Injuries impact felt on Super Rugby's leading teams

The impact of injuries will be heavily felt in the Super 15 rugby tournament as it enters the 11th of 18 regular-season rounds, tipping matches in favour of teams with the ability to replace key players.

None of the leading teams were unscathed as they approached weekend matches of the competition in which only five points—the margin of a bonus-point win—separate the first six teams.

The first-place Queensland Reds paid a heavy price for last week’s narrow victory over interstate rivals New South Wales and will be without wingers Rod Davies and Digby Ioane, and props James Slipper and Ben Daley when they play the Hurricanes at Wellington on Saturday.

The Auckland Blues, who head the five-team New Zealand conference, have lost All Blacks prop Tony Woodcock for a month with a foot injury and the Cape Town-based Stormers, who lead the South African conference, are likely to be without flyhalf Peter Grant when they play compatriots the Sharks.

Injuries and an ability to manage player workload have become increasingly important considerations as the Super Rugby’s longest-ever season progresses. Most teams have used rotational selection policies to reduce player fatigue but injuries have been unavoidable and have begun to impinge on form.

A concentration of injuries at wing and prop have tested the Reds’ depth.

“We have taken a bit of a beating in those two positions, coach Ewen McKenzie said. “It just means we will dig into our depth and give guys a go—that’s just the way it works.”

‘Best foot forward’
The Hurricanes are also injury-hit, losing All Blacks centre Ma’a Nonu with a fractured eye socket during last week’s loss to the Durban-based Sharks.
Nonu and his All Blacks midfield partner Conrad Smith are now both sidelined, Smith with a broken nose, while All Blacks fullback Cory Jane is unavailable because of a hamstring strain.

The Hurricanes are 13th on the championship table but McKenzie said they still remained a barrier to the Reds extending their record winning streak to eight games.

“I see a team that’s got a bunch of All Blacks dispersed amongst them and those guys will be wanting to do well,” McKenzie said. “The World Cup’s around the corner so they’ll want to put their best foot forward.”

Stormers coach Alister Coetzee has been forced to make four changes to his lineup for Saturday’s clash with the Sharks in Cape Town. Only three points separate the Stormers from the Sharks at the top of the South African conference.

The Blues lead the New Zealand conference by four points from the Canterbury Crusaders with Friday’s opponents the Otago Highlanders third a further point away. The Highlanders upset the Crusaders last weekend, improving their record to seven wins from nine matches and they have now targeted a win over Auckland that could carry them to the top of the conference.

The return from injury of Adam Thomson, Alando Soakai, Jimmy Cowan and Kade Poki has forced six changes to the Highlanders lineup, including the benching of winger James Paterson who scored two tries against Canterbury.

“You feel for the players who played so well against the Crusaders and then haven’t made the starting lineup this week,” coach Jamie Joseph said.

“This is a different opposition and we’ve got some guys who are recovered and rested and we want to give them an opportunity.”

Vital weekend
Captain Phil Waugh and fellow Wallabies backrower Wycliff Palu will miss the Waratahs’ match against the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday with hamstring injuries. Wallabies flyhalf Berrick Barnes has been named in the starting lineup after being sidelined with a concussion, while fullback Kurtley Beale and hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau will also play despite concern over knee injuries.

The Crusaders have been forced to dip into the past to cope with a series of injuries to locks and backrowers, recalling former captain Reuben Thorne for his first Super rugby match since 2008. Thorne has spent the last two years playing rugby in Japan and this year has been playing club rugby in Christchurch.

Defending champions the Bulls will take a 4-5 record into Saturday’s home match at Pretoria against the Waikato Chiefs. Coach Frans Ludeke said his team’s season was far from over and they remained in playoff contention.

“There isn’t any way that we can say good things about the situation,” he said “This weekend is vital again for us.”

The Cheetahs have named their strongest forward pack of the season, including Springboks flanker Heinrich Brussow and hooker Adriaan Strauss, for their match against the ACT Brumbies.—Sapa-AP

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