Super 15 frontrunners the ACT Brumbies face their toughest test of the season so far as they seek to extend their unbeaten away run against the powerful Coastal Sharks in Durban tomorrow.
Also in this weekend’s fifth-round action, seven-time winners the Canterbury Crusaders go head-to-head in a heavyweight clash against three-time winners the Northern Bulls in Christchurch, desperate for their first win of the campaign.
Jake White’s Brumbies have not lost on the road since a 36-34 defeat to the Bulls in Pretoria in April last year and a win over last season’s finalists will further boost their title credentials as they chase a third Super Rugby crown.
The Canberra-based Brumbies have been transformed under the coaching of former World Cup-winning Springbok White, and so far have accounted for the Queensland Reds, the Melbourne Rebels and the New South Wales Waratahs to top the Australian conference.
“The challenge of Super Rugby is that you need to be able to adapt your style to be able to play against Australian, South African and Kiwi sides,” Brumbies skipper Ben Mowen said.
“This will be the biggest test of our season so far. The Sharks have been building into the season with wins. We know going up against last year’s finalists on Saturday is tough and these next couple of weeks will be one of the biggest challenges we face this year,” he added.
Sharks prop Jannie du Plessis can see White’s handiwork in the way he has moulded the Brumbies.
“I can definitely see the way he coaches in how the Brumbies play. He’s very organized and he plans his stuff. We are going to be up against a very well-prepared side,” Du Plessis said.
“You can see that in the way they’re playing at the moment. Everybody knows where to go and it looks like they have a plan in place, and one that everyone of the players follow,” he added.
The Sharks are one point off the lead in the South African conference, on the back of wins over the Central Cheetahs, the Western Stormers and the Southern Kings.
However, the Durban side will be without loose forwards Jean Deysel (ankle) and Jacques Botes (wrist).
Pundits are questioning whether the Crusaders are losing their aura of invincibility, after dropping their opening two matches this campaign against the Auckland Blues and the Wellington Hurricanes to lie ninth overall.
With the loss of players to rival franchises and with inspirational All Black skipper Richie McCaw on sabbatical, the formerly dominant Crusaders are struggling.
The Bulls are coming off their first victory over the Auckland Blues since 2009 and captain Pierre Spies said spirits were high ahead of the game tomorrow.
“We started the tour how we wanted and now need to make it work for us,” Spies said. “We came close here in the past and now must try and get that rare win in Christchurch.”
Co-captain Liam Messam will play his 100th match for the Waikato Chiefs when the defending champions take on newcomers the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth today.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie has made several changes, with prop Toby Smith, lock Michael Fitzgerald, loose forward Tanerau Latimer and Andrew Horrell coming into the starting lineup.
The Chiefs went down 36-34 to the Stormers in Cape Town last weekend and will be looking to atone against the Kings.
In this weekend’s other matches, Wallaby scrumhalf Will Genia returns from injury for the Reds against the Western Force in Brisbane, the Otago Highlanders host the Hurricanes in Dunedin, and the Waratahs take on the Cheetahs in Sydney.
The Blues, the Rebels and the Stormers have byes.