It's Round Eight and with the play-off race hotting up, defeat for teams on the bottom half of the table will prove very costly indeed.
It's Round Eight of Super Rugby and with the race for a play-offs spot hotting up, defeat for teams on the bottom half of the table will prove to be very costly indeed.
The unpredictability is making it a close and exciting tournament, with the Stormers still the only unbeaten side left in the competition. Will that all change against the Crusaders though? That's up for discussion in our Saturday preview!
For now, we see if the Blues can put a turbulent week behind them and come out on top against the Sharks who will be looking to be more competitive this weekend following their hammering to the Hurricanes last week.
The action then crosses the Tasman and follows the Waratahs 3279km to Perth where the Western Force will be out to make it back-to-back defeats over their Aussie rivals this season.
Blues v Sharks
Eden Park, Auckland
The misfiring Blues will try find a way to turn their Super Rugby campaign around when they host the Sharks at Auckland's Eden Park on Friday.
The struggling Kiwi outfit have won just one of their six matches, in what has been the worst start ever to a season in the franchise's history.
It was thought the Blues would bounce back against the Rebels last week, but left Melbourne red in the face after slumping to yet another defeat (34-23).
Indeed, the season continues to go from bad to worse for Pat Lam's men, who now find themselves rooted to the bottom of the New Zealand conference with just 10 points – four of which were accrued from a bye – and 14th on the overall standings (only ahead of the perennially bad Lions).
The All Blacks-laden team's fifth loss this year has also now turned the Aucklanders on one another with skipper Keven Mealamu publicly slating team-mate Piri Weepu on a New Zealand radio station, criticising his lack of conditioning and fitness. Abuse from fans has also got to under-fire coach Lam, who broke down when talking about the racial nature of criticism from some frustrated Blues supporters.
Mealamu admitted that confidence levels are at a new low, and with the Blues' aspirations of making a charge for the play-offs effectively over, all they have left to play for is pride.
The Sharks are travelling only a little better with four losses and three wins.
The men from Durban need a victory, not just to stay in touch with the Stormers and the Bulls, but also to fend off the improving Cheetahs who threaten to move past them into third in the South African conference.
Their defence needs urgent attention after the Sharks leaked 42 points in last week's loss against the Hurricanes – their worst loss in three years and the most points they had conceded since 2005.
Coach John Plumtree must have been pulling whatever hair he has left out after watching his side dominate possession (64 per cent) and territory (56 per cent) in the first half, only to fall 25-3 behind at half-time. In a nutshell: the 'Canes took their chances, the Sharks didn't which resulted in an unexpected scoreline at full-time.
In three out of their four losses so far this season, the Sharks have always been in with a shout, only to crumble at the end.
An 80-minute effort will be required against a Blues side that will be carrying a lot of emotional baggage into this match. But whilst the Blues have a lot of frustration that needs venting, they need to channel it in the right way, or it could go horribly wrong.
Prediction: The Sharks should fear an almighty backlash from the Blues, like the one the 'Canes dished out after getting an unexpected spanking from the Cheetahs the week before. However, we don't think the scoreline will be as one-sided as the one in New Plymouth. Blues by six!
Blues: 15 Rudi Wulf, 14 Hadleigh Parkes, 13 Benson Stanley, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Rene Ranger, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Chris Lowrey, 7 Daniel Braid, 6 Luke Braid, 5 Liaki Moli, 4 Filo Paulo, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Tevita Mailau, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Peter Saili, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Michael Hobbs, 22 George Moala.
Sharks: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Louis Ludik, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 JandrÃ© Marais, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Jacques Botes, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Frederic Michalak.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Force v Waratahs
nib Stadium, Perth
Revenge will be on the menu for the Waratahs against the Force when east meets west at Perth's nib Stadium on Friday.
The visitors are hunting an away win to nullify the loss inflicted on them when the two sides last met four weeks ago in Sydney, in what was arguably the Waratahs' worst performance of the season.
Coming off a bye and with a 2-4 record from their first six matches, a win on Friday is crucial to the Waratahs' hopes of moving up the Australian conference table as the second half of the season beckons.
With 17 points from seven rounds, the Waratahs sit equal second with the Reds and two points adrift of the Brumbies.
Only a bonus point and a bye separate them from the bottom-placed Force who will be playing the third of four successive home games and have a four-point bye in hand over the leaders.
The selection headaches that both camps had leading into the corresponding fixture a month ago is in stark contrast to the settled line-ups being taken into a derby encounter that will have a big bearing on the fortunes of both sides in a packed Australian conference.
“In essence this is an eight-point game given we have an opportunity to get four points this week and the bye next week,” said Force coach Richard Graham.
Having already played all of their intestate rivals away from home the Force will be hoping to make it two from two against their fellow countrymen at nib Stadium after disposing of the Reds a fortnight ago.
Despite missing the points against an in-form Chiefs side last weekend, Graham said his team are eager to translate a solid week on the training track into a winning performance.
“The majority of our focus his week has remained on ourselves and how we can get better and ensure a strong performance in front of our home supporters,” he said.
“Finding a balance in our attack is a key area and will assist in getting a result here in Perth.”
The Western Force have defeated the Waratahs twice and drawn once in previous encounters, but have yet to taste victory against the Sydneysiders in Perth – something they will be determined to rectify come kick-off on Friday.
Prediction: Unlike last season, the Force have proven to be a major, erm, force (sorry – ed) at home and