The Auckland Blues and injury-ravaged New South Wales Waratahs will launch Super 15 rugby’s extended play-offs series at Eden Park on Friday, 78 days before the Rugby World Cup begins at the same stadium.
A day later the Canterbury Crusaders will face the Durban-based Sharks and attempt to reach the Super Rugby semifinals for the 14th time, joining the already-qualified Queensland Reds and Cape Town-based Stormers.
The weekend’s first round of play-offs will narrow the six qualifiers down to four — the winners facing either the Reds in Brisbane or Stormers in Cape Town.
South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have each provided two of the top six teams and, as the top-ranked sides for the World Cup, can’t avoid the play-offs being viewed as a measure of their preparedness.
The Blues lineup includes as many as eight players who may figure in New Zealand’s World Cup plans, among them veteran lock Ali Williams, who is attempting to reclaim his All Blacks place after almost two seasons out with injury.
Blues coach Pat Lam said the sudden-death nature of the play-offs approximated the pressure of the World Cup.
“If you focus on one game at a time you have a good chance,” he said. “If you look too far ahead then you are in big trouble. If we get the Waratahs out of the way then we can focus on the next one.”
The Waratahs have been battered by injuries and have lost up to 12 frontline players including Wallabies scrumhalf Luke Burgess, who broke his hand in training this week.
Just not cutting it
Lam said the Blues remained wary of the Waratahs, fearing they might actually gain strength from an infusion of young and second-string players determined to impress. He said as long as the Waratahs retained the mercurial talent of Wallabies back Kurtley Beale — a World Cup selection certainty — they remained a dangerous side.
Beale, in turn, said the Waratahs could overcome their heavy injury toll to beat the Blues in a contest between teams placed fourth and fifth at the end of the regular season. Unless the sixth-placed Sharks upset the third-placed Crusaders, the winner of the Eden Park match will face the Stormers in the semifinals.
“We’re pretty confident this week, we all understand our roles and hopefully we can take that out onto the field,” Beale said. “When you’re in this finals football it is a totally different ball game, anything can happen.
“The Blues are an exciting team but we are pretty confident we can match them up front. We’ve come here to do a job and a lot of the boys are pretty keen to get out there.”
Waratahs coach Chris Hickey, who has had to cope with persistent injuries in his team, has called for Super 15 squads to be enlarged next season to cope with the inevitable toll of an extended season.
“Certainly the extra five weeks in the competition has taken a toll on all teams as far as injuries and fatigue are concerned, so how you manage players at the back end of the competition becomes really important,” Hickey said. “I think all the unions will need to sit down and look at squad numbers moving into next year because it will be an even longer season. This year to date we’ve used 38 players, a squad of 30 just won’t cut it.”
The Crusaders will have two key players back from injury when they take on the Sharks at Nelson, in a stadium with a capacity of barely 14 000. Trafalgar Park has been one of the five home grounds used by the Crusaders since a February 22 earthquake forced them from their home ground at Christchurch.
All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams returns to the starting lineup after missing last week’s match against the Wellington Hurricanes with a hip injury and winger Sean Maitland will play his first match since May 7, when he was sidelined with a foot injury.
A different challenge
Scrumhalf Khan Fotuali’i also returns after a six-week break with a knee injury to take his place on the reserves bench.
“It’s great to be able to welcome back Sonny, Sean and Kahn,” coach Todd Blackadder said. “They’ve all been working extremely hard on their rehab to be fit for this match and they will get their reward on Saturday night.
“It’s an exciting prospect. It’s great to be going back to Nelson where we’ve enjoyed great hospitality this season and the challenge in front of us is clear-cut. We have to win to progress in this competition.”
The Sharks and Crusaders last met in round six at London’s Twickenham Stadium in the first Super 15 match played outside Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. The Crusaders won heavily and Sharks coach John Plumtree said his players had to learn from that experience.
“We’re going to show them [the players] a video of what we got wrong at Twickenham,” he said.
Plumtree said the Sharks’ confidence had been boosted by their win over the Bulls in Pretoria last week which clinched their place in the play-offs at the expense of the defending champions. But the Crusaders now posed a larger test, with a starting XV containing 11 All Blacks.
“[The match against the Bulls] was a do or die match and there was no more the next week if we didn’t get it right,” Plumtree said.
“We’ve obviously got a little bit of confidence from the weekend, but this is really a different challenge from Loftus because of the travel.” — Sapa-AP