Hurricanes were playing with confidence but had not yet hit peak form.

”I like to see the guys continually growing,” he said. ”The Blues will be hurt, and obviously they’ll want to rectify what was wrong in the weekend, which makes it that much tougher for us to win.”

Only seven points separate the tournament’s first- and ninth-place sides and last week’s wins by the 13th-place Reds over the Blues and the last-place Cheetahs over defending champion Canterbury showed no room for complacency.

Lower-placed teams were also likely to have a strong influence in the final weeks of the regular season by upsetting the plans of playoff contenders.

In weekend matches, the 12th-placed Lions play the Crusaders and the Cheetahs take on the New South Wales Waratahs. The Reds play the Brumbies, the Stormers, who play the top-four Waikato Chiefs, and the Otago Highlanders, who play the Sharks, could all disrupt opponents’ semifinal plans.

The second-place Bulls and sixth-place Western Force meet on Saturday in the only matchup between firm playoff contender other than the Hurricanes-Blues encounter. The Bulls moved into second with last week’s win over the Chiefs, who were previously in first place, while the Force are in the middle of a late-season rally.

Hooker Tai McIsaac will become the first player to make 50 appearances for the Force in Saturday’s match at Pretoria, one of five in South Africa on the weekend.

Force captain Nathan Sharpe said his players were eager to press their playoff bid.

”We are still mathematically alive, so until we are mathematically dead in the race we won’t dwell on that at all,” Sharpe said.

The Crusaders suffered a major setback to their title defence when they lost to the Cheetahs and will be without All Blacks captain Richie McCaw for Friday’s match against the Lions at Johannesburg.

McCaw suffered a mild concussion in the 20-13 loss to the Cheetahs and has been replaced by Jonathan Poff.

Kurtley Beale returns to the Waratahs’ backline at inside centre for Friday’s match against the Cheetahs at Bloemfontein.

”Our defence has been good all year, so I think we can rely on that,” Waratahs coach Chris Hickey said. ”So then we just have to try that attack focus.” — Sapa-AP

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