Sydney. Defending champions Queensland Reds have one of the hardest tasks this weekend among the six teams vying for four play-off spots in the final regular round of Super Rugby.
The seventh-placed Reds must beat fierce Australian rivals New South Wales Waratahs with a bonus point in Brisbane on Saturday and hope that other results go their way to force a route into the top-six finals series.
New Zealand’s Waikato Chiefs and Western Stormers of South Africa have already qualified for the finals and the ACT Brumbies are poised to join them.
The Brumbies need only one point at home to the lowly Auckland Blues on Saturday to claim the Australia conference and a playoff place.
Seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders look well-placed to feature in their 12th consecutive season of finals with a final home game against the struggling Western Force on Saturday.
South African teams Northern Bulls and Coastal Sharks will clinch a place in the playoffs with bonus-point wins at home this weekend and kill off the southern hemisphere provincial championship title bids of the Reds and Wellington Hurricanes.
The three-time champions Bulls take on the lowly Golden Lions in Pretoria, while the Sharks have the Central Cheetahs in Durban.
The Hurricanes, one point behind the top six in eighth spot, have it all to do and need to beat the tournament-leading Chiefs with a bonus point in Wellington on Friday.
The Reds will have to be at their expansive best, in need of a big game from Wallaby playmaker Quade Cooper for the four tries they need to beat the Waratahs and give them a chance of leapfrogging their way into the finals.
“The way we play the game, Quade is very important — not just the skill side of it,” Reds coach Ewen McKenzie said.
“He can weave a game plan into how he plays and he loves the challenge of going out there and making it happen.”
The return of Wallabies winger Digby Ioane from a bout of pneumonia will also boost Queensland’s attacking firepower.
The Waratahs, stacked with Wallabies, have been one of the big disappointments of the season and are well out of contention for the playoffs.
Jake White’s Brumbies are favourites to advance but are wary of the Auckland Blues, who are languishing in 13th spot, the lowest placed of the five New Zealand franchises.
“They have had a disappointing year and every team that has a disappointing year you want to finish on a good note,” Brumbies backs coach Stephen Larkham said.
The Crusaders have made three changes for their encounter with the Perth-based Force in Christchurch.
Kieran Read’s rib injury means another start at number eight for All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw, while Matt Todd comes in at openside flanker and Tom Donnelly and Luke Romano are the locks combination.
The Bulls are ensuring there will be no slip-up against the Johannesburg-based Lions at Loftus Versfeld.
“We are one of the teams that are in a do-or-die situation,” Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said. “We just need to make sure we do what we have to do on Saturday and make sure we get a result.”
The Sharks will be looking for a repeat of the form in last weekend’s big win over the Bulls when they face the 10th-placed Cheetahs this weekend to ensure their passage to the playoffs.
Number eight Victor Vito is back from five weeks out with a knee injury while fellow All Black Cory Jane is bracketed on the wing for the Hurricanes’ do-or-die game with the Chiefs.
The Chiefs will finish top of the table and get home advantage throughout the playoffs if they leave Wellington with a bonus–point win.
The Stormers can still finish top of the standings with victory over Melbourne Rebels in Cape Town on Saturday coupled with the Chiefs slipping up.