SYDNEY, April 16 – The front-running Coastal Sharks hope to bounce back from last week's shock defeat and preserve their Super 14 lead when they take on defending champions Canterbury Crusaders at home on Saturday.
The Sharks, coming off a 31-6 upset by the bottom-of-the-table Central Cheetahs, go into this weekend’s 10th round still holding a three-point lead over the Waikato Chiefs, Northern Bulls and NSW Waratahs.
But they will need a win as cushion against next week’s bye, and are facing an improving Crusaders outfit on an unbeaten four-game run.
"We’re hurting a lot after our performance against the Cheetahs. We were embarrassed by that performance," Sharks coach John Plumtree said. "We let ourselves down, we let our fans down and we let the jersey down."
The seven-time champion Crusaders will prove a tough nut to crack with the return of their inspirational skipper Richie McCaw, who has not played for more than a month with a medial ligament strain.
"Richie’s hugely influential for them and to have him back at such an important time is really crucial for the Crusaders," Plumtree said.
The Crusaders are still well placed for a shot at next month’s playoffs, five points outside the top four with five games to play.
The Sharks and Crusaders are 3-3 in Durban but the Kiwis have not won there since 2002, and the two have developed a keen rivalry.
The second-placed Chiefs meanwhile are the form team with 20 tries from their last three games, and they are bidding to set a new record for the most consecutive wins when they play the Cheetahs in Kimberley on Saturday.
The Waikato team’s current five-game streak matches runs achieved in each of the last two years, while the Cheetahs have just emerged from their worst-ever losing sequence of 12 straight dating back to April last year.
Just three points have separated the two sides across their three previous meetings, and another close tussle could be on the cards with the Chiefs coming off a bye last weekend.
The Bulls will be without their two experienced Springbok locks, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, for Friday’s encounter with the ninth-placed ACT Brumbies in Canberra.
The Pretoria outfit, who leapfrogged the Waratahs into third spot last week, had Botha suspended for three matches on a striking charge, while Matfield has returned home for the birth of his second child.
"For sure this is a big blow to us, especially with Victor out as well," coach Frans Ludeke said.
"However, we have to cope with the situation at hand and we have to back the guys who are coming in to do the job (Danie Rossouw and Wilhelm Steenkamp)."
The Bulls are into the fifth and final week of their Australasian tour, and after 13 years of Super Rugby they are still to win their final match of a tour.
Injuries have forced Brumbies coach Andy Friend to reshuffle his backline, leaving Wallaby skipper Stirling Mortlock to hand over his outside-centre position to Tyrone Smith.
Wallaby scrum-half Luke Burgess has been dumped to the bench for the Waratahs’ crunch match with the Western Force in Sydney on Saturday.
Brett Sheehan comes in for Burgess, while Timana Tahu replaces injured outside-centre Rob Horne (hamstring).
The Perth-based Force are bidding for a maiden clean sweep of their fellow Australian sides in Super 14 after commanding wins over the Brumbies and Queensland Reds.
The sixth-placed Auckland Blues take on fellow New Zealanders Otago Highlanders at home on Friday.
On Saturday the fifth-placed Hurricanes host South Africa’s Western Stormers, while Queensland Reds play the Golden Lions in Brisbane.