The defending Super Rugby champions Bulls and Australia’s Waratahs face a potentially season-defining showdown on Friday as both look to stay in the race for June’s top-six playoffs.
The Bulls, three-time winners of the southern hemisphere championship, have bounced back from a stuttering start to the season and take an unbeaten four-match run into the Pretoria game against the Waratahs.
The Bulls lie just one point outside the top six behind the Waratahs and can leapfrog the Sydneysiders into the playoff positions with victory at their Loftus Versfeld fortress.
Bulls’ skipper Victor Matfield senses his team are regaining winning momentum just three matches out from the playoffs, but is aware of the challenge the two-time Super 15 finalists present on Friday.
“It is great having some momentum and confidence because that is when things start to fall in place,” the Springbok lineout general said.
“But, with that said, this week we have another big test as both teams are desperate to get into, or stay, in that top six so it is going to be a big game.”
The Waratahs, who lost to the fifth-placed Coastal Sharks in Durban last weekend, have not won at Loftus Versfeld since 2002 and have lost their past five meetings to the Bulls.
“Loftus is one of the great grounds in world rugby and the Bulls have one of the most parochial crowds in the competition,” Waratahs coach Chris Hickey said.
“We played well here last year but let ourselves down at stages which we cannot afford to do this week.”
Wallaby Berrick Barnes, who has suffered three head knocks this season, returns at inside-centre for Ryan Cross (knee) while Tom Carter shifts to outside-centre.
Queensland Reds, who pipped the Canterbury Crusaders in the final minute last Sunday, will stay on top of the standings with victory over the troubled ACT Brumbies in Brisbane on Saturday.
The Reds have replaced injured flanker Beau Robinson with Ben Coridas in the only change, while the 13th-placed Brumbies have Patrick Phibbs in for injured Josh Valentine at scrum-half.
The Auckland Blues are looking to bounce back from two defeats to preserve second spot against the Waikato Chiefs at Eden Park on Saturday.
“The Blues will be well motivated as they seek to nail a playoff place and the fact they lost their last home game,” Chiefs coach Ian Foster said.
“For us, knowing we are out of the playoffs is disappointing but having a traditional game like this now is ideal.”
The seven-times Super Rugby champions Crusaders are having this weekend off so the Blues can stretch their lead over their fierce inter-island rivals in the New Zealand Conference.
The third-placed Stormers play their final Australasian tour game against the Rebels in Melbourne on Friday.
The Stormers will be looking to strengthen their position at the top of the South African conference in their match against the Rebels, who will again be without out-of-favour English fly-half Danny Cipriani.
The Rebels, who left Cipriani out of their recent two-match tour to South Africa stating they had “lost confidence” in him, reportedly want him to sign a re-worked contract that relates to his off-field conduct.
Sharks coach John Plumtree is expecting a torrid physical battle against the Central Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
The Durban franchise took a big step towards the play-offs when they downed the Waratahs 26-21 last weekend, a result that now leaves their destiny in their own hands.
“I think the game against the Cheetahs at the weekend is probably going to be 25% more physical than the game we just played,” Plumtree said.
In this weekend’s other games, the Otago Highlanders tackle Western Force in Dunedin and the Hurricanes face South Africa’s Golden Lions in Wellington. — AFP