SYDNEY, April 15- The rejuvenated Queensland Reds face a stern test of their playoff credentials when they take on defending Super 14 champions Northern Bulls in Brisbane on Saturday.The Reds have been a transformed outfit under former NSW Waratahs and Stade Francais coach Ewen McKenzie this season after wallowing in the bottom three for the last six southern hemisphere provincial campaigns.
Queensland this season have climbed to fifth spot, two points out of the playoff zone, and are facing their moment of truth against the South Africans at home this weekend.
McKenzie is banking on the Reds’ unpredictability and a refusal to be intimidated by the Bulls’ forwards as the keys to destabilising the tournament leaders.
"We think we have a game that might challenge the Bulls and stretch them," McKenzie said.
"We don’t play the same way as them, so hopefully there’s a few things they will have to deal with, as we have played with a fair bit of variety this season. We certainly won’t be predictable against the Bulls."
Much of the Reds’ virtuosity revolves around their Wallaby combination of flyhalf Quade Cooper and scrum-half Will Genia.
Cooper, who faces a court appearance in July on burglary charges, is no longer the ill-disciplined player he was in the past, according to Genia.
"Why has he gone up another level this season? He has matured as a person," Genia said. "He has learned how to control a game for the full 80 minutes and he has become more of a leader amongst the side."
The Bulls, who have banked nine points from their three Australasian tour games, are going to have to make history if they are to sign off from the current trip with a win.
In 14 years of Super series rugby the Pretoria-based Bulls have not won the final match of a tour.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke has warned his players they will have to intensify their efforts when they face up to the Reds.
The Bulls have had an extra day’s rest since their win over the Waikato Chiefs last Friday, while the Reds only arrived back home late on Monday from their trip to South Africa.
The second-placed Canterbury Crusaders host the 13th-placed Central Cheetahs on Saturday and are look set to continue their push for next month’s playoffs.
The Crusaders have not lost in Christchurch to a South African side since 1996 and captain Richie McCaw is back in his favoured number seven jersey in one of seven team changes.
The third-placed Waratahs have this weekend off along with the Otago Highlanders while South Africa’s Western Stormers get their chance to consolidate their top four place against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday.
Coach Allister Coetzee has gone for continuity with his Stormers, making only one change to the squad that swept aside the Blues in Auckland last weekend.
"It’s essential that we build on our game from last week, where we showed we could compete physically, and that our attitude is right," Coetzee said.
The Chiefs’ season is unravelling after winning their opening three games and they face the prospect of suffering a fourth defeat at home this season.
Two-time champions ACT Brumbies must beat the Wellington Hurricanes in Canberra on Friday to maintain their playoff push with Wallaby Matt Giteau shifted back to flyhalf.
In the weekend’s other games, the Auckland Blues are at home to Western Force and the Golden Lions have a South African derby with the Coastal Sharks in Johannesburg.