South Africans to test mettle of NZ teams
February 15, 2007

South Africa is the backdrop as three New Zealand teams face important early junctures in their Super 14 rugby campaigns this weekend.

While many eyes will be focused on Saturday night's showdown between the Hurricanes and Blues in Wellington and the first all-Australia clash of the competition, between the Brumbies and Reds in Brisbane, the remaining five matches are all in South Africa.

It is there that the Chiefs confront the only other winless team, the Stormers, in a match that will shunt the losers a long way from the playoff zone just three weeks into the season.

The Highlanders face the steepest challenge and their third successive game on the road when they face early leaders the Sharks in Durban.

Perhaps the most likely offshore winners among the three New Zealand sides are the defending champion Crusaders, who open a three-match tour against the Lions in Johannesburg, seeking to continue the momentum from last week's impressive defeat of the Reds.

The opening match of round three is in Cape Town on Saturday morning (NZT) where Chiefs coach Ian Foster will be desperate for his team to nip their traditional slow season start firmly in the bud.

While the Chiefs have shown promising patches in home losses to the Brumbies and Hurricanes -- earning three bonus points along the way -- the Stormers have bordered on dreadful in losses to the Cheetahs and Western Force.

Foster expected a backlash at Newlands.

"It's all through the media here, they're taking a bit of a hammering. People have been disappointed with the quality of their rugby," Foster said.

"They're going to come back and bite someone shortly so we have to make sure our desperation and accuracy are at a higher level."

Foster noted that the Stormers were among the most unpredictable of opponents.

The Chiefs have won their last three games against them, often when the South African team had been fancied.

"They have the ability to play outstanding rugby but then haven't backed up very well."

Foster has made six changes, the most notable being a first start at the franchise for 20-year-old openside flanker Tanerau Latimer ahead of veteran All Black Marty Holah.

Highlanders coach Greg Cooper has been less busy with the red pen, bringing in just lock Kane Thompson for Filipo Levi and Charlie Hore at first five-eighth.

Hore's starting Super 14 debut is a risk, with Callum Bruce moving out one spot to replace Jason Kawau at second five-eighth.

However, the 30-year-old has decent provincial experience in New Zealand and Scotland and Cooper will hope he is the answer to fill a gaping hole left by the injured Nick Evans.

Crusaders coach Robbie Deans has opted for continuity, picking the same 22 as a week ago, with the only difference being that Andy Ellis starts at halfback while Kevin Senio is on the reserve bench.

Reds coach Eddie Jones revealed little when naming only a 23-man squad for the first all-Australian match of the season against the Brumbies.

He will keep the Brumbies guessing right until kickoff and said the numbers his players would wear would not necessarily match up with their positions.

The Reds, though, are set to have two changes, with lock Ed O'Donoghue likely to make his starting debut in place of the injured Hugh McMeniman while second five-eighth Lloyd Johansson's position is under threat.

Winger Peter Hynes has been training at No 12 but Jones would only nominate him as a contender along with Johansson and rookie Charlie Fetoai.

The Brumbies have named captain Stirling Mortlock at centre pending results of tests following his opening-round concussion suffered against the Chiefs. Winger Mark Gerrard also returns to the starting 15 in place of the injured Peter Playford.

The Blues carry encouraging form into their match against the Hurricanes, with wins over the Brumbies and Crusaders giving them a solid benchmark to maintain for the rest of the season.

The Hurricanes, by contrast, had an unconvincing win against the Chiefs last week to follow up an opening loss to the Reds, and have yet to fire.

John Mitchell's Western Force are keen to back up from a win over the Stormers with a similar result against the Bulls while the Waratahs desperately want to beat the Cheetahs to partly atone for their loss to Sharks.

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