Super 14 Rugby

Sharks and Stormers look to consolidate as play off looms


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South Africa’s Vodacom Super 14 pace-setters, the Sharks and the Vodacom Stormers need to win at the weekend with the prospect of a play-off ‘bottleneck’ looking ever-more likely.

Whilst the Crusaders are six points clear and look fairly certain of qualifying for the semi-finals, at least a further eight teams are still capable of grabbing one of the other three spots with just four rounds of action remaining. Another key factor is that of teams wanting to secure home advantage in the playoffs.

The Sharks have it all to do when they face the Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday (11h40 SA Time). The Sharks, who suffered their first defeat of the 2008 campaign last week, lead the third-placed ‘Tahs by a single point and will surrender second place on the log if they are beaten. Defeat could see them slip even further if the Stormers get a bonus point when they face the Highlanders on Saturday.

Essentially, the Waratahs clash will be a test of character for the Sharks who will prove that they are worthy challengers if they can bounce back. The Sharks have not won in Sydney since 2000 and will go into the game as underdogs against a home side that has steadily improved each week.

The Stormers will be looking for a full quota of five points against the Highlanders at Newlands on Saturday (17h05), which could see them move into the top two. They have been building momentum in the wake of a successful tour and a revived home run that has seen them secure wins over the Cheetahs and the Hurricanes in the past two weeks.

They will do well not to underestimate the Highlanders, despite the visitors having won just once in nine starts this season. However, if the Stormers can strike early, give the ball air and continue to show commitment in defence, chances are they will have too much firepower for the men from Dunedin.

The Blues face a crossroads in their 2008 campaign when they travel to Christchurch to face the Crusaders on Friday (09h35). After an impressive start, the Blues have slipped off the pace and need to win at the weekend to stay in contention.

The Blues have won four of the last six meetings between them but, significantly for the home side, the Blues have won just once in four visits to the Jade Stadium since 2000. The Crusaders are boosted too by the return of fullback Leon MacDonald.

The other two New Zealand sides chasing play-off places, the Chiefs and the Hurricanes, have challenging assignments against ‘unpredictable’ opposition at the weekend. The Chiefs, who briefly occupied third place after their impressive scalping of the Crusaders last Friday, are at home against the Reds on Saturday (09h35) and the Hurricanes continue their South African safari against the Vodacom Cheetahs in Kimberley on Saturday (15h00).

The Reds have blown hot-and-cold this season but the Chiefs, who are currently placed fifth, will do well to approach them with caution. Home advantage makes the fired-up Chiefs favourites.

The Hurricanes, with a win and a loss so far on tour, will face a Cheetahs side that should be well rested and fresh after its bye weekend. The Cheetahs have hopefully used the time off to take stock of their game and what they need to do to win. A frustrating campaign for the Cheetahs has produced just a single victory in nine matches, despite them having played some good rugby at times. Defence and discipline have been their crutches, however, and if they can improve these aspects they could still do some damage.

The ‘Canes will be wary of the home side as they bid to retain their place in the top six. They will also have to come to terms with a smaller venue with the Cheetahs faithful sure to give them a ‘warm’ Kimberly welcome!

The Brumbies will keep themselves in the race if they beat the Auto & General Lions in Canberra on Friday (11h40). They have won three of their last four and face a Lions side that has made little progress since its impressive start against the Cheetahs in February.

The Brumbies have won both previous encounters between them, 14-9 in Johannesburg last year and 28-7 in Canberra in 2006.

The Vodacom Bulls and the Western Force have byes this weekend.


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