The Wellington Hurricanes have dropped six players to the bench, including Piri Weepu, the New Zealand scrum-half, for today's starting line-up to face the Pretoria Bulls in a bid to halt the Super 14 champions' rampant start to the campaign. The Bulls are unbeaten after the first five rounds of matches and sit top of the table, a point ahead of fellow South African club the Cape Town Stormers and two in front of the Canterbury Crusaders, who both play tomorrow.
Victor Matfield, the Bulls captain, will have added motivation when he runs out in Pretoria as he chalks up his 100th Super appearance. The Bulls' free-flowing style has seen them score an incredible 199 points in their first four games, more than any other side having also sat out one round with a bye. However, their attacking verve has also left them vulnerable at the back and the 139 points they have conceded is an area Colin Cooper, the Hurricanes coach, is looking to exploit. Cooper said he is banking on a late surge from his reserve players, led by Weepu in the same impact role he fills so successfully for the All Blacks, to bring down the Bulls.
"We have the experience of Piri coming on late in the game. You can take out of that what you think," Cooper said. "I guess you've got to send messages and hopefully we'll get good results from the guys who come off the bench." The Hurricanes, who were victorious in their first three games of the season - all at home in New Zealand - have had a woeful time on their away trips to South Africa, losing to both the Free State Cheetahs and Stormers.
The Bulls are playing their fourth consecutive home game before trips to Australia and New Zealand, and coach Frans Ludeke knows they must address their defensive problems. "We take responsibility for it, it is not good enough and we have spoken about it," said Ludeke. "I am convinced there will be a big improvement this Friday." The weekend opens with the Auckland Blues taking on the fifth-placed CA Brumbies, who have won four from five so far.
"They've got some experienced players there in Rocky Elsom and Matt Giteau, and then they've got the younger guys around them so those guys are guiding them around and doing what they have to do to win these games," said Pat Lam, the Blues coach. "They're on a good run at the moment so we've certainly got our work cut out this week." The Blues have lost two of their four games but have home advantage and are coming off the bye which has allowed Isaia Toeava, the full-back, to recover from injury and return to the starting XV.
Keven Mealamu, the All Blacks hooker, will become the first Blues player to appear in 100 Super matches when he takes to the field. "The Blues are a team that's special to him, he's born and bred here and he's the leader because he leads by example," said Lam of his centurion. "I think this year he's really grown in his captaincy and his leadership of the team and I'm sure the boys will want to have a good one for him. More importantly I know that Kevvie will want to have a big one in this game."
* With agencies
See the Blues v Brumbies, 10.35am, on Showsports 2
Watch the Bulls take on the Hurricanes, 9.10pm, also live on Showsports 2