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Reds are braced for 'final exam'

Queensland Reds, the surprise package, are looking to add the Western Stormers to their list of prizes this season when they meet in a top-four clash today.

Queensland Reds, the surprise package, are looking to add the Western Stormers to their list of prizes this season when they meet in a top-four clash today. The Reds have already taken down the top two sides, Canterbury Crusaders and Pretoria Bulls, and have the chance to make it a treble against the third-placed Stormers in the match-up in Brisbane.

The once-maligned Reds have been lavished with praise since their pulsating 19-12 victory over the Bulls at home last week, a victory that dislodged the champions from the top of the southern hemisphere provincial championship table. Queensland, rejuvenated under the coaching of Ewen McKenzie, have broken into the top four for the first time since 2001 and begin a difficult run into the play-offs with matches to come against the CA Brumbies, Wellington Hurricanes and Otago Highlanders.

The in-form Stormers, who have conquered the Auckland Blues and Waikato Chiefs in New Zealand in recent weeks, have won six consecutive games against the Reds, with Queensland's last win coming in Cape Town in 2003. "This is the fifth South African side we'll have faced in as many weeks and each of their last four had particular strengths," McKenzie said. "The Stormers combine elements of all four of those, so [today] is a bit like a final exam for all the work we've done over the past four weekends."

The Stormers are expecting the unexpected against the attacking Reds, who are a different proposition from the previous six under-achieving seasons. "They are always trying funny things, like all Australian teams," said Matt Proudfoot, the Stormers' forwards coach. "We saw in the Bulls game that they also look to mix it up in the lineouts. Their physicality and desire has impressed me." The Crusaders, the seven-time champions, are in Perth to take on third-from-bottom Western Force today on their way to South Africa for two testing games against the Stormers and Bulls.

The All Black trio of Daniel Carter, Brad Thorn and Kieran Read are back to bolster the Canterbury-based side, but they will be wary about the Force, who have twice battled out 23-23 draws in their five meetings. Although it has been a disappointing season for the Force, they have always found something extra for the Crusaders in Perth and it is a match Todd Blackadder's men must win before their tough South African leg. The second-placed Bulls have the best current home winning record of 16 consecutive matches in Pretoria and will be looking to stretch that against Golden Lions, the bottom club, tomorrow.

A fierce Australian derby is in prospect with the fifth-placed New South Wales Waratahs against the sixth-placed Brumbies in Sydney tomorrow. In the weekend's remaining games, the Chiefs host the Free State Cheetahs, the Highlanders take on the Hurricanes in Dunedin and the Natal Sharks have home advantage against Auckland in Durban. * AFP

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