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Table-topping South African outfit Bulls are aiming to make it three Super 15 wins out of three as surprise package Otago Highlanders of New Zealand chase another big scalp this weekend.
The Pretoria-based Bulls have knocked over the Coastal Sharks and Central Cheetahs to lead the southern hemisphere provincial tournament and on Saturday host the Auckland Blues, desperate for their first win of the season.
The Highlanders remain New Zealand’s only unbeaten team after upsets over the Waikato Chiefs and Canterbury Crusaders and face Australian opposition in the New South Wales Waratahs in Dunedin on Saturday.
Bulls’ skipper Pierre Spies has warned his team of a motivated Blues side after a disappointing start to the 2012 campaign with losses to the Crusaders and the Chiefs.
“It actually says nothing, this competition is so tough,” Spies said. “With the quality players they have in their team, I am sure they will pitch on Saturday to rectify those first two games.”
Former Lions scrumhalf Jano Vermaak will get his first start for the Bulls, replacing suspended number nine Francois Hougaard.
The Highlanders, so often eclipsed by their better-resourced New Zealand rivals, have defied pre-season expectations with spirited performances in the opening weeks against the backdrop of Otago rugby’s dire financial situation.
“It’s been a tough time for Otago rugby,” Highlanders’ coach Jamie Joseph said.
“I played all my footy for Otago and to see in the news what’s potentially going to happen was really saddening, so it’s important we carry it on.”
Otago’s precarious financial position does not affect the Otago Highlanders, which is a separate legal entity.
Two-time finalists Waratahs are in the top six after a bonus-point loss to the Queensland Reds and a commanding win over the Melbourne Rebels last week.
Wallaby Berrick Barnes is listed to play at inside-centre after missing the Waratahs’ first two games with a groin injury.
Defending champions Queensland have World Cup Wallaby forwards Scott Higginbotham and Saia Faingaa returning from injury for Saturday’s home encounter with the Rebels.
Wallabies fullback Kurtley Beale is expected to make his debut for the Rebels after recovering from a hamstring injury to join fellow big-name recruit James O’Connor in the Melbourne backline.
Pat McCabe is another Wallaby returning from injury to make his first appearance of the season for the ACT Brumbies against bottom team the Cheetahs in Canberra on Saturday.
McCabe has not played since dislocating his shoulder at last year’s Rugby World Cup and subsequently underwent surgery.
The Chiefs are intact for Friday’s derby with the Crusaders in Napier, meaning that World Cup All Blacks Sonny Bill Williams and Richard Kahui are again in the centres against the seven-time Super Rugby champions.
The Crusaders, looking to kick-start their season, have made four changes, among them Corey Flynn at hooker, Owen Franks at prop and Zac Guildford on the wing.
Elsewhere this weekend, Western Force look for their first win of the season against New Zealand’s Wellington Hurricanes in Perth, while the Sharks have home advantage in a South African derby against the Golden Lions in Durban.
South Africa’s Western Stormers have a bye this weekend.—AFP
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