SYDNEY, March 3 – Seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders make an emotional return to the Super 15 on Friday vying to end the NSW Waratahs' unbeaten season start and bring back some normality to quake-hit Christchurch.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders cancelled last week’s game against the Wellington Hurricanes and declared it a draw out of respect for those killed in the 6.3-magnitude earthquake on February 22.
The Crusaders have shifted Friday’s match against the Waratahs to Nelson and have taken counselling as they attempt to alleviate the psychological burden of Christchurch’s destructive earthquake.
"Going into this game you’re not going to need to add much motivation for the guys," stand-in captain Kieran Read said.
"It’s all going to be there for them. I’m not going to have to say too much, the boys know what they have to do and they are definitely going to be up for the game."
The Crusaders’ campaign for a record eighth Super rugby crown has had a rocky start amid the quake’s upheaval following their opening defeat to the Auckland Blues.
The Sydney-based Waratahs have been the form team so far with bonus points from a 43-0 thumping of debutants Melbourne Rebels followed by a 30-6 hammering of the Queensland Reds.
But the Waratahs have a poor record against the Crusaders and have not beaten them in eight encounters since their last win in 2004.
Given the raw passion the Crusaders will take into the match and with Berrick Barnes out and skipper Phil Waugh playing injured, the Waratahs are in for a mighty battle against an All Blacks-stacked side.
"You’d like to get away to great starts every week but it’s a different opposition this week and it’s a big challenge against them," coach Chris Hickey said.
While the Crusaders’ match takes top billing in this weekend’s third round of matches, either three-time winners Northern Bulls or New Zealand’s Otago Highlanders will lose their unbeaten status in Pretoria on Saturday.
The Highlanders, buoyed by consecutive wins over the Hurricanes and the Waikato Chiefs, return to Loftus Versfeld where last year they were hammered 50-35 by the defending champions.
"The Bulls are a pretty pumped up unit at home," centre Kendrick Lynn said. "They get pretty hyped and so do their fans. It can be pretty daunting.
"The atmosphere can be pretty hostile but sometimes, even if the crowd is against you, it can pump you up as well."
Lock Danie Rossouw will replace the injured Bakkies Botha for the Bulls, who have scraped home against the Golden Lions and Central Cheetahs in their opening two games.
Unbeaten Western Stormers will be without injured Springboks Schalk Burger and Jaque Fourie with knee injuries for Saturday’s South African derby against the Cheetahs in Cape Town, while fly-half Peter Grant will replace Gary van Aswegen.
Two-time winners ACT Brumbies have had plenty of drama ahead of Saturday’s Australian derby against the Reds in Canberra with this week’s shock axing of coach Andy Friend after just two games.
Friend was replaced by assistant coach Tony Rea and his dismissal followed the Brumbies’ disappointing one-point loss to the Melbourne Rebels after a scratchy opening-round win against the Chiefs.
Queensland are also counting the cost of their last round thrashing from the Waratahs.
The Reds are without Peter Hynes and captain James Horwill with injuries while Wallaby scrumhalf Will Genia is expecting to face a fired-up Brumbies’ team.
"They were obviously disappointed from having lost to Melbourne and then losing their coach doesn’t really help. They’ll come out ready to play," Genia said.
"(But) we are in trouble ourselves here a little bit."
In this weekend’s other games, the Lions face the Auckland Blues in Johannesburg, the Chiefs take on the Rebels in Hamilton and Western Force host the unbeaten Coastal Sharks in Perth. The Hurricanes have the bye.