Reds and Hurricanes lead last-ditch charge
May 5, 2010
George Smith will return to make an emotional farewell to Brumbies fans this week © Getty Images
The penultimate round of this year's thrilling Super 14 season is one for the mathematicians as five teams jostle for two positions in the top four.
There are endless possible permutations at the top end of the ladder, with the Bulls looking likely to have a home semi-final and the Stormers strong odds to follow suit. Three Australian teams and two from New Zealand are scrambling below them to earn a place in the historic last finals series before the competition expands to Super 15.
Super Friday sees four of the top contenders go head to head, led by the Hurricanes and the Reds in Wellington.
The in-form Hurricanes have re-established their title credentials with three straight wins to join the rear end of the logjam at the top of the table. They sit two points behind the fourth-placed Reds, who lost momentum against the Brumbies in Canberra last week. There is a feeling in Australia that the Reds were due for a pre-finals loss after undoing the Stormers and Bulls in Brisbane, but they can't afford any more slips if they are to earn another crack at the South African powerhouses in the play-offs.
All Blacks centre Conrad Smith has been ruled out late for the Hurricanes after psychometric testing revealed he isn't yet ready to return from a concussion suffered last week. Earlier reports indicated he was good to start but he has been forced to miss out, sending in the potentially rusty Jason Kawau as the midfield partner to Ma'a Nonu.
Two other changes come at halfback, where All Black Piri Weepu supplants Tyson Keats after spending recent weeks on the reserve bench, and prop, where Jacob Ellison starts on the loose-head side in place of John Schwalger. Former captain and No.8 Rodney So'oialo will play his 100th match for the franchise. Flanker Victor Vito was a late withdrawal after pulling up in training and lock Michael Paterson has since been shifted to the blindside flank, with Jeremy Thrush promoted from the reserve bench to start alongside Bryn Evans in the second row.
The Reds risk running out of bodies after a taxing campaign as Ewen McKenzie makes five changes to his starting side. Last week's starting locks Adam Byrnes (knee) and Rob Simmons (facial fracture) were replaced early in that fixture and are joined on the treatment table by vice captain and combative flanker Daniel Braid in a major blow to the pack. Van Humphries makes a timely return to the second row, where he is joined by new cover signing Radike Samo. Young gun Andrew Shaw will fill Braid's No.7 jersey while Rod Davies boosts the team with a return on the wing and former Wallaby Greg Holmes gets his first start of the year at prop.
The Chiefs and Waratahs kick off Saturday's five-game marathon in a must-win clash for the Australian side. They sit one point behind the Crusaders and the Reds but there are so many teams in contention for third and fourth that the finalists will likely have to win both their remaining games. The Waratahs slipped up in the rain and wind of Invercargill against the Highlanders last week, while the Chiefs have won just once since Round 3 in a disappointing campaign. The game will also see referee Steve Walsh return to the Super 14 stage having been stood down for last weekend's Brumbies-Reds clash.
Chiefs coach Ian Foster has kept the faith in his charges as lock Kevin O'Neill replaces Culum Retallick in the only change from the side who were pipped 33-27 by the Hurricanes in Wellington last weekend
The Waratahs on the other hand have rung the changes with the most significant being the return of Berrick Barnes to the No.10 shirt for the first time since Round 2 with Daniel Halangahu dropping to the bench. Barnes will be partnered by scrum-half Luke Burgess who comes in for Josh Holmes while prop Benn Robinson and centre Rob Horne also return to the starting line-up. In addition, flanker Pat McCutcheon has been handed his first Super 14 start.
The Brumbies are a point further adrift of the top four but they have home ground advantage when the Highlanders seek to continue their spoiling ways. The Brumbies have struggled to justify their tag as Australia's all-star outfit this season but their win over the Reds shows they can still win the big games under pressure. With the 12th-placed Highlanders and 11th-ranked Force to come, the Brumbies have every chance of becoming a dangerous dark horse in the play-offs. The Highlanders were desperate and energetic in front of home fans last week but their only motivation in Canberra will be assisting their compatriots further up the table.
The match could carry an emotional edge as George Smith takes his place in his likely final appearance in Canberra before leaving Australia. Fellow Brumbies legend and injury returnee Stirling Mortlock, who is heading south to Melbourne Rebels after this season, has been bracketed on the bench and will be given up until the last minute to prove he is fit to farewell the fans. Matt Toomua is also set to make his comeback at No.10, shifting Matt Giteau back out to inside centre.
Injury has ruled Highlanders prop Clint Newland out of the game and his place in the squad goes to experienced Otago prop Keith Cameron. Also under an injury cloud is centre Kendrick Lynn, who has strained his groin, meaning that Ben Smith and Jason Shoemark are named in midfield.
The rock-bottom Lions welcome the erratic Blues to Johannesburg in one of the lower profile meetings of the round, although the New Zealand team still has a mathematical hope of featuring in the finals. Given they must win both their remaining games and hope up to eight other results go their way, it's probably safe to say they are playing for pride and Test jerseys. The Blues have lost to the Sharks and the Cheetahs so far on this tour - only the second time they have strung two equivalent results together - so the Lions will be salivating at the prospect of avoiding a winless campaign in front of their loyal supporters.
Blues boss Pat Lam has changed more than half of his starting XV as he strives to land on a winning combination. Daniel Kirkpatrick will make his first start for the Blues in place of injured fly-half Stephen Brett, who has been bracketed on the bench with George Pisi.
Isaia Toeava returns to fullback with Rene Ranger moving into the No.13 spot and Paul Williams switching to the wing. Peter Saili is preferred to start at No.8 in place of Viliami Ma'afu, while Serge Lilo resumes his starting position ahead of Tom Chamberlain and Anthony Boric replaces Filo Paulo. Blues captain Keven Mealamu has failed to shake off a hamstring strain as Tom McCartney makes his second successive start at hooker and Jerome Kaino continues his role as stand-in skipper.
The week's only certain dead rubber comes as the Cheetahs host the Force. With four wins in their last five, the Force are one of the form teams of the competition and they'll be rueing a heavy injury toll at the start of the season that prevented them from at least staying in the race for a longer portion of the season. The Cheetahs knocked off the Blues last week and their home form makes this an intriguing match up, even if nothing is on the line.
The Cheetahs have wing Jongi Nokwe out with injury, allowing Robert Ebersohn to start as Bjorn Basson switches wings. Phillip van der Walt will start in place of Frans Viljoen, while Skipper Badenhorst comes in at hooker for Ryno Barnes.
The Force is another team taking the opportunity to mix things up and blood new players, with seven changes. Props Nic Henderson and Tim Fairbrother, hooker Nathan Charles and lock Tom Hockings come into a new-look tight five while star backs Cameron Shepherd and James O'Connor are back in action. Justin Turner makes his starting debut at scrum-half. Prop Matt Dunning will notch his 100th Super Rugby cap if he comes off the bench.
The second-placed Stormers visit the 10th-placed Sharks in a tricky final fixture. The timing of the match means the Stormers could fall as low as equal fourth before kick-off, and with the Bulls waiting in the final round, they'll be desperate to lock up their top four and likely top two status this week. The Stormers thrashed the Crusaders in a massive confidence boost last week, but the Sharks are a danger team in this strange season, in which they lost their first five, then won five before losing to the Bulls last week.
The Stormers will be without winger Bryan Habana who suffered bruised ribs in the match against the Crusaders last week. Centre Tim Whitehead, who replaced Habana at Newlands last week, has been given the nod to fill the boots of the speedy Springbok winger. Joe Pietersen, the stand-out fullback in early Super 14 matches this season, makes a welcome return on the bench after a lay-off as a result of a hip injury.
Sharks coach John Plumtree has spoken of the physical toll of the Bulls game last week on his players, with Johann Muller breaking his arm under its protective plate to start an eight-week stint on the sidelines. Other players are slowly but surely returning to training and No.8 Ryan Kankowski should be available to start after returning off the bench last week.