The Hurricanes have axed five players, including All Blacks scrumhalf Piri Weepu, from Friday’s starting line-up in a desperate bid to halt the Bulls’ rampant charge at the head of the Super 14 pack.
The Bulls have proved unbeatable in the first five rounds of the Super 14 championship but it is a tenuous lead as they sit just one point ahead of the Stormers, who are one ahead of the Crusaders.
The Stormers, who play the ninth-placed Cheetahs, and the third-placed Crusaders, who host the lowly Lions, should both get through this weekend untroubled.
In Pretoria, the Bulls have added motivation when they run out against the Hurricanes with the skipper Victor Matfield chalking up his 100th Super rugby outing.
But although the Bulls, with their free-flowing game, have amassed far more points than any other side, it is a style that has exposed a flimsy defence which Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper is looking to exploit.
He is banking on a late surge from his bench players, led by Weepu in the same impact role he fills for the All Blacks to bring down the Bulls.
“We have the experience of Piri coming on late in the game. You can take out of that what you think,” Cooper said.
“I guess you’ve got to send messages and hopefully we’ll get good results from the guys who come off the bench.”
The Hurricanes won their first three games in New Zealand but have had a woeful time in South Africa, losing to both the Cheetahs and Stormers.
The Bulls are now into their fourth consecutive home game before starting the arduous Australasian trek, and coach Frans Ludeke knows they have defensive problems to work on.
“We take responsibility for it, it is not good enough and we have spoken about it,” Ludeke said.
“I am convinced there will be a big improvement this Friday.”
The Stormers look solid in second place although they have benefitted from a favourable draw as the Cheetahs’ will be their fifth consecutive home game.
While the Cheetahs have a potential match-winning weapon in big-kicking Meyer Bosman they are without influential Springbok flanker Heinrich Brussow, whose season ended when he was injured in the upset win over the Hurricanes.
The Crusaders have benched five players including Dan Carter for their match against the struggling Lions on Saturday while returning former All Black lock Chris Jack has been named on the bench.
However, the seven-times champions still look too strong for the South Africans, who have conceded 228 points in five matches so far including a 73-12 drubbing by the Waratahs last week.
The weekend opens with the Blues at home and fearful their season could be over if the lose to the fifth-placed Brumbies, who have won four from five so far.
The Blues have lost two out of four matches so far but have the advantage of coming into this match off the bye which has allowed the previous injured fullback Isaia Toeava to return to full fitness.
The Waratahs should back up from last week’s thrashing of the Lions when they travel to Perth to play the bottom of the table Force, who have yet to register a point.
The Sharks, who have four bonus points but like the Lions and Force have not won a game, see a glimmer of hope in playing away, having beaten the Highlanders the last three times they have played on the New Zealand side’s home ground. — AFP