SYDNEY (AFP) – Quade Cooper’s front-line defence will be under scrutiny for the Queensland Reds in this weekend’s Super Rugby after his omission from the Wallabies’ preliminary squad for next month’s series against the British and Irish Lions.
His scrum-base partner Wallaby Will Genia is backing Cooper to force his way back when the last six players are added to the final squad, starting with the Reds match against the Western Stormers in Cape Town on Saturday.
“I absolutely back him to get there. He has been playing exceptionally well for us thus far this season,” Genia said.
“They’ve named a few things they want him to work on and I think he is mature enough to understand that and go away and work on those things.”
The Reds will be without Wallaby winger Digby Ioane, who has returned home for knee surgery.
The Waikato Chiefs also face a thorough examination of their Super 15 title defence against the Canterbury Crusaders, as the ACT Brumbies and Northern Bulls face tricky away matches this weekend.
The Chiefs leapfrogged the Brumbies to the top of the standings last weekend with their fourth straight win but face a stern challenge on Friday from the seven-time champion Crusaders, on a roll after four consecutive victories.
Defeat for the Chiefs will cost them the championship lead if the Bulls win their South African derby against the Coastal Sharks in Durban or the Brumbies beat the Blues in Auckland after back-to-back losses.
The Chiefs mastered the Crusaders twice in their three meetings last season on the way to their first Super Rugby championship, but all were tight affairs and the Canterbury side is ominously running into top form.
The Chiefs have only beaten the Crusaders four times in their last 17 encounters and are preparing for another monumental battle.
“They (Crusaders) still are the benchmark and to be honest it’s an easy game to get up for mentally,” Chiefs openside flanker Tanerau Latimer said.
Israel Dagg has been reinstated at fullback for the Crusaders but All Black centre Robbie Fruean has been relegated to the bench, underlining the strength of the Canterbury squad.
“He (Fruean) is one of those high-impact players and when he is trying to get a breather, he can sort of go missing at times and this is not one of those games where we can afford that to happen,” Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said.
Frans Ludeke, who this week had his coaching contract extended for a further three years, has made two backline changes and refreshed his front row with Werner Kruger and Dean Greyling returning for the Bulls’ derby with the Sharks.
The Sharks, adrift in third place in the South African conference, have lost five of their last seven games against the Bulls, who lead the Central Cheetahs by six points in the conference and are second overall.
Jake White’s Brumbies will be looking to avoid a third straight loss while John Kirwan’s Blues must win to keep in touch with the Chiefs in the New Zealand conference in Saturday’s game at Eden Park.
The Blues ended the Brumbies’ finals chances last season and have only lost once in their last six home encounters against the Canberra-based side.
Colby Faingaa will become the third openside flanker used by the Brumbies this year after serious knee injuries to Wallabies David Pocock and George Smith.
The Brumbies could lose the Australian conference lead if the Reds beat the Stormers.
In other games, the Rebels tackle the NSW Waratahs in Melbourne, the Force host the Otago Highlanders in Perth and the Southern Kings meet the Cheetahs in Port Elizabeth, while the Wellington Hurricanes have a bye.
On Friday, the Melbourne Rebels put a big dent in the New South Wales Waratahs’ Super 15 playoff hopes with a resilient 24-22 home victory.