We've reached the halfway stage of Super Rugby 2011, which means the race is now on for those still in the running for a play-offs spot.
We've reached the halfway stage of the 2011 Super Rugby tournament, which means the race is now on for those still in the running for a place in the play-offs.
The Reds currently lead the competition after knocking off the Stormers in Round Eight, while the Crusaders are in hot pursuit in second place.
Defeat at this stage of the game could be costly with a congested chasing pack just waiting to pounce at any opportunity they get.
The first match on Super Saturday is set to be a real humdinger when the Blues host the Waratahs at Eden Park. Both the Blues and the Waratahs are second in their respective conferences, with the Auckland-based franchise sitting one place higher on the overall table in fourth spot.
The action then travels across the Tasman to Brisbane where the in-form Reds tackle the out-of-sorts Bulls, who will be looking to make amends for last week's shocker against the Crusaders.
The third-placed Stormers travel to the City of Gold to play the rock-bottom Lions and will be hoping they can return to winning ways, before the Cheetahs take on the Hurricanes in their first match at home in four weeks.
Blues v Waratahs
In what is one of the match-ups of the round, the Blues – coming off a bye – have lost just once this year while the Waratahs head to New Zealand on a three-match winning streak.
However the visitors will be looking to overcome an intimidating record in Auckland when they take on the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday. While the Sydney-siders have won their last three matches against the Blues, their 2009 victory at Eden Park was their first in 81 years.
The Waratahs go into the match sitting second in the Australian Conference and fifth overall after five wins from their opening six matches. They will be hoping to extend their successful run despite an injury toll which sees more than a quarter of the Super Rugby squad sidelined for the all-important clash.
Wycliff Palu, Tom Carter and Atieli Pakalani are missing from the team which scored a bonus point victory over the Western Force last weekend and join the likes of Phil Waugh, Berrick Barnes and Damien Fitzpatrick on the injured list.
While the 'Tahs have key players out to injury so, too, do the Blues, who will be missing prop Tony Woodcock, lock Ali Williams and flanker Daniel Braid.
The hosts have, however, been boosted by All Blacks flanker Jerome Kaino whose team-mates will welcome his return after the Blues' wobbly win over bottom-of-the-table Cheetahs two weeks ago.
“The general feeling is that the bye came at the right time and the boys are pretty keen to get into it this week,” said Kaino.
The Blues have an all-time 9-6 win-loss advantage over the Waratahs, but they have won just once – four years ago at Eden Park – in their past six meetings.
Kaino said the Blues would look to improve their continuity and their finishing as they try to reverse the pendulum against last year's semi-finalists.
“The guys were disappointed coming off that Cheetahs game,” he said.
“We got the five points, but it was just the way we let a lot of tries in and we bombed a couple of opportunities to put more points on them.
“We know against the Waratahs there won't be many opportunities, but when we get them, we want to nail them.”
Prediction: It will be close, with the Blues making it to the finish line by a nose. Blues by five.
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 Anthony Boric, 4 Kurtis Haiu, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Tevita Mailau.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Filo Paulo, 19 Chris Lowrey, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 Lachie Munro, 22 Benson Stanley.
Waratahs: 15 Lachie Turner, 14 Tom Kingston, 13 Ryan Cross, 12 Daniel Halangahu, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Pat McCutcheon, 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Dean Mumm (c), 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Al Baxter, 18 Pat O'Connor, 19 Sitaleki Timani, 20 Chris Alcock, 21 Brendan McKibbin, 22 Sosene Anesi.
Date: Saturday April 16
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 (07.35 GMT)
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Jonathon White (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Reds v Bulls
The bumbling Bulls will be looking to right the wrongs against the red-hot Reds when the two sides face-off in Brisbane on Saturday.
The less said about the Bulls' Round Eight outing against the Crusaders the better. In a nutshell: they were aweful. In fact, bar the defending champs' performance against the struggling Hurricanes, the men from Pretoria have been pretty ordinary thus far.
A dramatic turnaround in form is needed if they are to have any hope of defending their diminishing title, which already appears to have a red and black or simply red look to it.
Besides the fact that the Bulls have never won at Suncorp Stadium since 2004, they also face a team oozing confidence after knocking down the previously unbeaten Stormers in Cape Town to jump into top spot of the Super Rugby standings.
And that's where the Queenslanders will want to stay – albeit on points differential with the Crusaders – though the hosts will be wary of a wounded Bulls side that can ill-afford to lose two on the trot.
Coach Ewen McKenzie said last week's victory over the Stormers has put his players in the right frame of mind for the critical match while Bulls coach Frans Ludeke acknowledged the pressure his side are under.
“The desire has to be big enough to banish the negative thoughts. And the desire is there. We want to pull this one off. It's going to take a huge effort, but the guys want to win,” said Ludeke.
A crowd of at least 30 000 is expected, with the Reds on the brink of winning six consecutive games for the first time in their history. The Reds have been playing Super Rugby for 16 years, but have never won six games on the trot.
Prediction: When their backs are against the wall, the Bulls always seem to produce the goods. Whilst we don't expect a repeat of last week, we just can't see Victor Matfield's men recovering in the Sunshine State. Reds by six.
Reds: 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Anthony Faingaa, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Radike Samo, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Rob Simmons,3 James Slipper, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Ben Daley.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Greg Holmes, 18 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 19 Liam Gill, 20 Leroy Houston, 21 Ben Lucas, 22 Will Chambers.