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Bulls bye week offers hope to chasers

Bulls bye week offers hope to chasers

With the first-place Bulls in their bye week and the two other unbeaten teams in rugby's Super 14 on the road, the competition's fifth round offers some chance to struggling teams to close the gap on the leaders.
The Bulls will almost certainly lose their position atop the standings as they join the Wellington Hurricanes in sitting out the fifth round while the second-place New South Wales Waratahs travel to Canberra for a derby clash with the ACT Brumbies.
The third-place Sharks, also unbeaten, face their third straight match on the road, against the Queensland Reds, but have already taken a maximum 10 points from matches in New Zealand against the Waikato Chiefs and Auckland Blues.
The fourth-place Hurricanes cannot improve their standing in round five but there are chances for the fifth-placed Blues, sixth-place Western Force and seventh-place Brumbies _ respectively three, four and five points out of the top four _ to do so.
It has also become a matter of urgency for teams below mid-table, including the defending champion the Canterbury Crusaders who have dropped to ninth place with three straight losses, to begin improving their standing if they are reach playoff contention later in the season.
The Crusaders have lost in successive weeks to the Brumbies, the Hurricanes and Otago Highlanders and are jointly besieged by poor form and injuries.
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw joined their casualty list in last weekend's match at Dunedin, ruled out of action until at least midseason with a medial ligament strain.
The season has proved taxing for new Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder, who took over after Robbie Deans delivered the franchise's seventh Super rugby title in 2008, and he now faces a four-week run without McCaw which includes matches against the Bulls and Waratahs.
Spirits in the Crusaders' camp remain high despite their losing streak and in the face of a difficult match Saturday against the Force.
"If there's anything that can bring a team together it's something like this," Crusaders and All Blacks scrumhalf Andy Ellis said. "It's an exciting challenge for now, one we're going to have to get up for.
"The key thing is how we respond to the situation we've been put in. That will determine the outcomes from here on in."
The Force have recognized an opportunity to hit the Crusaders while they are down.
"The Crusaders always have slow starts to the season and build, and build and build and then win it at the end of the year," hooker Tai McIsaac said. "You can't really take them easy at any stage of the year.
"He (McCaw) does make a big difference, but any sort of Crusaders team you come up against _ you can't really take it easy or take a step back."
The Blues will attempt to get back to basics when they take on the winless Cheetahs at Auckland on Friday, coming off last week's home loss to the Sharks.
"We have to do the basics well and that let us down against the Sharks," coach Pat Lam said. "We made far too many errors so we have to be accurate in what we do."
Winger Rene Ranger returns to the Blues starting lineup after recovering from an eye injury and Michael Hobbs will start at inside center.
The Brumbies have made two key personnel changes for their clash with the Waratahs, giving blindside flanker Peter Kimlin and inside center Tyrone Smith their first run-on appearances of the season. Smith's selection allows Wallaby veteran Stirling Mortlock to move to outside center.
"Tyrone's been very impressive in his performances off the bench this season and he and Stirling have a good understanding of one another, having played half a season with each other last year," Brumbies coach Andy Friend said.
The Queensland Reds have made seven changes for their home match against the Sharks, naming prop Jack Kennedy, lock Ezra Taylor and utility back Rod Taylor to make their Reds debuts. Prop Ben Daley, the son of former Australia rugby league frontrower Phil Daley, and winger Blair Connor have been handed their first starting appearances of the season.
"The Sharks are a great side that deserve to be unbeaten so far in this competition thanks to their combination of power and speed," Reds coach Phil Mooney said. "They'll be a tough challenge but with a home crowd behind us we'll be looking to bring their winning run too an end."
The Otago Highlanders and Waikato Chiefs, who both posted their first wins of the season in round four, meet at Invercargill on Saturday while the Stormers face the Lions and Cape Town.


Updated : 2021-05-13 08:10 GMT+08:00