Canterbury, the seven-time champions face a must-win showdown with the Pretoria Bulls, the Super 14 front-runners, in Pretoria today to keep alive their faint play-off 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 successive home victory.
The alarm bells were sounded for Richie McCaw's men in last week's 42-14 thrashing 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 difference for third place, but another defeat would leave them relying on other teams losing 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 play-off 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," Todd Blackadder, the Crusaders coach, said. While the Crusaders have won four times in Pretoria, they have lost both their semi-finals against the 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," said Frans Ludeke, the Bulls coach. The Stormers, who face the Bulls in Cape Town in the final round, require five competition points to guarantee their play-off spot and could capture those against the Natal Sharks when they meet in Durban tomorrow. Matt Proudfoot, their assistant coach, has urged the 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 play-offs 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 today.
Injuries have begun to bite into the Reds' ranks, particularly in the forwards, and they are without three locks and Laurie Weeks, the tight-head prop, for their game with the seventh-placed Hurricanes looking for their fourth victory in a row. There will be plenty of emotion in the Hurricanes camp with Rodney So'Oialo, their former captain, marking his 100th appearance and it is the farewell home game for Colin Cooper, the team's retiring coach, after more than 100 games in charge.
The New South Wales Waratahs face a must-win match against the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton tomorrow and are looking to rebound from their poor 26-10 defeat 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," Chris Hickey, their coach, 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 Otago Highlanders in Canberra tomorrow to stay in the race for the play-offs. In the other games, the Golden Lions take on the Auckland Blues in Johannesburg and the Free State Cheetahs face the Western Force in Bloemfontein.