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The Western Stormers square off against the Golden Lions in a blockbuster South African derby while Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett sets a match record in Super Rugby this weekend.
The Canterbury Crusaders and Stormers are the only unbeaten sides remaining going into round eight of the competition, which next year will revert to a 15-team format from its current 18.
The fallout from governing body SANZAAR’s announcement to axe three teams — two from South Africa and one from Australia — has dominated the past week.
Threatened franchise Western Force have launched legal action against Australian rugby chiefs.
Seven-times champion Crusaders ease back into the fray following a bye by hosting the Sunwolves who won their first match of the season last week.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read is back for his first outing of the season having recovered from wrist surgery.
And the match will be a significant milestone for fellow All Black Crockett as he makes a record 176th appearance in Super Rugby.
The 34-year-old will overtake former All Black Keven Mealamu’s record of 175.
SANZAAR chief Andy Marinos described Crockett’s record as “a tremendous achievement for a player who is at the coal face of one of the hardest and most competitive rugby competitions in the world”.
The Crusaders feel comfortable enough to make a raft of changes to the side that beat the Waratahs a fortnight ago. Just five players of their 23 remain in the same position
In the showdown between the top two South African sides, the Stormers are brimming with confidence after inflicting the first loss of the season on the Waikato Chiefs last week while the Lions are coming off a bye.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann believes the week off came at the right time as it allowed several key players including Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruan Ackermann, and Elton Jantjies to get over niggling injuries.
The Stormers “are the team to beat in South Africa and it’s going to take something special to get the better of them at Newlands,” Ackermann said.
“They’re playing an exciting brand of rugby and their skill levels are extremely high so it’s going to be a huge challenge going there.”
The Stormers, though, have injury woes after the punishing outing against the Chiefs with flanker Cobus Wiese and locks Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth unable to train early in the week.
They are also in a tough sequence of matches with home games against the Chiefs and Lions to be followed by a trip to New Zealand to face the Crusaders, Otago Highlanders and Wellington Hurricanes.
The Chiefs, looking to get their season back on track, are in Bloemfontein to face a Central Cheetahs side desperate to prove they deserve to survive the Super Rugby culling process.
“These are challenging and uncertain times,” the Cheetahs said in a statement this week.
“We strongly believe that through an honest and fair process we stand a strong chance of retaining our Super Rugby status.”
The defending champion Wellington Hurricanes are in Auckland to face a Blues side which has Sonny Bill Williams starting in a new unique jersey which does not feature the logo of team sponsor Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) to conform with his Muslim beliefs.
But Williams has agreed to wear, instead, the logo of child health service Plunket whose principal sponsor is the BNZ.
In the remaining matches, top Australian side ACT Brumbies play the struggling Melbourne Rebels, who along with Western Force are under threat of being kicked out of the 2018 competition.
Elsewhere, the Queensland Reds are at home to the Southern Kings and the Northern Bulls return to South Africa after an unsuccessful road trip to host the Jaguares.
The Waikato Chiefs have been told to get their act together for their Super Rugby clash with the Northern Bulls after an unconvincing win over the struggling Melbourne Rebels.
Coach Dave Rennie read the riot act to the two-time champions after they needed a late burst to overcome Australia’s bottom-placed team in their last outing.
“There were some carefully chosen words,” Rennie said, after showing his players images from the Rebels match. “When the guys looked at it, they were pretty embarrassed.”
The Chiefs return from a bye with a record of four wins out of four games so far to lie second in the New Zealand conference behind the Canterbury Crusaders.
The Crusaders will also need to improve after being sent to scrum school following a series of collapses in their recent wins against the Queensland Reds and Western Force.
Despite having a pack bulging with All Blacks, the seven-time champions have been put through a refresher course in scrum techniques ahead of their game against the NSW Waratahs in Sydney.
“We want it to be a contest, and we don’t want re-sets like that,” said assistant forwards coach Jason Ryan.
The Wellington Hurricanes will need to contend with the after-effects of Cyclone Debbie as they take on the Queensland Reds in storm-soaked Brisbane.
As well as the severe weather, the Hurricanes will also have to cope with the loss of captain and All Blacks hooker Dane Coles, who is nursing an injured knee.
Meanwhile the Western Stormers revealed an unusual approach to training ahead of their game against the unfancied Central Cheetahs.
While the Cheetahs may not pose formidable opposition, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck is taking a long-term view and preparing his side as if facing a New Zealand franchise.
A quirk of the draw meant the Stormers did not play a New Zealand side last year until the quarter-finals when thrashed 60-21 by the Chiefs.
They play all five New Zealand teams this year, starting with the Chiefs next weekend, and flyhalf Robert du Preez said preparations were already under way.
“Our training has changed a lot,” Du Preez said. “Every Thursday we do what we call a ‘Kiwi Day’ just to prepare for them because we knew that they pose a different threat.
“We go hard at each other on Thursdays.”
In the congested Africa 2 conference, the Golden Lions play the Coastal Sharks with both sides having one loss from five outings so far.
Argentina’s Jaguares, with a similar record, have a bye and will drop down the ladder as a result.
In Australia, the ACT Brumbies also have a bye leaving the way open for the Waratahs and the Reds to challenge them for the top spot.
The remaining two matches see the Otago Highlanders play the Rebels in Dunedin on Friday, while the Auckland Blues host the Western Force on Saturday.
New Zealand’s Canterbury Crusaders won their fifth-straight game to be one of only three unbeaten teams in this season’s Super Rugby as Argentina’s Jaguares won again this weekend.
The seven-time champion Crusaders whipped the hapless Western Force of Australia 45-17 to stake their claim for this year’s southern hemisphere provincial crown.
Fellow Kiwis Waikato Chiefs and South Africa’s Western Stormers are also yet to lose with the Stormers denying Japan’s Sunwolves 44-31 in Singapore while the Chiefs had a bye.
Across in Buenos Aires the Jaguares won for the fourth time this season, downing Australia’s Queensland Reds 22-8 to lie just one point off the lead held by the Golden Lions in the Africa 2 conference.
The Lions overpowered the endangered Southern Kings 42-19 in an all-South African derby in Port Elizabeth, while the Coastal Sharks won a high-scoring derby 38-30 over the Central Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
There was little joy for the beleaguered Australian hopes with the ACT Brumbies succumbing to an 18-13 loss at home to New Zealand’s Otago Highlanders, while the NSW Waratahs won a thrilling derby with a last-minute try 32-25 over the Rebels in Melbourne.
In the remaining game, the Blues downed South Africa’s Northern Bulls 38-14 in Auckland, while the defending champions Wellington Hurricanes had a bye.
The Crusaders posted seven tries to two and kept the Force scoreless in the second half to make it five wins from five this season.
It was a lopsided defeat the Force could have done without amid speculation the Perth club faces the axe as governing body SANZAAR look to revamp the dysfunctional competition.
The Stormers survived an audacious challenge from the struggling Sunwolves to maintain their unbeaten start, winning a 10-try thriller at Singapore’s national stadium.
Trailing for most of what was a high-paced, free-flowing match after being caught out by the Sunwolves’ innovative attack, the South Africans needed all their extra big-match experience to wear down the tournament newcomers, who faded badly in the last quarter of the match.
“The Sunwolves are a smart side and they’re very well coached,” Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said.
“We knew it was going to be tough but they still surprised us with some of the things they did, especially when they kicked in behind us.”
The Jaguares fortunes continue to improve this season with a side-stepping try by winger Ramiro Moyano the highlight of a bruising battle with the Reds.
Democratic Republic of Congo-born Madosh Tambwe scored his first Super Rugby tries as the Lions pounded the Southern Kings.
Tambwe took just four minutes to score, intercepting a pass before collecting a pass on the tryline to dot down for his second try.
Teenager Curwin Bosch proved an outstanding back-up for injured skipper Patrick Lambie, kicking 18 points in the Sharks win over the Cheetahs.
The 19-year-old fly-half slotted four penalties and three conversions from eight attempts and was voted man of the match as the Sharks made it four straight wins since losing the opening game of the season.
Centre David Horwitz scored a try in the final minute to cap a second-half fightback to give the Waratahs a thrilling win over the Rebels.
The Waratahs trailed 25-6 at half-time but squeezed home on the back of four second-half tries to deny the Rebels a prized victory over their better-resourced Australian rivals.
The Highlanders returned to the ground where they knocked the Brumbies out of last season’s quarter-finals to overturn a 10-5 half-time deficit.
Otago’s victory extended Australian teams’ misery against Kiwi opposition this season with New Zealand boasting a 7-0 winning record so far this year.
A second half revival sparked by two Matt Duffie tries gave the Blues a comfortable win over the Bulls.
The Wellington Hurricanes thrashed the Canterbury Crusaders 35-10 to go top of the Super Rugby ladder in Christchurch on Saturday.
The five-tries-to-one victory left the Hurricanes with an anxious wait until the end of the Waikato Chiefs and Otago Highlanders match later on Saturday, to determine their play-off fate.
In the high-stakes encounter, with extreme risk-taking in search of reward, the Hurricanes turned a perceived midfield weakness into a strength with Jason Woodward and Willis Halaholo scoring two of their of five tries.
Replacement flanker Callum Gibbins then put them into bonus point territory with ten minutes remaining.
But while the victory elevated the Hurricanes to the top, they could still be overtaken by the Chiefs and Highlanders, as well as South Africa’s Golden Lions, who still have to play the Jaguares.
The top four New Zealand teams went into the final round with a chance to head the conference and secure the one guaranteed home quarter-final spot, while they other three are destined to travel overseas.
Before the match, both sides were forced into late replacements.
The Crusaders lost Sam Whitelock and Andy Ellis during the warm-up, while the Hurricanes had to rush Woodward onto the field at outside centre.
He replaced Ngani Laumape who was already an injury replacement for Matt Proctor.
It was Woodward who scored the opening try, running off a Beauden Barrett pass to finish off a sustained attack on the Crusaders line.
A Richie Mo’unga penalty eventually put the home side on the board and he also converted a Ryan Crotty try for the Crusaders to lead 10-7.
But on the stroke of half-time, scrum-half TJ Perenara charged down a clearing kick by his opposite Mitchell Drummond to regain the lead for the Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes held a slender 14-10 at half-time and Halaholo, who has struggled for game time, proved the game-breaker 15 minutes into the second half.
In a rare opportunity as a starting player to replace the injured Vince Aso, Halaholo bumped off an ineffectual tackle attempt by Crotty to score under the posts.
Barrett landed the conversion to give the Hurricanes a 10-point buffer and they followed with tries to Gibbins.
That gave them the bonus-point three-try advantage before Barrett put the icing on the cake with a try at the end.
The Canterbury Crusaders maintained their Super Rugby challenge with a dominant display over the Queensland Reds on Friday, fuelled by a hat-trick from winger Jone Macilai-Tori.
The seven-time champions prevailed 38-5 in a six-try-to-one bonus-point display for their eighth straight win in the southern hemisphere competition.
Try-machine Waisake Naholo’s suspension proved no hinderance as another Fijian winger, Macilai-Tori, stepped up with a three-try effort.
He had two in the first eight minutes and Crusaders skipper Kieran Read said it set up the win.
“It certainly does help when you have a start like that,” he said.
The result was the Crusaders fifth straight victory over the Reds since the Queenslanders defeated them in the Super Rugby final in 2011.
Macilai-Tori scored his first try from an overlap after four minutes, then latched onto the end of a slick assist from the base of a scrum for his second.
Scott Barrett crossed for the Crusaders third after pressure from a lineout drive in the 33rd minute to make it 21-0 after the conversion.
Macilai-Tori then completed his hat-trick just after the restart, running onto free space into the corner for his third.
He had another disallowed for a double movement but Jordan Taufua and Codie Taylor completed the rout.
Waisake Naholo bagged a double on his return to Super Rugby as the Otago Highlanders downed the Waikato Chiefs 26-13, allowing the Canterbury Crusaders to takeover the competition leadership.
Naholo, the top try-scorer last year but out of action this season since he suffered a leg injury in the opening round, touched down twice in the second half as the defending champions confirmed they are again serious contenders.
The Crusaders, courtesy of their 38-5 win over the Queensland Reds on Friday, lead the competition on points differential over the Chiefs and have a game in hand.
The Highlanders, who face the Crusaders next weekend, have lost three of 10 games but lie just five points behind the leaders and captain Ben Smith said the return of Naholo had brought a new energy to the side.
“He’s had that presence during the week at training and the boys get excited when they see the ball in his hands. It’s great to have him back,” Smith said.
The Chiefs had been the competition pacesetters although their early season cohesion has deserted them in recent weeks with narrow wins over the Auckland Blues, Wellington Hurricanes and Coastal Sharks.
“For one reason or another the passes weren’t sticking. We have to be better, it’s disappointing,” Chiefs captain Sam Cane said.
The Chiefs set out with a game plan to run the Highlanders off the park but instead let themselves down with repeated handling errors and were forced to resort to a kicking game for territory.
They had first points on the board with a close range Aaron Cruden penalty but although they dominated possession for most of the first half they were held back from the line by a watertight Highlanders defence.
The southerners, however, made the most of their rare forays into Chiefs territory and turned with a 13-3 lead.
Lima Sopoaga landed two penalties and prop Daniel Lienert-Brown scampered 22 metres for the opening try.
Naholo scored his first try, finishing off a break by fellow Fijian wing Patrick Osborne early in the second half when the Chiefs were down to 14 men with Charlie Ngatai in the sin-bin for a tip tackle.
Ngatai returned to the field to make amends by setting Cruden away for a try in the corner as the Chiefs reduced the gap to 18-8.
But Naholo put the outcome beyond doubt with his second try in the right-hand corner after almost the entire Highlanders side featured in a lengthy build up.
Sopoaga missed the conversion but landed a second penalty before Sam Vaka scored a consolation try for the Chiefs on full-time.
Nemani Nadolo scored two tries as the Canterbury Crusaders ended an era with a 37-24 victory over the ACT Brumbies that ensured the Canberra-based side will need to go on the road throughout the playoffs if they are to win their third title.
The Crusaders won four of their last five games but missed out on the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
The match in Canberra was the last appearance for flyhalf Dan Carter, who is going to play in France after this year’s World Cup, while Richie McCaw is expected to retire at the conclusion of the global tournament.
Carter slotted 17 points with the boot, while flanker Matt Todd became the first forward to score a try in five successive games in Super Rugby to help the Crusaders to a 21-10 halftime lead.
The Brumbies scored all three of their tries from rolling mauls with flankers David Pocock, who left the game late in the first half with concussion, and Jarrad Butler smashing over, while they were also awarded a penalty try despite Butler having the ball under control and crashing over.
Christian Lealiifano slotted three conversions and a penalty for the Brumbies, who had got back to 27-24 with 15 minutes remaining.
Referee Jaco Peyper, however, then gave the Crusaders a penalty try after they got their own rolling maul working with seven minutes remaining.
The Canterbury Crusaders thrashed the Queensland Reds 58-17 in Christchurch on Friday to give legends Richie McCaw and Dan Carter a triumphant home farewell.
The seven-time champion Crusaders posted an emphatic eight tries to two victory, keeping their slim play-off chances alive.
While winger Nemani Nadolo was the star of the show — scoring two tries and setting up two more — captain Kieran Read said the performance was about giving Carter and McCaw a fitting farewell in Christchurch.
“Those guys have done an awful lot for this team and it showed with the crowd getting behind us,” he said.
Carter, the top points scorer in international rugby, will transfer to French club Racing Metro after this year’s World Cup.
Meanwhile, All Blacks captain McCaw has indicated he intends to retire after the tournament. The Crusaders’ last home appearance of the season is therefore almost certainly their final Super 15 match in Christchurch.
The Crusaders have not missed out on the play-offs since 2001 and the bonus-point win gives them some hope of maintaining the record.
But the Reds, who defeated the Crusaders to win the 2011 Super 15 title, have won only two from 11 games and have no chance of making the top six.
The home team made a perfect start with a try to half-back Andy Ellis after just 90 seconds, set up by a rampaging run down the left wing from Nadolo.
Carter created the second 15 minutes later when he slipped through a gap in the defence and offloaded to Colin Slade, who ran from the half-way line for the try.
The Reds regrouped to apply sustained pressure and were rewarded with a try just on half-time when Samu Kerevi barged past three tacklers to narrow the gap to 15-10.
Their hard work was squandered in the first minute of the second half, when Nadolo intercepted a stray pass from Reds winger James O’Connor and took off for his first try.
His second came just over 10 minutes later as Carter helped get the ball to him on the wing and the giant Fijian then powered through two tacklers.
Lock Sam Whitelock then piled on the agony for the Reds at the restart, running 60 metres for the Crusaders’ fifth try as defenders ineffectively flailed at him.
From there the rout was confirmed, with Nadolo setting up Matt Todd for a try and Jone Macilai jinking through the defence for another.
Dominic Bird barged over to make it eight, although the Reds managed a late response through Chris Feauau-Sautia two minutes from time.
The Canterbury Crusaders snapped a two-match losing streak to beat the Auckland Blues 29-15 on Saturday, giving some hope to their faltering Super Rugby campaign.
The Crusaders chalked up their fifth win in 10 matches this season and earned a vital bonus point for scoring four tries to move into the top half table despite playing the last quarter of the match without Richie McCaw.
The All Blacks captain was taken from the field for a concussion test after a heavy head knock while tackling Auckland fullback Lolagi Visinia.
The 33-year-old McCaw has struggled to produce his best this season, triggering concerns in rugby-mad New Zealand about his place in the World Cup team.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has dismissed suggestions McCaw is losing his edge but his every move is being scrutinised with the World Cup kicking off in less than five months.
The Crusaders were already safely ahead of the Blues when McCaw left the field in Christchurch.
The seven-times Super champions raced to a 14-0 lead after scrumhalf Mitchell Drummond scored in the first minute then loose forward Jordan Taufua went over in the 16th.
The Blues, second-last in the standings with just one victory all season, cut the deficit to 17-10 at halftime when Francis Saili scored.
However, the Crusaders regained control in the second half when Tom Taylor scored two minutes after the restart and Codie Taylor secured the home team’s bonus point with a fourth touchdown.
“We definitely had to show a better performance out there,” Crusaders skipper Kieran Read said.
“It wasn’t perfect but it was certainly a step up from the last two weeks.”
(Reuters) – Form collides head on with pedigree when the New South Wales Waratahs bid for a first Super Rugby title against the seven-times champion Canterbury Crusaders in a blockbuster final at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium on Saturday.
The often rampant Waratahs ran away with the regular season standings this year having swept the board in all the offensive categories – carries, tries, metres, passes, breaks, offloads and most importantly, points.
In fullback Israel Folau they have Super Rugby’s top try scorer and in their gritty semi-final victory over the ACT Brumbies last weekend, they proved their defence was from the top drawer too.
On Saturday, in front of what is expected to be a Super Rugby record crowd in excess of 55,000, they come up against a Crusaders side who rode a poor start to the season and finished second before crushing the Sharks in their semi-final.
“They’ve earned the right to be called number one but this is what the final is all about, two teams, first and second, are going to dog it out,” Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder told reporters with some relish on Thursday.
In their 11th title-decider, history is resolutely on the side of the New Zealanders, who beat the Waratahs in both of their two previous finals in 2005 and 2008 and have not lost to the Sydney-based side for a decade.
And even in a match where players without international caps will be the exception, the names of Crusaders stalwarts Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Kieran Read – who have six IRB World Player of the Year awards between them – stand out.
But winning things the hard way is exactly what Waratahs coach Michael Cheika, who has transformed the culture of the underperforming state side in his two years at the helm, always wanted.
“We had to take on the highest seed in the final to really earn our stripes,” he said in the flush of the Brumbies victory.
“It’s going to be really difficult, I think they’ve been in a million finals and we’ll be relative debutants. But there’ll be no lack of energy going into that final.”
Cheika, who will be going for a special coaching double having led Leinster to their 2009 Heineken Cup triumph, has built a team brimming with confidence that has simply overwhelmed many sides with their attacking potency this year.
Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley have been a revelation as a halfback partnership, while the quicksilver Kurtley Beale at inside centre has played a major role in helping Folau to his 12 tries.
It is in the pack, though, that former number eight Cheika has made the biggest difference – revitalising big ball carrier Wycliff Palu, bringing in former Springbok lock Jacques Potgieter and developing young second-rower Will Skelton.
For all the second row muscle, though, the Waratahs have reached the final despite a malfunctioning line-out – a flaw that will not have gone unnoticed by a Crusaders side that prides itself on set-piece efficiency.
The Crusaders have no shortage of attacking options in their backline either with the likes of All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg and bullocking Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo, whose own try tally is just one short of Folau’s.
And for all their fine pedigree, that 2008 victory over the Waratahs in Christchurch was their last Super Rugby triumph.
Ominously for the home side, one word came up time and again when the Crusaders spoke to the media this week – hunger.