Super 14 - Round 12
Stormers host Crusaders as finals loom
April 29, 2010

The top four picture refuses to become any clearer with three rounds of Super 14 action remaining before finals time. Two of the big boys meet in South Africa while it's the last chance for the chasing pack to keep themselves in with a mathematical chance of making the finals.

The Bulls should make it safely to the play-offs with their run of games on home soil but the other three could easily drop out if they switch off for a moment as this frantic and enthralling season draws towards its climax. Competition surprise packets the Reds continue their fairytale season in our Game of the Week against the Brumbies on Saturday.

Second meets third when the Stormers host the Crusaders in Cape Town on Friday with both teams looking to bounce back from last-start losses. The match will be Crusaders captain Richie McCaw's 100th in Super Rugby. The Stormers fell to the in-form Reds in Brisbane last week while the Crusaders suffered a shock loss on Australian soil to the improving Force. Both teams sit level with the Reds on 34 points and with the Waratahs poised on 33, whoever fails to deliver in this match could have their finals fate taken out of their own hands for the last two matches.

Stormers coach Allister Coetzee has kept the faith with the line-up that lost by three points to the Reds, with JD Moller coming in for injured prop JC Kritzinger in the only change. The Stormers have beaten the other four New Zealand sides this season and will be hoping that last week's defeat was a mere aberration in an otherwise superb season. A clean sweep of New Zealand sides would be a first for a South African franchise.

The Crusaders have rushed Corey Flynn into their starting XV after the hooker recovered from a cracked ankle bone. Ti'i Paulo drops to the bench. Todd Blackadder continues to shuffle the rest of his deck with Wyatt Crockett and George Whitelock coming into the starting pack for Ben Franks and Thomas Waldrom, while Colin Slade starts at fullback, shifting Sean Maitland out to the wing.

Earlier on Friday, the Waratahs will try to keep the pressure on the three teams just ahead of them on a difficult trip to Invercargill to meet the Highlanders. The Waratahs have been there or thereabouts all season but they need to step their game up to the next level if they want to reach and then make an impression in the finals. The Highlanders have suffered some narrow losses in their eight reversals this campaign and will gladly spoil the Waratahs' top four ambitions if the Australians bring so much as a hint of complacency to New Zealand's deep south.

The Highlanders will have to do without star man Michael Hobbs (hand) as well as Tom Donnelly (ankle) and Jamie Mackintosh (foot) due to injuries. Fullback Israel Dagg is the seventh highest points scorer this season, showing his team can pose a threat if they keep things tight on their own line. The Waratahs edged out their fierce rivals, the Brumbies, last week and they now welcome back star hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau, who has been one of the form forwards of the competition. Polota-Nau is joined in the front row by Dan Palmer, in for injured prop Sekope Kepu.

There's a New Zealand derby on Saturday when the in-form Hurricanes host the Chiefs. Back-to-back wins have helped the 'Canes move up to seventh after a four-match losing streak derailed their season. The Chiefs have failed to achieve consistency and find themselves in tenth place at the bottom of the mid-table backlog. Even the Chiefs still have a mathematical chance of making the play-offs, such has been the close nature of the 2010 competition, but realistically, it's pride and reputations on the line for both teams.

The Hurricanes are sticking with the same XV that edged the Highlanders last week, but the Chiefs are facing some injuries to key players. Sitiveni Sivivatu needs shoulder surgery and will miss the rest of the season, while No.10-No.12 combination Stephen Donald and Mike Delany are both sidelined. Sione Lauaki misses out with a bruised arm after crashing his car through a fence after last week's match. Jason Hona starts on the wing for his run-on debut and Callum Bruce has been handed the fly-half duties. Sona Taumalolo comes in at prop in the other change.

The erratic Blues travel to face the Cheetahs also with a mathematical but unlikely hope of making a post-season appearance. The Blues have five wins and five losses this season, and it's anyone's guess which team will show up to face the lowly Cheetahs, who managed to hold the Chiefs to a draw last week after copping a string of hammerings.

The Cheetahs have a fairly settled side with their stars Juan Smith and Meyer Bosman intact. Frans Viljoen comes in at No.8 and Bjorn Basson starts on the wing in the only changes. The Blues have some baby-related absences, with key backs and expectant fathers Luke McAlister and Rudi Wulf returning to Auckland. Heading in the other direction are lock Anthony Boric and back George Pisi. Powerhouse centre Rene Ranger, who was unstoppable in the middle part of the season, could be in line for a starting berth after falling out of favour with Pat Lam in recent weeks.

Two cellar-dwellers clash at Ellis Park when the Lions host the Force. Rock-bottom Lions have lost every match this season but they've put in more than enough blood and sweat to deserve at least one triumph and they'll be eyeing this as the perfect opportunity to avoid a winless campaign. But the Force are now one of the form teams of the competition, with three wins in their last four. Since having the likes of David Pocock, Matt Hodgson and David Hill on the park together, the Force have looked more contenders than pretenders, but they simply left their run too late this year.

The Force head off for their season-ending tour of South Africa on the back of a stirring win over the Crusaders in Perth, but without the services of starlet James O'Connor. Scott Staniforth is expected to return from injury to take his place on the wing, shifting Cameron Shepherd to fullback.

The Bulls powered back into the outright lead at the top of the table after dismantling the Lions in the second half last week. They'll be desperate to get all the points when they host the Sharks in the last game of the round on Saturday, as tough battles with the Crusaders and Stormers follow. A top two spot is rewarded by a home semi-final and that's just about up for grabs for the Bulls this week. The Sharks have had an incredible season though with five straight wins cancelling out their opening five losses. The Bulls will provide a tougher test than they've faced in recent weeks.

The already imposing Bulls have been bolstered by five changes to their starting XV. Jacques-Louis Potgieter and Bakkies Botha are in line for their first starts of the season, while Fourie du Preez, Deon Stegmann and Francois Hougaard all return to the side. In a tragic blow for Springbok wing Akona Ndungane, he re-broke his leg in training after being pencilled in to make his return from the initial injury last year. For the Sharks, JP Pietersen is out for the rest of the season through injury, with his place in the side going to debutant Lwazi Mvovo. Ryan Kankowski failed a late fitness test on his thumb and misses out, allowing Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel and Jacques Botes to continue in the back-row. In a midfield change, Riaan Swanepoel replaces Andries Strauss.


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