Super Rugby title contenders to clash in Australia
ACT Brumbies, New South Wales Waratahs to battle in Canberra
The ACT Brumbies and New South Wales Waratahs will meet Friday in the most important match of the Super Rugby season to date, buoyed by first-round victories and determined to gain an early advantage in the Australian conference.
The Waratahs beat the Queensland Reds 30-10 in last weekend's opening round and the Brumbies dispatched last year's beaten finalists the Hurricanes 52-10 in results which suggested both teams are title contenders this season.
Friday's match at Canberra comes too early in the season to be decisive but the winner will take an early lead in a strong Australian conference.
Matches in the New Zealand conference may be as influential, including a repeat of last year's final between the Highlanders and Hurricanes who were both first-round losers.
The Auckland-based Blues will try to continue their winning start to the season when they take on the Crusaders in Christchurch. But Blues fans have been dismayed by the decision of new head coach Tana Umaga to make sweeping changes to the lineup that beat the Highlanders in the opening round last Friday.
Argentina's Jaguares, who were the only one of three new teams in Super Rugby to win their opening match — rallying from 24-3 down to beat the Cheetahs — face a tougher task against the Durban-based Sharks, who crushed South African newcomers the Kings 43-8 last weekend.
The Kings and Japan's Sunwolves, who lost 26-13 to the Johannesburg-based Lions in their debut match, both have second-round byes.
Early season highlight
The Brumbies and Waratahs were the most impressive first-round winners and their clash at Canberra Stadium offers an early season highlight. Their rivalry has grown in recent years and may have eclipsed that between New South Wales and Queensland which has been the largest traditional rivalry in Australian rugby.
The match might loom slightly larger at this stage of the season for the Brumbies, who haven't won the Super Rugby title since 2004 and have a recent history of near misses in making the playoffs, than the Waratahs, who were champions in 2014.
Both teams played expansively in the opening round but recent matches between the two have been close: only two tries were scored in their last meeting in 2015 when the Waratahs won 13-10.
"They're always been quite brutal games and I guess we've just got to adapt as best we can to how the game flows and any chance we get to win we'll take," Brumbies co-captain Christian Lealiifano said. "This week's hopefully going to be pretty open, a dry track and it's going to be good for us to play some footy."
Defending champions the Highlanders find themselves under early pressure for a win after last weekend's 33-31 loss to the Blues. But the Hurricanes are under even greater pressure to restore credibility after their crushing loss to the Brumbies.
"We didn't start the season how we intended to and I know the boys are hurting," coach Chris Boyd said. "They'll be going out to put in a performance they're proud of. We're up against last year's champions on their home ground, so it should be a great occasion."
Boyd has named an unchanged lineup, challenging the players who took the field in Canberra last weekend to atone for their failures. It seems unlikely the Hurricanes will do so: their tight forwards were outplayed, their backrowers drubbed at the breakdown and the brittle nature of the backline exposed after the retirements of Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu.
The Highlanders have already lost key backs Richard Buckman and Waisake Naholo to injuries but still look stronger across the field than the Hurricanes.
Umaga's appointment as head coach raised hopes among Blues fans of a new era after years of under-achievement. But Umaga's decision to make six changes to his winning lineup for Friday's match, including the installation of a new scrumhalf and flyhalf, has fans fearing a continuation of the arbitrary selection policies which have prevented the Blues winning a championship since 2003.
"It's a tough competition and we're building a squad and we're going to need that squad," assistant coach Alistair Rogers said. "[The team changes are] not about anything other than building depth and giving opportunities to others."