New Zealand’s Otago Highlanders will put their unbeaten Super 15 run on the line when they tackle the ACT Brumbies in Canberra on Saturday.
The Highlanders have been the surprises of the southern hemisphere season with wins over the Waikato Chiefs, Canterbury Crusaders, NSW Waratahs and Wellington Hurricanes.
After four rounds, they remain undefeated along with South Africa’s Stormers.
But Otago’s record in Australia’s capital is dismal with just two wins in eight visits. And the Brumbies have lost only once in three games, and are equal leaders of the Australia conference under new coach Jake White.
“It is a great start. I don’t think many people would have given us much of a chance of going four from four,” Highlanders flanker Adam Thomson said.
“We have turned the corner in terms of being a bit smarter in terms of winning games.”
The Brumbies backs’ coach and former Wallaby playmaker Stephen Larkham believes the Canberra-based side have more belief under South African World Cup-winning coach White.
“We were written off by a lot of people at the beginning of the year,” Larkham said.
“The games haven’t panned out as nicely as we would have liked and we’ve certainly missed some opportunities, however we feel like we are a very competitive team.”
Defending champions Queensland Reds have been ravaged by injuries and suspension ahead of Saturday’s showdown with triple South African winners the Bulls in Pretoria.
Backs Ben Lucas and Mike Harris have returned home with hamstring injuries, while Wallaby winger Digby Ioane has been banned for five weeks for making a dangerous tackle in last weekend’s loss to the Sharks.
“Losing your two healthy goal kickers and playmakers at number 10 is far from an ideal scenario. But we’ll reassess and come up with a plan best suited for our final game on tour against the Bulls,” coach Ewen McKenzie said.
Francois Hougaard (suspension) and Johann Sadie (shoulder) are back for the Bulls.
“The Reds are the champions and that will be how high the bar will be set. We will have to deliver a championship performance if we want to beat them,” Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said.
The seven-time Super Rugby champion Crusaders play in Christchurch for the first time in almost two years when they take on South Africa’s Cheetahs on Saturday.
All Black star Dan Carter is expected to make his first appearance this season off the substitutes’ bench after injuring his groin during last year’s World Cup.
In the absence of Carter and still sidelined All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw, the Crusaders have won just one game of three this year.
The Crusaders will play at the newly completed 18< 000-seat Christchurch Stadium after their AAMI Stadium was wrecked in a devastating earthquake in February last year, forcing them to play all their 2011 games on the road.
The Cheetahs are on a high after their dramatic first win of the season after the full-time siren over the Rebels in Melbourne last Sunday.
Meanwhile, South African conference leaders Stormers take on the Golden Lions at Johannesburg.
“There is motivation to do things right and we know that the Lions clash will be a typical derby game,” Stormers coach Allister Coetzee said.
“It is going to he hard, physical and it is about playing for 80 minutes on the Highveld.”
Elsewhere in this weekend’s fifth round of matches, All Blacks Piri Weepu and Ma’a Nonu of the Auckland Blues face their old Hurricanes teammates for the first time in Auckland on Friday.
The injury-hit Waratahs host South Africa’s Sharks and the Rebels take on Western Force in Melbourne.
The Chiefs have a bye this weekend. — AFP