So tightly-contested is this year’s Super 14 competition that the table-topping Sharks have just an eight-point lead over the ninth-placed Brumbies after nine weeks of action.
Zelim Nel writes in the Cape Argus that the two key match-ups of Round 10 see the third-placed Bulls travel to Canberra to face the Brumbies tomorrow, while the Sharks host defending-champions, the Crusaders, in Durban on Saturday.
The resurgent Crusaders have been buoyed by the return of All Black captain Richie McCaw, who was sidelined for five weeks after picking up a knee injury in the dreary 6-0 loss to the Highlanders in March.
Currently in eighth place with 22 log points, a Crusaders victory could catapult the team into the top four.
“It’s critical for us,” coach Todd Blackadder said of the Sharks match. “Any team can come through and make the top four. To me, that’s exciting and there’s more on the line for every point in every game.”
The Sharks, smarting from their surprise 31-6 loss to the Cheetahs last week, are determined to extend their lead over the chasing pack, though coach John Plumtree recognised the value that McCaw adds to the Crusaders.
“Richie is hugely influential for them and to have him back at such an important time is really crucial for them. Like us, they’ve also had quite a few injuries and they’ll enjoy the challenge of playing us at home.”
The Sharks haven’t lost in Durban since the 2007 Super 14 final.
Meanwhile, the touring Bulls will be without the services of Springbok second-row duo Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield when they square off against the Brumbies.
Botha has been handed a three-week suspension for striking flanker Phil Waugh during last week’s match in Sydney, while Matfield has returned home to witness the birth of his second child.
Utility forward Danie Rossouw will partner Wilhelm Steenkamp in a reworked lock partnership as the third-placed Bulls – tied with the Chiefs and Waratahs on 27 points – attempt to muscle their way back to the top of the championship table in their final tour match.
The Brumbies are likely to be boosted by the return from injury of captain and eighthman Stephen Hoiles as the Canberra team – level with the Highlanders and Crusaders on 22 log points – gallop for a place in the top four.
The Lions travel to Brisbane to face the Reds in their third match on tour on Saturday morning. An injury to captain and flanker Cobus Grobbelaar sees the captain’s armband handed to Ernst Joubert, while Springbok centre Jaque Fourie has been withdrawn from the matchday squad after taking a finger to the eye during last week’s 36-12 loss to the Blues in Auckland.
The Cheetahs will be determined to repeat the winning recipe which sank the Sharks last week as they meet the second-placed Chiefs in Kimberley on Saturday.
The Chiefs boast the competition’s best points-differential (+65) and are the second-highest points-scorers to date.
They also have the added momentum of a five-game winning streak to draw on against a one-win Cheetahs outfit that has the table’s worst points-differential (-94).Tweet