SYDNEY, April 8 – The New South Wales Waratahs travel to Christchurch this weekend for the Super 14 feature match hoping for an improvement on their woeful record away to the Canterbury Crusaders.
The Sydneysiders lead the southern hemisphere competition on points difference from the Northern Bulls, with the seven-time champion Crusaders three points behind in third.
But the Waratahs have dreadful memories of past trips to Christchurch and have managed just one win in nine encounters at the Crusaders’ ground.
They were routed there 33-12 in 1998, smashed 34-7 in 2008, and in 2002 endured their heaviest defeat in 128 years, conceding 14 tries in an ignominious 96-19 drubbing.
And for good measure, the Waratahs have lost two tournament finals to the Crusaders in Christchurch in 2005 and 2008.
To underline the challenge facing the Waratahs on Saturday, no Australian team has won in Christchurch since 2004.
Coach Chris Hickey said his NSW team will be aiming to build on the momentum gained from the last five weeks in their final match before a bye.
"You can’t win the comp and you can’t earn a finals berth in the middle part of the season, but you can certainly lose touch if you don’t pick up points," Hickey said.
Despite the Waratahs’ awful record in Christchurch, Crusaders’ coach Todd Blackadder is treating the league leaders with respect ahead of Saturday’s clash.
"They are having a great season," Blackadder said. "They really deserve to be leading the table.
"You don’t get to number one on the ladder – almost three-quarters of the way through the competition – just by being lucky. It just doesn’t happen."
"They seem to be the master of ball retention. They’re scoring a lot of tries. They have some real good game-breakers and we have a lot of respect and are cautious of what they can do," he said.
The Bulls, whose 12-match winning run came to an end against the Blues in Auckland last weekend, have a replay of their 2009 final against the sixth-placed Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday.
The South African defending champions may have humiliated the Chiefs 61-17 in last year’s decider at home, but they have never beaten them in New Zealand in seven previous visits.
"We will go out to fix the things that went wrong for us," Bulls’ coach Frans Ludeke said. "We need to learn to keep the ball better and we have taken responsibility for what happened last week."
The Chiefs will be without All Black fullback Mils Muliaina for the rest of the season with a broken thumb.
Coach Ian Foster said the Chiefs had kept changes to the minimum despite a lengthy injury list, and were keen to keep as many combinations together as possible.
"While last week’s tough win over the Highlanders wasn’t perfect, it did have many positives, particularly around our attack," he said.
South Africa’s Western Stormers face a testing match against the eighth-placed Blues in Auckland on Saturday to keep their place in the top four.
The Stormers went down to an injury-time drop goal against the lowly Western Force last week in Perth and have won just four of their previous 13 matches against the Blues.
"There’s no need to panic – we don’t become a poor side in one week," the Stormers’ forwards coach Matt Proudfoot said.
In the weekend’s remaining games, the Otago Highlanders host the Force in Queenstown, the ACT Brumbies take on the Central Cheetahs in Canberra and the Golden Lions play the fifth-placed Queensland Reds in Johannesburg.
The Coastal Sharks and Wellington Hurricanes have a bye.