Round Sixteen continues on Super Saturday with four more blockbusting local derbies to spice up the race to the play-offs.
Round Sixteen continues on Super Saturday with four more blockbusting local derbies to ramp up rivalries and spice up the race to the play-offs.
With nine teams still in contention of reaching the finals, there is still so much to play for even for franchises out of contention with many of the lowest ranked teams able to provide spoiler for those seeking a place in the play-offs.
Crusaders v Hurricanes
The Crusaders will look to hit the ground running and pick up where they left off four weeks ago when they host the Hurricanes in Saturday's crunch derby clash in Christchurch.
Whether the men in red and black can replicate the form which saw them put 50-plus points past the Blues and Highlanders before the enforced break remains to be seen though, with three of their star All Blacks ruled out.
There will be no Dan Carter pulling the strings, whilst number eight Kieran Read and full-back Israel Dagg have also been sidelined with injuries picked up in New Zealand's recent series win over Ireland.
All three were influential in the Crusaders' previous two bonus-point wins and will be missed against a Hurricanes side desperate to keep their play-off hopes alive.
The Hurricanes were given a bit of a rugby lesson when the two sides last met in round nine. The Crusaders won 42-14, scored five tries and Tom Taylor added a further 17 points with the boot.
With just three matches left until the finals, both sides can ill-afford any slip ups with the Crusaders set to play against the Chiefs away and the Force at home while the 'Canes are guaranteed four points from a bye next week before they battle the Chiefs at home in the final round.
The Hurricanes will feel confident of knocking over the seven-time champions, having won four of their last six matches – including a 66-24 hiding of the Melbourne Rebels and a 33-12 away win over the Waratahs. But the Crusaders on their own turf will be a different proposition.
And with so much at stake, this Super Rugby clash between the two Kiwi outfits promises to be as hard fought as any other gone before it.
Prediction: Whilst we don't foresee the same scoreline from when these two teams last met, we do expect the same result. Crusaders by seven!
Crusaders: 15 Sean Maitland, 14 Adam Whitelock, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Tom Taylor, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Richie McCaw (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Tom Donnelly/Ross Kennedy, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tyler Bleyendaal, 22 Patrick Osborne.
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Chris Eaton, 8 Brad Shields, 7 Jack Lam / Karl Lowe, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben May, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reg Goodes.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 18 James Broadhurst, 19 Karl Lowe / Mark Reddish, 20 Frae Wilson, 21 Tusi Pisi, 22 Jayden Hayward.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Western Force v Brumbies
The Brumbies will be wary of a Western Force side playing for pride and determined to give retiring lock Nathan Sharpe a good send-off in his last home game.
Sharpe, the most capped player in Super Rugby, retires at the end of the season and will be the centre of attention when the Force take on the high-flying Brumbies at nib Stadium on Saturday.
The Brumbies sit on top of the Australian conference and third overall, but will be nervously waiting to see how the 13th-placed Force react to Sharpe's big day.
Jake White's troops scraped past the Force 19-17 to open their Super Rugby campaign back in February, and will be banking on a fourth consecutive win over the men from the West to consolidate number one spot in the Aussie conference.
They've won four of their last five matches to stay on course for a place in the finals, while the lowly Force have only managed three wins so far this season and could still end up with the wooden spoon.
The Force beat the Lions 17-11 before the international break, so are chasing back-to-back wins in a bid to finish the year on a high and send Sharpe off on a winning note.
''You'd like to think that the guys would be able to extract another one or two per cent out of their games and their performance for the club and for Sharpie,” said Force coach Phil Blake.
''But we need a committed 80-minute performance before we can start dancing in the streets.
''We've still got a lot to play for in the last three weeks of the competition, not least of which is for our fans, who have stuck by us throughout this season.
''We're certainly still looking to extract every win we can.''
Prediction: It's top versus bottom in the Aussie conference. Brumbies by six!
Western Force: 15 Alfie Mafi, 14 Nick Cummins, 13 Will Tupou, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Napolioni Nalaga, 10 Ben Seymour, 9 Josh Holmes, 8 Matt Hodgson, 7 David Pocock (c), 6 Richard Brown, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Toby Lynn, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Elvis Taione, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Salesi Manu, 19 Phoenix Battye, 20 Lachlan McCaffrey, 21 Brett Sheehan, 22 David Harvey.
Brumbies: 15 Robbie Coleman, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Andrew Smith, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Jesse Mogg, 10 Zack Holmes, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (c), 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Peter Kimlin, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Dan Palmer, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Anthony Hegaty, 17 Ruaidhri Murphy, 18 Leon Power, 19 Ita Vaea, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Tevita Kuridrani, 22 Cam Crawford.
Referee: Ian Smith (Australia)
Stormers v Lions
Newlands, Cape Town
The play-offs are within reach for the injury-depleted Stormers but there are a few banana skins lying on the path to a home knock-out game, starting this weekend with the visit of a side known for throwing a spanner in the works when you least expect it.
2012 has seen a tale of contrasting fortunes for these teams: The Stormers have lost just two games this season, while the Lions are coming off just their second win this year – against the Sharks at the start of the month.
The Jo'burg side have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this term with the threat of relegation made even worse by the off-field troubles that saw coach John Mitchell's recent suspension.
The Kiwi coach's unceremonious exit is exactly the sort of incident that is likely to spark a reaction in the psyche of your average rugby player and the Lions have proved themselves to be fighters.
They've also shown that they have what it takes to upset the tournament's big guns, as illustrated by that shock win over the