All Blacks star fly-half Beauden Barrett’s return boosts defending champions Wellington Hurricanes against the ACT Brumbies as New Zealand look to underline their dominance over Australian sides in Friday’s Super Rugby quarter-final.
Four Kiwi teams are in this weekend’s playoffs with the Canterbury Crusaders hosting the Otago Highlanders in an all-New Zealand quarter-final and the Brumbies qualifying as the Australian conference winner despite a losing 6-9 season record.
It has been a miserable season for Aussie sides, losing all 25 encounters against New Zealand opposition, and the Brumbies face a tough examination to stay in the title race against the Hurricanes in chilly Canberra.
Barrett, the 2016 world player of the year, missed last week’s final match of the regular season against the Crusaders with a sinus infection, while All Blacks hooker Dane Coles will play his first match in four months off the reserve bench following concussion issues.
The Brumbies were smashed 56-21 by the Hurricanes in Napier this season but overall the two-time winners hold an 8-4 advantage over them in Canberra, including a 33-20 play-off win in 1997.
“The Brumbies are a quality side and we’re not reading anything into their results this season,” Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd said.
“They have a proven record in Super Rugby over a long period and will be hard to beat at home.”
Cancer survivor Christian Lealiifano will make his long-awaited return for the Brumbies off the bench, with the Wallaby fly-half out of action since his diagnosis with leukaemia last August.
The seven-time champion Crusaders have made five changes and three positional tweaks to their starting 15 for the South Island showdown with the Highlanders on Saturday.
There is a fresh front row of Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks, while All Black lock Sam Whitelock returns to the starting line-up to captain the team and Ryan Crotty is named at inside-centre.
The Highlanders are boosted by the return to the back line of Ben and Aaron Smith, along with Richard Buckman on the left wing and Rob Thompson in midfield.
“It’s going to be an epic encounter, playing the New Zealand conference winners at home, obviously an extremely tough assignment against an experienced and well performed team,” said Highlanders head coach Tony Brown.
The Golden Lions, who finished top of the regular season standings, will be strong favourites to win their home quarter-final against fellow South Africans Coastal Sharks in Johannesburg.
The Lions have twice got the better of the Durban-based Sharks this season and dominated most aspects of last week’s encounter, which they won 27-10.
“I didn’t think our intensity was good enough in Durban, but there are small things that we’ll fix,” said Lions coach Johan Ackermann. “There remains a great deal of confidence in the team.”
Coach Robbie Fleck insists his Western Stormers can overcome New Zealand’s Waikato Chiefs in Saturday’s remaining quarter-final in Cape Town despite their struggles in past play-offs.
The Chiefs overwhelmed the Stormers 60-21 in last year’s corresponding quarter-final at Newlands.
“It is what it is in terms of quarter-finals,” said Fleck. “We haven’t won those matches, but this is a new team and a new campaign.
“Everyone brings it up — how the Stormers don’t get through. We’ll get through this time, that’s going to be our focus.”
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