Waratahs fight to save season
Wellington - The table-topping Hurricanes put their unbeaten run on the line Saturday against the defending Super 15 champions Waratahs, who are desperate to revive their season.
While the Hurricanes relish being in the unaccustomed seat at the head of the table, the 10th-placed Waratahs have slipped to must-win territory with a four-win, three-loss record.
Although the Waratahs have consoled themselves by saying it is similar to last year when they bounced back to win the championship, a fourth loss now will make it extremely difficult to repeat the 2014 fightback.
The Hurricanes are also under pressure to maintain their winning streak with the Chiefs, away to the Crusaders this weekend, a slender three points behind.
In the tightly-packed South Africa conference, leaders Bulls are away to the fourth-placed Sharks who are only four points behind and smarting after back-to-back losses to the Crusaders and Golden Lions.
The importance of the marquee Hurricanes-Waratahs match-up in Wellington is not lost on 'Tahs and Wallabies scrum-half Nick Phipps.
"It would be important for the mental state of the 'Tahs. It would be a turning point if we could get over there and put in a good performance, and I am not even talking about getting a win," he said.
Phipps was adamant the Waratahs expansive game was right for the side despite their indifferent results so far.
"We're committed to this style of play," he said.
"I think it would be disappointing that after three hard years, that if we have a couple of disappointing results that we shy and turn away from it."
The Hurricanes, with six All Blacks in their backline, have named a similar side to that which beat the second-placed South African unit Western Stormers 25-20 two weeks ago with the inclusion of flanker Ardie Savea who returns from injury.
It will be the 100th Super match for 'Canes lock Jeremy Thrush who also made his debut against the Waratahs.
Leading Australian side Brumbies, seven points clear of the Waratahs and bidding for their first Super crown since 2004, will have their depth tested in the run to the play-offs.
Matt Toomua, Scott Sio and James Dargaville all suffered serious knocks in last week's narrow two-point loss to the Auckland Blues to join a long list of injured including Tevita Kuridrani and Jesse Mogg,
But they should still bank winning points despite their opponents, the 11th-placed Melbourne Rebels, having had a bye and a chance to refresh since beating the Reds two weeks ago.
The Bulls are bringing back Springboks Adriaan Strauss, Jan Serfontein and Handre Pollard for their trip to Durban knowing a slip up could see them drop from first to third in the South African conference.
The Bulls won the derby fixture 43-35 when they were hosts in February
The Western Stormers, just two points behind the Bulls, should have an easier assignment in Perth against the Western Force, on a seven-match losing streak since opening the year with a win over the Waratahs.
The Chiefs, who demolished the Crusaders in their early season clash, have brought back the potent centres pairing of Sonny Bill Williams and Bundee Aki for the return encounter.
Williams will be marking Dan Carter who starts at inside centre in one of five changes to the Crusaders following their surprise loss last week to the Highlanders.
The fifth-placed Highlanders host the Blues who notched their first win of the season last week, while the Central Cheetahs are at home to the bottom-placed Reds.