The pace-setting Crusaders will be boosted on Friday by the first Super Rugby appearance of the year by captain Richie McCaw as the round-robin series reaches the halfway stage.
The Crusaders play the struggling Chiefs while competition co-leaders, the Reds, have the more difficult task of facing a wounded Bulls side, the defending champions.
The Bulls have slipped off the pace this year having lost three of seven matches and are in desperate need of a win to stay in touch with the leaders as the top South African side, Stormers, play the lowly Lions.
The homeless Crusaders, who lost their AMI Stadium in the devastating Christchurch earthquake, will again be without master playmaker Dan Carter who continues to be plagued by a hamstring niggle.
But they do welcome back the inspirational All Blacks captain McCaw, the international player of the year in 2010, who said he is over his foot injury.
“I don’t think there’s any worries there, it might just be a bit tough on the lungs,” he said.
“The body feels good, the mind is good and the excitement is there.”
‘A huge challenge’
The Crusaders, the top points scoring team in the competition, have been in commanding form and the return of McCaw can only lift them another notch.
The Chiefs, whose season is all but over with only two wins so far, will be bolstered by the return of fullback Mils Muliaina who has missed four matches because of a back injury and he is in no doubt about the task ahead.
“They’re playing the best rugby I’ve seen from any Crusaders side. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us,” he said.
The Reds have their eyes on the record books when they host the Bulls on Saturday night with the chance to set a franchise record of six straight wins.
Coach Ewen McKenzie said last week’s victory over the previously unbeaten Stormers has put his players in the right frame of mind for the critical match while Bulls coach Frans Ludeke acknowledged the pressure his side are under.
“The desire has to be big enough to banish the negative thoughts. And the desire is there. We want to pull this one off. It’s going to take a huge effort, but the guys want to win.”
A crucial match in Auckland pits the fourth-placed Blues against the fifth-placed Waratahs with the winner poised to break into the top three should any of the Crusaders, Reds or Stormers fall.
The Blues and Waratahs both have five wins from seven matches, although the Waratahs will be handicapped without injured loose forward internationals Phil Waugh and Wycliff Palu.
In other round nine matches, the third-placed Stormers will be looking to bounce back a week after being stunned by the Reds 6-19 when they play the Lions who share the bottom of the table with the Cheetahs.
The Cheetahs are well placed to pick up a second win for the season when they play the struggling Hurricanes who are on a five-match losing streak and are without injured All Blacks Conrad Smith and Aaron Cruden.
In the remaining game of the weekend, the ACT Brumbies, who beat the Hurricanes last week, are after back-to-back victories when they play the Western Force in the Australian derby match in Canberra on Saturday.
The sixth-placed Coastal Sharks have the bye. — AFP