The Northern Bulls and holders the Waikato Chiefs can lock up the top two positions — and with them, semi-final hosting rights — in this weekend’s final regular round of Super 15 matches.
The Bulls will take a big step toward hosting this season’s Super Rugby final if they can beat the Western Stormers to finish top after 20 rounds of the southern hemisphere provincial series.
The Bulls are two points clear of the Chiefs, who face a New Zealand derby with the Blues if they are to maintain their top two spot heading into the playoffs.
The top two teams have a bye from next weekend’s opening playoffs and will face the winners in the following week’s semis to decide the Super 15 finalists.
Only Australia’s ACT Brumbies, and, mathematically, Canterbury Crusaders, can knock the Chiefs out of the top two places in final round jockeying.
The Brumbies take on Western Force in Perth tomorrow, while the Crusaders host the Wellington Hurricanes.
The Bulls have Francois Venter in for injured midfielder Jan Serfontein, and Jano Vermaak taking over from injured scrumhalf Francois Hougaard.
The suspension of Wilhelm Steenkamp opened the door for 19-year-old Jacques du Plessis, who could make his Bulls debut.
Springbok captain Jean de Villiers has recovered from injury, and will lead the Stormers after missing the last two wins over the Cheetahs and the Kings.
Bryan Habana will be playing in his final match for the Stormers.
The Chiefs have made several team changes with prop Toby Smith starting and Liam Messam returning after a back injury. Robbie Robinson and Lelia Masaga are on the wings and Tim Nanai-Williams (center) and Andrew Horrell (fullback) have been named.
George Smith will be on the bench with Colby Faingaa starting for the Brumbies.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has made only one change, putting Tom Donnelly at lock with Luke Romanof out with an ankle injury against the Hurricanes in Christchurch. Prop James Slipper will captain the Queensland Reds in the injury absence of James Horwill and Will Genia in tomorrow’s game against the NSW Waratahs in Sydney.
In this weekend’s other games, the Rebels face the Otago Highlanders and the Sharks host the Kings.