The race for Super Rugby play-off places will intensify as Round 12 concludes with three cross-conference clashes.
Five of the six teams that will be in action in the weekend’s final three matches are still in contention for a place in the six-team Finals Series.
None of them are in more need of a win than the 11th-placed Waratahs, who have to get a result against the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth to keep their play-off hopes alive.
The action heads to Pretoria next where the Bulls will look to stay in the top three while the ninth-placed Hurricanes will want to made inroads on the log with a win in the first match of their South African tour.
Sunday’s lone match is a blockbuster between two teams who cannot afford to lose as the table-topping Brumbies host the seventh-placed Crusaders in Canberra.
Quintin van Jaarsveld looks at the final three fixtures of the weekend.
Saturday, May 4
Southern Kings v Waratahs
(Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth – kick-off: 17.05; 15.05 GMT)
The Southern Kings will have added motivation when they welcome the Waratahs to Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
The newcomers are yet to lose to Australian opposition and can cap a promising debut season with a win over the Waratahs this weekend, having beaten the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels and drawn with the Brumbies.
Having faced a complacent and understrength Brumbies side in Canberra, a desperate Waratahs outfit playing to stay in the play-off picture will provide the Kings with their greatest challenge from an Australian perspective.
The Sydneysiders pushed the Bulls to the wire at Loftus last weekend, even grabbing the lead shortly after the hour-mark. The 30-19 scoreline certainly flattered the Bulls, who thrashed the Kings 34-0 in Port Elizabeth a fortnight ago.
Indeed, it’s been a testing two weeks for the Kings since returning from their maiden Australasian excursion, slumping to defeats to the Bulls and Cheetahs and going try-less in both outings.
Kings Director of Rugby Alan Solomons, however, isn’t overly concerned about the team’s try-scoring drought.
“These things happen. We have had opportunities which we have not converted into points. We believe we must take those opportunities,” he said.
“There has been a good focus this week and we are sure everyone is on the same page as far as that is concerned. I am sure that on Saturday things will be different,” he added.
The Tahs have adopted a much more positive approach under Michael Cheika this season and are second only to the Chiefs (93) in linebreaks (85).
Their dangerman has been multi-skilled League convert Israel Folau, who is joint third on the top try-scorer list with five touch downs.
Folau’s form has not gone unnoticed by Wallaby coach Robbie Deans and another strong performance this weekend will strengthen his case for a place in the Australian squad for the three-Test series against the British and Irish Lions.
“Israel does some things that no-one else can do. How many games has he had now? Ten or so?” Deans said during the week.
“It’s remarkable what he can do in his 10th game of rugby. Whatever happens, let’s hope he sticks around because he’d be an absolute legend if he does.
“If he was to stay in the game, he would be huge, no doubt. He already is.”
Lions coach Warren Gatland on Tuesday said he expects Folau to be picked.
“We’re expecting to see him. From a political and a commercial point of view he’s a player Australia want to encourage to stay in the game and not go back to League,” Gatland said.
Prediction: With the Waratahs’ slim play-off hopes hanging by a thread, they will come out firing in Port Elizabeth. Bar the shutout against the Bulls, the Kings have been competitive at home, but it terms of keeping a clean sheet against Australian teams, this match will prove to be a bridge too far. Waratahs by 12.
Southern Kings: 15 George Whitehead, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Ronnie Cooke, 12 Andries Strauss (captain), 11 Siyanda Grey, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Jacques Engelbrecht, 7 Wimpie van der Walt, 6 Cornell du Preez, 5 Rynier Bernardo, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Kevin Buys, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Replacements: 16 Virgile Lacombe, 17 Grant Kemp, 18 David Bulbring, 19 Luke Watson, 20 Nicolas Vergallo, 21 Waylon Murray, 22 Siviwe Soyizwapi.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Cam Crawford, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Rob Horne, 11 Peter Betham, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Brendan McKibbin, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis (captain), 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements – from: John Ulugia, Paddy Ryan, Will Skelton, Mitchell Chapman, Pat McCutcheon, Matt Lucas, Ben Volavola, Tom Kingston.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jason Jaftha (South Africa), Christie du Preez (South Africa)
TMO: Johann Meuwessen (South Africa)
Bulls v Hurricanes
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria – kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
The Bulls will be eyeing their fourth win on the trot when they host the Hurricanes at Loftus Versfeld.
Since returning from their Australasian tour, the Bulls have been in ominous form, securing wins over the Cheetahs (26-20), Southern Kings (34-0) and Waratahs (30-19) to soar to the top of the South African Conference.
The return to form of flyhalf Morné Steyn, who scored 25 points in a match-winning performance against the Tahs last weekend, has been integral to the rise of the Bulls and the veteran No.10 will on Saturday equal the record for most appearances for the franchise in Super Rugby (116), which is shared by Victor Matfield and Danie Rossouw.
Lock Flip van der Merwe will play in his 50th match for the Bulls and utility back Francois Hougaard will share that honour if he comes off the bench, while the Pretoria side as a whole are also in line to achieve a milestone, as a win over the Canes will be their 100th Super Rugby victory.
In the Hurricanes, though, the Bulls will face their New Zealand bogey team. The Wellington outfit, with four wins from seven matches at Loftus, are the New Zealand side with the best away record against the Bulls.
Their strength has always been their attacking prowess and they will undoubtedly try to run the Bulls off their feet this weekend. The return of All Black wing Julian Savea, who missed last weekend’s loss to the Stormers after he appeared in court in Wellington on assault charges, is a major boost for the Canes in this regard.
The 22-year-old is the most explosive wing in the game today. His speed, strength, size and athleticism has drawn comparisons with that of the legendary Jonah Lomu and given the slightest bit of room, the man dubbed “The Bus” will have the Bulls defence at sixes and sevens.
The selection of Tusi Pisi at inside centre is also significant as the Samoan international has been hand picked by Mark Hammett to stop the likes of big centres Wynand Olivier and JJ Engelbrecht in their tracks with his hard-hitting defence.
For the Canes backs to flourish, however, they will need front foot ball and it’s upfront where the visitors do not compare favourably with their hosts.
In props Ben Franks and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen they have a proven Test calibre performer and one of the most mobile front row forwards in Super Rugby, but an injury crisis at hooker has robbed them of Dane Coles and Motu Matu’u.
As a result, third-choice rake Ash Dixon has been thrust into the spotlight with Witbank-born loosehead Reggie Goodes providing hooking cover on the bench, which features five forwards and two backs.
Their front three, who are inexperienced as a combination, will have their work cut out for them against the Bulls’ all-Springbok front row at scrum time while the hosts will aim to rattle Dixon in the line-outs.
Prediction: With set-pieces being a fundamental part of the Bulls’ game, the Canes will be under the cosh. The visitors have ample game breakers to give their hosts a scare, but the match will be won and lost upfront and here the Bulls have a decided advantage. Bulls by nine.
Bulls: 15 Jürgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Pierre Spies (captain), 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Juandrè Kruger, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Grant Hattingh, 19 Arno Botha, 20 Francois Hougaard, 21 Louis Fouché, 22 Lionel Mapoe.
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Conrad Smith (captain), 12 Tusi Pisi, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Reggie Goodes, 17 Ben May, 18 Mark Reddish, 19 Faifili Levave, 20 Jack Lam, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Tim Bateman.
Referee: Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Attie Buitendag (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
Sunday, May 5
Brumbies v Crusaders
(Canberra Stadium, Canberra – kick-off: 16.05; 06.05 GMT)
The Crusaders will face their litmus test when they battle the pace-setting Brumbies in the final match of Round 12 at Canberra Stadium.
Although several twists and turns remain on the road to the play-offs, this will be the Crusaders’ season-defining assignment.
Sunday’s blockbuster will reveal just how good the Crusaders of 2013 are and whether they are title contenders or pretenders.
It’s been a challenging crusade for the men from Christchurch this year. In the absence of All Black stars Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and – until last weekend – Dan Carter, the George Whitelock-led Crusaders have lacked the aura of invincibility that has been a staple of the franchise.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when last – or if – the seven-time champions have been so vulnerable. They are all over the place; hot one week, cold the next, and it’s this inconsistency that has been their Achilles Heel this season.
There’s been the good (the 41-19 win over the Bulls at home and 14-19 win over the Stormers at Newlands), the bad (falling 14-16 to the Western Force in Perth and edging the Melbourne Rebels 30-26 at home last weekend) and the ugly (the 15-34 drubbing by the Blues in Auckland).
Their relevancy in 2013 will be known after Sunday’s encounter against the benchmark of this year’s tournament – Jake White’s Brumbies.
The Canberra side haven’t been without their own slip-ups, the draw with the Southern Kings at home eclipsing the defeat to the Stormers at Newlands, but they have certainly led the way this season in terms of cohesion and efficiency.
The match will see inform veteran Wallaby flank George Smith surpass George Gregan’s record of 136th appearances and become the most-capped player in the franchise’s history, but it will also be a memorable occasion for captain Ben Mowen.
It’s a match Mowen has been looking forward too for nearly two years, with the teams’ paths not crossing in his debut season at the Brumbies last year.
“Brumbies versus Crusaders games have always been stand-alone games over the years,” Mowen told The Australian.
“It was something I was looking forward to, so I’m really excited about this week. The Crusaders haven’t been as consistent as they would have liked, but they are sleeping giants.”
Whereas the Crusaders had to come from behind to escape with a win over the Rebels last weekend, the Brumbies blew the Force out of the water, wrapping up the match and the bonus point inside the first half.
“It was a very complete performance. It was something we have been working towards over the last three games,” Mowen said of the 41-7 win.
“We’ve had good patches in attack, defence and set piece. It was nice to be able to put them all into the one performance.”
Mowen added that while they respect the Crusaders, they won’t allow facing the most successful team in Super Rugby history to effect their focus.
“With respect to the opposition we are heavily focused on ourselves. We won’t let who we play determine our focus,” he said.
“If you want to be a championship team, you have to play good footy. It’s irrelevant who you are playing against. We have big expectations of ourselves now. We want to push forward in the next couple of weeks.”
Prediction: This could well be the game of the weekend and one we believe will live up to expectations and played with Test-like intensity as the Brumbies look to stay on top and the Crusaders to continue their climb up the ladder.
Home ground advantage will be significant and while the Crusaders ought to push the hosts to the wire, the Brumbies should edge a barnburner by three points.
Crusaders: 15 Tom Taylor, 14 Tom Marshall, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock (captain), 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Dominic Bird, 19 Jordan Taufua, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Adam Whitelock, 22 Israel Dagg.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (captain), 7 George Smith, 6 Fotu Auelua, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Peter Kimlin, 3 Dan Palmer, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Leon Power, 19 Colby Faingaa, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Robbie Coleman, 22 Pat McCabe.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Andrew Lees (Australia), James Leckie (Australia)
TMO: Matt Goddard (Australia)
Article source: http://sport.iafrica.com/articles/856888.html