Test spots on the line

2008-04-11 00:00

WELLINGTON — The New South Wales Waratahs and Western Force meet tomorrow in an Australian derby which will have a strong bearing on each team’s Super 14 play-off chances and the Test hopes of several key players.

The Force are the highest-placed Australian team in this year’s competition, in fifth place with 23 points, and the Waratahs climbed to sixth, a point behind, with last week’s 37-14 win over the Auckland Blues.

Of the competition’s top-four teams, the Canterbury Crusaders and Sharks are both well placed to maintain unbeaten records in round nine. Both teams face lowly placed opponents — the Sharks open the round against Otago and the Crusaders host the Lions.

Those teams are likely to retain their top two places, but the winners of the Force-Waratahs clash at Perth have the chance to enter the top four if the third-placed Auckland Blues stumble.

The Sydney-based Waratahs come into the match buoyed by their win over Auckland, while the Force followed a home loss to the Stormers with a one-point win over the Bulls.

“It is a game we’re looking forward to,” said Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie. “We have been there [Perth] before and won, so it’s not like we don’t know Subiaco [Stadium].

“This is the most difficult one, going from the Blues to the Force, because both those teams are right at the top. How you play against those teams is the only way you can influence your climb up the ladder. You have to keep knocking off the top teams now.”

The match features a number of important individual clashes, notably between Wallabies flyhalf Matt Giteau and New South Wales rising star Kurtley Beale.

“All the clashes will be important,” McKenzie said. “There are some interesting ones, [Nathan] Sharpe and [Daniel] Vickerman, the back-row scenario is a big one in the context of the game.”

The Force face Australian rivals the Waratahs and the Queensland Reds on successive weekends, and coach John Mitchell sees those matches as having a bearing on Wallabies selections.

“It is a special couple of weeks and Test spots are up for grabs,” he said.

Australia’s fourth franchise, the ACT Brumbies, face Auckland in round nine but have steadily faded from play-offs contention, notably after last week’s heavy loss to Waikato.

The Brumbies may not be able to reach the top four immediately, but they have a chance, against Auckland, to help the play-offs chances of their Australian counterparts.

The Auckland Blues desperately need a win to resuscitate their fading campaign, which moved into sharper decline with last week’s loss to the Waratahs.

Coaches of teams which are out of play-off contention have already begun to face questions over their reappointment, none more so than Frans Ludeke, coach of defending champions the Bulls.

The Pretoria-based side won last season’s championship under Heyneke Meyer, but have slumped toward the bottom of the table under Ludeke, recently completing an Australasian tour on which they were beaten by Waikato, Auckland, Queensland and the Force.

They return home on Saturday to face the Wellington Hurricanes, who are also desperate for a win after a recent loss to Canterbury and draw with the Sharks. Those results have dropped Wellington two places out of the top four.

The Bulls are out of play-offs contention, but could finish the season strongly at home to save their reputation and Ludeke’s job.

“I am 100% responsible and it is a pity we are here at the bottom of the table,” Ludeke said. “Hopefully, we will make our supporters proud in our next four games at [home]. We just need to grow from this and I believe we will. In the last two games on tour we played some good rugby.”


Today: Highlanders vs Sharks (Dunedin, 9.35 am — live on M-Net and SuperSport1)

Tomorrow: Crusaders vs Lions (Christchurch, 7.30 am), Blues vs Brumbies (Auckland, 9.35 am), Force vs Waratahs (Perth 1.05 pm), Stormers vs Cheetahs (Newlands, 3 pm), Bulls vs Hurricanes (Loftus, 5. 05 pm)

Bye: Reds, Chiefs.

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