SYDNEY, May 6 – Seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders face a must-win showdown with the Super 14 front-runners Northern Bulls in Pretoria on Friday to keep alive their faint playoff hopes.It will be a tall order for the Crusaders to avoid losing their third consecutive game against the defending champions, who are bidding for their 18th straight home win.
The alarm bells were sounded for the Crusaders in last week’s 42-14 spanking by the second-placed Western Stormers in Cape Town and their predicament gets no easier against the Bulls at their Loftus Versfeld fortress.
The Crusaders are just shading the Queensland Reds on points differential for third place, but another defeat would leave them relying on other teams to lose in next week’s final round after playing in 11 of the last 12 Super rugby semi-finals.
In contrast, the Bulls will clinch a home playoff with just two points against the Crusaders.
"We’ll try and stay positive. We’re still in the hunt, we’re playing for a lot of pride and we’ll keep working hard," Crusaders’ coach Todd Blackadder said.
While the Crusaders have won four times in Pretoria, they have lost both their semi-finals against Bulls at Loftus Versfeld in 2007 and last year.
"There’s a belief in this side, and it’s not an arrogant one, that if we play to our potential we will win," Bulls’ coach Frans Ludeke said.
The Stormers, who face the Bulls in Cape Town in the final round, require five competition points to guarantee their playoff spot and could capture those against the Coastal Sharks in Durban on Saturday.
Assistant coach Matt Proudfoot has urged his Stormers to be patient against the Sharks, who prefer open, running rugby.
"The Sharks like to play out of unstructured play," Proudfoot said. "The key for us is to stay patient like we did in the first half against the Crusaders last week."
The Stormers, who last appeared in the Super rugby playoffs in 2004, trail the Sharks 7-6 in their encounters.
The injury-hit Queensland Reds attempt to preserve their top four spot against the in-form Hurricanes in Wellington on Friday.
Injuries have begun to bite into the Reds’ ranks, particularly in the forwards, and they are without three locks and tight-head prop Laurie Weeks for their crucial game with the seventh-placed Hurricanes, lining up for their fourth straight victory.
It will be a tough ask for the Reds, whose 25-16 win over the ‘Canes in the opening round of 2007 was their only win against them from the last eight meetings.
There will be plenty of emotion in the Hurricanes’ camp with ex-skipper Rodney So’oialo marking his 100th appearance and it is the farewell home game for the team’s retiring coach Colin Cooper, after more than 100 games in charge.
The New South Wales Waratahs face a must-win match against the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday and are looking to rebound from their poor 26-10 loss to the Otago Highlanders last week.
"We expect the Chiefs will play an expansive game, they are probably going to score three or four tries and if we’re going to win, we’ll have to score four or five," coach Chris Hickey said.
The Waratahs have lost their last three Super tussles with the Chiefs in Hamilton, and last beat the Waikato team in New Zealand in 2002.
The ACT Brumbies must down the Highlanders in Canberra on Saturday to stay in the playoff race.
In the other games, the Golden Lions take on the Auckland Blues in Johannesburg and the Central Cheetahs face the Western Force in Bloemfontein.