/ 17 March 2011

Derbies set to shake up Super Rugby

Derbies in South Africa and New Zealand featuring the Bulls against the Stormers and the Crusaders against the Highlanders threaten to shake up the Super 15 table this weekend.

The Coastal Sharks, who are yet to be seriously tested, appear comfortable at the head of the southern hemisphere rugby championship and the NSW Waratahs should stay on top of the Australian conference.

But around them are teams with a point to prove.

After a week off, the Northern Bulls get their title defence back on the road, hosting the unbeaten Western Stormers on Saturday in a repeat of last year’s final.

After slipping up against the surprise-package Highlanders two weeks ago, the Bulls are back at full strength, boasting a side with 1 114 Super Rugby caps to play the Stormers, although skipper Victor Matfield says experience on its own is not enough.

“We are experienced, yes, but that only counts if we apply ourselves properly.”

Stormers coach Allister Coetzee has dropped CJ Van der Linde to the bench in what he says is a tactical move to counter the Bulls strong finish.

“The Bulls’ bench has always made a huge impact in the last 25 minutes of a game and the opposition need to contain that strength,” he said.

‘The game you’re thinking about’
The Otago Highlanders faltered for the first time last week, paying the price for gifting too many penalties to the Stormers’ Peter Grant, and they will have to tighten their discipline against a Crusaders side featuring Dan Carter, the All Blacks’ all time point scoring record-holder.

The Canterbury Crusaders have been the big movers since returning to the competition after the devastating Christchurch earthquake and they will take over at the top of the New Zealand conference if they win on Saturday.

Both sides have pinpointed winning the breakdown as key to the outcome of the southern derby, one of the most intense rivalries in New Zealand rugby.

“The Crusaders, in all the pre-season training when you’re running uphills, that’s the game you’re thinking about,” said Highlanders captain Jamie Mackintosh, who is injured but is bracketed to start off the bench.

The Sharks, who head the competition by two points over the Stormers, start the weekend playing New Zealand stragglers the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday.

There is one change to the Sharks’ starting line-up, with Jannie du Plessis returning at tighthead and John Smit moving to the other side of the front row. Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira will start from the bench.

The Chiefs, with one win from four matches, are living up to their reputation as slow starters and their cause has not been helped by losing All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina with a back injury.

‘Not playing’
The third-placed Waratahs ease back into the fray after a week off with a home game against the Central Cheetahs who languish at the bottom of the table.

Injuries have effected the Australian side with flanker Phil Waugh and hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau sitting out the game while Berrick Barnes returns and powerful back row Wycliff Palu makes his first start of the season.

All Blacks Joe Rokocoko and Ali Williams are the big names missing among six changes to the Auckland Blues side to face the Wellington Hurricanes.

Williams is one of two players on the injured list while Rokocoko’s omission came with a statement from coach Pat Lam that players who did not perform to expectations against the Western Force last week “are not playing this weekend”.

The Force, meanwhile, have travelled to South Africa to play the Golden Lions who are on a high after last week, snapping a near two-year losing streak.

In the remaining fifth-round match the Queensland Rebels will likely carry too much firepower for the Melbourne Rebels and can expect to remain in second place behind the Waratahs in the Australian conference.

The ACT Brumbies have the bye this weekend. — AFP