Crusaders in eye of the storm


SYDNEY, April 29- The pressure is on seven-time Super rugby champions Canterbury Crusaders as they head into their crucial Super 14 match with the Western Stormers in Cape Town on Friday.After their shock loss to the Western Force in Perth last week, the Crusaders face the second-placed Stormers and front-running Northern Bulls back-to-back in what could decide their playoff chances.

The third-placed Crusaders are the most successful team in the southern hemisphere provincial series and are bidding to make the finals for the 12th time in 13 seasons.

The Crusaders have a winning record in South Africa, with 17 wins and 15 losses, but they are catching the Stormers, chasing their fifth win from six matches at Newlands this year.

If Richie McCaw’s men cannot beat the Stormers they then face the daunting prospect of a must-win game against the Bulls at their Loftus Versfeld fortress the following weekend.

"We have to treat it as if our whole season revolves around this game," McCaw said.

Coach Todd Blackadder agreed: "Everything is on the line and there will be a little air of desperation.

"We’ve got a really good side, we know we’ve got men of character, and it’s just a rugby thing. We’re not out of it by any means. Our destiny is still in our hands."

The Stormers, who have never reached the Super rugby playoffs, could become the first South African franchise to complete a clean sweep of victories over New Zealand opposition.

They have already defeated the Hurricanes and the Highlanders at home and won away against the Chiefs and the Blues.

The Stormers know they will be in for a huge test against the Kiwis.

"Scrumming-wise, this is definitely going to be the biggest test for our pack," forwards coach Matt Proudfoot said.

Springbok lock Bakkies Botha will make his first appearance this year for the Bulls in Saturday’s match against the Coastal Sharks in Pretoria.

"It’s good to have Bakkies back," said coach Frans Ludeke. "It is also great to have four locks of the calibre of Bakkies, Victor (Matfield), Danie (Rossouw) and Flip (van der Merwe)."

The Sharks were the last visiting South African side to win at Loftus Versfeld two years ago, but the Bulls are now undefeated in 16 matches at home against all-comers.

The Queensland Reds take the momentum of three consecutive wins to Canberra for another important test against the two-time champion ACT Brumbies on Saturday.

To preserve their top-four place the Reds must end a run of outs against the sixth-placed Brumbies.

Queensland have won just one of their previous 15 matches against the Brumbies and have not beaten them since a 19-18 win in Brisbane in 1999.

But the Reds have been the surprises of this year’s Super 14, beating the top three teams and playing with a flair that has brought back the crowds who stayed away when they were in the bottom three for the last six seasons.

The Brumbies have disappointed this season, despite recruiting Wallabies Matt Giteau and Rocky Elsom, and must beat the Reds to stay alive for next month’s playoffs.

The fourth-placed New South Wales Waratahs face an awkward trip to Invercargill, at the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, for Friday’s match against the Otago Highlanders.

In this weekend’s other games, the Wellington Hurricanes host the Waikato Chiefs, the Central Cheetahs play the Auckland Blues in Bloemfontein and the Golden Lions take on the Western Force in Johannesburg.