David versus Goliath as Force host Bulls
March 25, 2010
The Reds will struggle to cover the loss of stand-out Daniel Braid © Getty Images
The Bulls have an ideal chance to extend their Super 14 lead in Round 7, while it's all about staying in touch with the top four for everyone else as the competition ladder starts to stretch.
With the bye this week are the second and third-placed Stormers and Crusaders so the teams below them have an opportunity to play catch up, but elsewhere it's top versus bottom as the early leaders threaten to run away from the rest.
In our Game of the Week, it's fifth against sixth as the Brumbies take on the Chiefs in Canberra on Friday night. Both teams want to reel in the Crusaders and the Stormers while they're putting their feet up.
We start at the bottom on Friday as the Highlanders and the Lions get things underway at Carisbrook. The Lions have been exciting at times but they have conceded way too many points and are still winless, but the out-of-sorts Highlanders are just one place ahead and present one of their better opportunities of grabbing some points.
The hosts haven't been far away from turning more close games into wins though and they've made just one change, with Alando Soakai dropping out for Steven Setephano in the back row.
The Lions, meanwhile, have reversed some of the changes they made for last week's defeat to the Crusaders, with Michael Killian in for Earl Rose at fullback, wing Tonderai Chavanga replacing Wandile Mjekevu on the left and Carlos Spencer starting in place of the injured fly-half Burton Francis.
Nico Luus, who flew over on the weekend to replace injury victim George Earl, will start with Franco van der Merwe as his lock partner and Willem Stoltz on the bench.
Two mid-table teams desperate for points will clash in Bloemfontein when the Reds pay the Cheetahs a visit. The statistics say the 10th-placed Cheetahs have scored the majority of their points in the second half of matches this campaign, while the Reds have proved porous late in games, so the Queensland side's ability to hang in there will determine whether they stay in touch with the real contenders. They are looking for three wins in a row for the first time since 2004.
The Reds, off the bye, have lost impressive flanker Daniel Braid to a knee ligament strain suffered in their thrashing of the Force in Round 5. The No.7 was close to a recovery but won't be risked the Reds' first of three games in South Africa. Teenager Jake Schatz is Braid's replacement and the only change to their starting XV.
The Cheetahs are already in 'must-win' territory if they are to make an impression on the tournament, and with an Australasian trip all through April, they need these points to stay at Vodacom Park. Hennie Daniller (kidney), Lionel Mapoe (shoulder) and Frans Viljoen (cheekbone) all face lengthy stints on the sidelines, while Riaan Viljoen and Ashley Johnson come into the team.
The Sharks finally got off the mark last week, and they will hunt for win number two on Saturday against the Hurricanes at Westpac Stadium. The Hurricanes started with three wins but the points dried up from that moment, and three losses have followed. Their narrow defeat to the Bulls last week showed signs of resurgence and they haven't lost at home this season.
The Hurricanes will have star fullback Cory Jane to call on after he recovered from a head knock that sidelined him for one game. Andre Taylor gets shifted from No.15 to the wing. Alistair Hargreaves and Jacques Botes come into the Sharks' pack due to injuries to Johann Muller (finger) and flanker Keegan Daniel (shoulder). Willem Alberts replaces Jean Deysel in the back-row while skipper John Smit again starts at loose-head.
The high-flying Waratahs host the Blues on Saturday, keen to consolidate their top-four position. The New South Wales outfit have developed a knack for winning the close ones - three of their four victories have come by four points or less. They've won three on the trot but the Blues have knocked off the Reds and the Brumbies so far and have a third Australian side in their sights.
The home side are boosted by returns to the starting XV, including Rob Horne, who will face off with the in-form Rene Ranger at outside centre. Wycliff Palu and Al Baxter return from injury while Kurtley Beale has finally been given a start at fullback after cooling his heels on the bench for much of the season.
In what is often an ominous sign for the opposition, the Blues go unchanged with the starting side they've used since Round 4.
And rounding out the week is David versus Goliath in the form of rock-bottom Western Force hosting the unbeaten Bulls. The Bulls have picked up 24 points from 25 available to them, while the Force only have one after losing by less than seven against the 'Tahs last week.
The Force have to deal with the distraction of coach John Mitchell's announcement that he will not renew his contract past 2011. They put in their best effort of the year last week but have been forced to make changes. Tom Hockings starts in place of Sam Wykes while Ben Whittaker will make his full debut after Ryan Tyrrell was ruled out for the season with a neck injury.
The defending champions finally leave home soil after making the first of their favourable early draw, and they have only one change, with Jaco Pretorius returning at No.13 to take them close to full strength. With the two teams below them having a week off, the Bulls will want to make sure they don't slip on a potential banana peel in Perth.
Proposals to remove promotion and relegation from the Aviva Premiership would be for the good of the game overall, argues John Taylor
Ireland have the world sitting up and taking notice - and rugby's structure in Europe will aid their Rugby World Cup bid, writes John Mitchell
Where does Italy's win over Scotland rank among their successes in the Six Nations? Scrum Sevens investigates
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery