South Africa’s Northern Bulls will defend their week-old lead in rugby’s Super 15 today in its southernmost stronghold when they take on the under-pressure Otago Highlanders in the weekend’s 13th round.
The Pretoria-based Bulls took over first place last weekend when they scored a late try to beat the New South Wales Waratahs 27-24, their eighth win from 10 games, combined with the Waikato Chiefs’ first loss in 10 matches.
Springbok super-boot Morne Steyn will play his 100th match for the Bulls, who will have to overcome injuries and one of the most hostile home grounds in the tournament in Dunedin, New Zealand, to maintain their place at the top of the table.
The Bulls are one of four former champion teams, including the Queensland Reds, who face critical matches this weekend.
The ACT Brumbies need to beat the Wellington Hurricanes in Wellington to solidify in their lead in the Australian conference, while the Canterbury Crusaders face the Auckland Blues after a surprise loss to the Melbourne Rebels. Meanwhile, Wallabies flyhalf Quade Cooper is set to make a surprise return to the Queensland team, who follow last week’s win over the first-placed Chiefs with a match against the last-placed Lions.
Cooper is set to play his first match in seven months since coming off the field in the first half of last October’s World Cup third-place match against Wales, to provide a further boost to the Reds, who are in ninth place, five points outside the top six.
Cooper’s playmaking abilities were the sparkplug that fired the Reds to their first Super Rugby title last season and he expects to have suffered no loss of confidence from his injury and layoff.
“Confidence isn’t something that I lack,” Cooper said. “Going out there and playing footy is what I love to do. It’s been a tough time, and a very long time at that.”
In other matches, former South African conference leaders the Western Stormers take on the Waratahs in Cape Town. The Stormers remain one point behind the Bulls in the South African conference, which they led for the first 11 weeks of the season, but hold third place in the tournament’s overall standings.
The Waratahs dropped back to 11th place with last weekend’s loss to the Bulls and are now 12 points behind the Brumbies in the Australian conference.
They face two matches in South Africa, against the Stormers and Cheetahs, and may have to win both to keep alive their playoff hopes.
Canadian Test backrower Jebb Sinclair is set to make his first Super rugby appearance in one of two changes to the Stormers’ lineup for the match. Waratahs coach Michael Foley has been more thorough, making four changes — two each in the backs and forwards — to his team for the must-win match.
Bernard Foley returns at fullback for Daniel Halangahu, who drops to the bench, and Brendan McKibbin takes over at scrumhalf from Sarel Pretorius. Dave Dennis replaces Wycliff Palu at No. 8 and Sitaleki Timani takes over from Kane Douglas in a changed back row.
The Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs host the Durban-based Coastal Sharks in another match that will influence the playoff race. The Sharks moved up to sixth place with last week’s 53-11 win over the Western Force, becoming one of three South African teams in the top-six playoff zone.
“Now it’s about controlling our own destiny as the tournament reaches the business end,” Sharks coach John Plumtree said.