Fri, Mar 30, 2007 - Page 22 News List

Pressure on Blues, Sharks to win

AFP , WELLINGTON

The pressure is on the table-topping Auckland Blues and second-placed Coastal Sharks this weekend as they take to the road with neither guaranteed a home Super 14 rugby semi-final.

The Sharks have the tougher assignment, playing five of their last six matches away, starting with the Western Force in Perth today.

The Force have been the surprise package of the year, lying in fifth place, but with the jury still out on whether this is simply the result of a favorable first-half draw as they still have the top three sides to play.

The Blues lead with 28 points, three clear of the Sharks, with defending champions the Canterbury Crusaders and the Northern Bulls a further three points back, one ahead of the Force.

This weekend the Blues travel to Waikato Chiefs in a local derby that has a reputation for drawing out the best in the Chiefs.

Although they languish in ninth place, the Chiefs have won their past two matches after a slow start to the season.

The Chiefs have also had the wood on the Blues in the past couple of seasons, which Blues captain Troy Flavell said was a focus in training during the week.

"There are things we've rectified," he said. "We'll be concentrating on our team focus rather than some of the one-on-one battles that have occurred in the past."

Despite suffering their first defeat of the year last week, at home against the ACT Brumbies, the Sharks have named an unchanged lineup to play the Force.

This means there is still no place in the starting line-up for former Springbok captain Bobby Skinstad, while Percy Montgomery's return is still at least a week away.

Coach John Mitchell has also bolstered his forward pack with Tai McIsaac, Troy Takiari and Matt Hodgson in an attempt to nullify the big South Africans.

The Crusaders the struggling New South Wales Waratahs without playmaker Daniel Carter, who has a neck injury.

But with All Blacks captain Richie McCaw reinstalled as captain they should still have too much power for the Waratahs.

The Sydneysiders, who have not won a match since the first round, have had a horror run of injuries this year, which was extended this week with the loss of backrower Wycliff Palu.

Coach Ewan McKenzie has been forced to make five positional changes, notably moving veteran David Lyons to lock, although Lyons is still in doubt with a thigh injury.

The Bulls, looking to back up from a breakthrough away win against the Otago Highlanders last week, move to Wellington to play the Hurricanes who have gone four weeks without a win.

The Bulls are handily placed to make the play-offs, but the Hurricanes, last year's beaten finalists, are in 11th place and need to win all their remaining matches, probably with a bonus point each time, if they are to have any chance of finishing in the top four again.

The ACT Brumbies put their season back on track with the win over the Sharks last weekend, and now look to firm up their recovery against the Lions at Johannesburg.

Both sides sit just below the Force on the points table, poised to close in on a play-off spot.

The remaining game of the weekend sees the Highlanders at home to the Central Cheetahs today.

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