It's Round 11 of Super Rugby and with just eight weeks of the regular season left, the race towards a play-off spot is really heating up.
It's Round 11 of Super Rugby and with just eight weeks of the regular season remaining, the race towards a play-off spot is really heating up.
The opening match is a real gem when the Blues' clash with the Highlanders in one of two crucial local derbies this weekend (the other takes place in Cape Town between the Stormers and Sharks).
The Blues head south to the 'House of Pain', home to the Highlanders who have proved to be the surprise package of the championship this year.
Both sides have won seven of nine games but a draw for the Blues and a lack of bonus points for the Highlanders see them separated on the ladder by the Crusaders.
The struggling Cheetahs and the equally bumbling Brumbies then play under Friday night lights in Bloemfontein where the Australian visitors will be looking to kick-off their South Africa tour with a win.
Highlanders v Blues
The Highlanders will be out to pocket their first win over the Blues since 2007 when the two sides meet in this much-anticipated Kiwi derby clash on Friday.
The southerners will be buzzing with confidence following last weekend's 26-18 upset win over the Crusaders, that took their tally of wins to seven (from nine matches) so far this season.
It's been a tremendous effort from this year's surprise package, and with eight rounds remaining the fifth-placed Highlanders are looking good for a spot in the play-offs as a wild card team. But any slip-ups here on in, could prove detrimental to their cause.
It certainly doesn't get any easier for coach Jamie Joseph and his team either when they face a Blues team that remain undefeated in seven games, a feat unmatched by the Auckland side since 1997 which sees them top of the overall Super Rugby ladder with the Reds.
Pat Lam's troops have tasted defeat just once in 2011 (to the Sharks) and drawn another (with the Force), but face their toughest assignment of the season to date when they travel south to take on a dogged Highlanders outfit at Carisbrook.
With the Gordon Hunter Memorial trophy on the line as well as the chance to consolidate their position at the top of the conference table and score a clean sweep of victories over their New Zealand opponents, there will be no shortage of motivation for the Blues to perform.
Adding to that is the saddening recent news that Kurtis Haiu has taken leave from rugby for an indefinite period to deal with a cancer scare. All these factors will provide the impetus for the team to produce a strong performance against the Highlanders.
It promises to be a huge showdown against a Highlanders team running hot this season and buoyed by the return of four of their key players – Adam Thomson, Alando Soakai, Jimmy Cowan and Kade Poki.
“This is going to be one of the toughest games we've had so far,” said Blues and All Black flanker Jerome Kaino.
“They're one of the most in-form teams in the competition. We've found it hard to study them because we've had to wipe all the past videos of what the stereotypical Highlanders do out of the equation and just focus on what they've done this year.
“They've been playing some good footy and it's been hard to try and find some faults in their game.”
There is no doubt the Blues forwards will have to front as a unit if they are to prevail against the Highlanders. The Southerners boast the best line-out in the competition and are leading the turnovers at the breakdown by a country mile.
The forward battle will be no more prominent than in the loose with the two best blindside flankers in the country – Kaino and Thomson – going head to head.
“Their loose forwards have put their hands up and have been playing really well as a unit and it's a huge challenge for us and our young loose forward trio,” said Kaino.
“We've been going well but I don't think we've had a challenge like the one we're going to meet on Friday yet, and coming up against Thommo will be good.
“At the moment he's got the front running for the All Black number six jersey and it's a huge challenge for me this weekend but in saying that I can't really focus too much on those individual battles.
“You can think about it subconsciously but not too much, I think if our forwards go well as a unit and play together I'm sure it will nullify those individuals that try and stand out by themselves.”
Prediction: With no rain expected in Dunedin, expect these two teams to run each other ragged. So with hopefully plenty of tries to come, who will end on top? Tough to call. History is certainly on the Blues' side, but this is the present and we think home advantage will count a lot on the Highlanders' favour. Highlanders by four!
Highlanders: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Kendrick Lynn, 12 Ben Smith, 11 Siale Piutau, 10 Tony Brown, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (c).
Replacements: 16 Mo Schwalger, 17 David Te Moana, 18 Tom Donnelly, 19 Nick Crosswell, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Matt Saunders, 22 James Paterson.
Blues: 15 Isaia Toeava, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Luke McAlister, 11 Rene Ranger, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Anthony Boric, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Tevita Mailau.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 James King, 19 Chris Lowrey, 20 Toby Morland, 21 Benson Stanley, 22 Lachie Munro.
Date: Friday, April 29
Venue: Carisbrook, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19.35 (07.35 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Cheetahs v Brumbies
After having byes last week the Cheetahs and the Brumbies return to Super Rugby action for a battle royale in Bloemfontein.
Both teams have given indifferent performances in this season's competition and will be desperate not to avoid any further defeats. The last match between these two sides saw the Brumbies running out comfortable 61-15 winners in Canberra last year.
Cheetahs scrum-half Sarel Pretorius has been their star performer this season and he will be expected to give his team attacking momentum from the base of the scrum.
The Cheetahs have made three changes to their side since their last match, a 50-47 defeat to the Hurricanes in Round Nine.
Amongst the forwards they will be boosted by the return of Springboks Heinrich Brussouw and Adriaan Strauss at flank and hooker respectively. They will replace Kabamba Floors and Ryno Barnes.
The only change in the back-line is at inside centre where Corne Uys replaces Barry Geel, who is out injured with a fractured finger.
The Brumbies players have a lot to play for after the announcement of Jake White's appointment as their new head coach for the 2012 season.
Since firing Andy Friend as coach – after just the second week of the tournament – the 2001