Johannesburg - Former champions the Bulls and Canterbury Crusaders open the eighth round of rugby's Super 14 with a match bearing heavily on both teams' playoff chances.
The Bulls, the 2007 champions, dropped from first to fourth place when they lost for the first time this season in round seven. The defending champion Crusaders improved to seventh place in the last round with their second straight win.
Their match on Friday and another between the Sharks and Hurricanes are likely to shape the top half of the Super 14 table and exert a heavy influence over the four teams' playoff chances.
The Bulls were beaten 36-12 by the Highlanders in round seven, ending their five-match winning streak and leaving them just inside the top four, four points behind the first-place Sharks and two points ahead of the fifth-placed Hurricanes.
The return from injury of Springbok Victor Matfield, who joins fellow international Bakkies Botha in a powerful second row, and winger Bryan Habana, significantly strengthens the Bulls as they attempt to regain winning momentum.
"It is great to have Victor and Bryan back not only as players but to help with the psyche of the team," Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said.
"One tends to dig deeper when you lose. But we are still in the competition and it is not the end by any means. There are 35 points still on the table and it is still early days." The Crusaders will be without All Blacks halfback Andy Ellis for Friday's game at Christchurch, but winger Jared Payne is due to return to strengthen the Crusaders backline.
"We're really excited about playing one of the form teams in the competition, especially at home," said Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder.
"We know they have a big pack but we just have to be more efficient and smart in the things we do. If you run directly at them it plays into their hands."
The Sharks surged to the top of the table with last week's win over the Brumbies, but face a testing match against the Hurricanes in Durban on Friday. The Hurricanes began their two-match tour of South Africa last week with a narrow win over the Lions in Johannesburg.
The Sharks are strongly placed to consolidate their championship lead with five home matches in the next six weeks, but coach John Plumtree said it was still too early to take anything for granted.
"There is still plenty of rugby to be played," he said. "You can't take if for granted that you will win on your home ground. We're in a good position and expect the players to lift their energy (this) week." The Hurricanes lost All Blacks winger Hosea Gear and flanker Scott Waldrom to injuries last week and both have since returned to New Zealand. Gear, who has a knee ligament strain, is likely to miss the remainder of the Super 14 season.
Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper said the Sharks are formidable on their home ground.
"I remember two years ago we went over there and got thumped (30-7)," he said. "People don't appreciate how much they grow an extra leg over there, so it will be tough." The Waratahs held onto second place with a seventh-round win over the Blues, their first-ever win in Auckland. Coach Chris Hickey said it was important his team cemented that place with strong performances, starting Saturday when they meet the Stormers in Sydney.
"(Last week's win) puts us in charge of our own fate," Hickey said.
"We're not relying on other teams to do anything. We've just got to make sure we perform well over the next three weeks. We need to do that because after that we go to Africa for three weeks." In other matches, the Force and Reds meet in Perth on Friday and the Chiefs, third after impressive wins over the Blues and Reds, face the Lions in Hamilton, New Zealand on Saturday.
Australian referee Matt Goddard will control Saturday's match between the Cheetahs and Brumbies in Bloemfontein. Goddard was stood down for a week after handing out five yellow cards and a red card in a sixth-round match between the Hurricanes and Bulls.