The three leading teams in Super Rugby face challenging derby matches in the fourth round as interest focuses closely on the top and bottom of the standings.
The defending champion Crusaders, who are unbeaten after three rounds, face the winless Chiefs in New Zealand, and the Melbourne Rebels, who have two wins from two games, face the ACT Brumbies for the second time this season.
In South Africa, the conference-leading Sharks (2-1) are at home in Durban to the Pretoria-based Bulls, who have the same record but are two bonus points behind on the ladder.
The Sharks made a bright start to the season with convincing wins over the Sunwolves and Auckland-based Blues, then faltered in an unexpected home loss last weekend to the Cape Town-based Stormers. The Bulls blitzed the Stormers in the opening round but lost in Buenos Aires to the Jaguares before rebounding with a convincing third-round win over the Johannesburg-based Lions.
The match between the Sharks and Bulls on Saturday shapes as the best of the fourth round, allowing one team to snatch the early initiative in the South African conference.
Bulls coach Pote Human hopes his team can recover the form it showed against the Stormers in round one.
“We didn’t play well the next weekend in Argentina but delivered a much better effort last weekend, so I am confident we will be up for this one as well,” he said. “The local derbies certainly bring out the best in our teams so this will be a physical, hard-fought affair again.”
The Sharks were outplayed up front by the Stormers last week and will need to improve in that area to beat the Bulls, who have a strong and physical pack.
“We’re not happy with our performance as a pack against the Stormers,” Sharks prop Juan Schoeman said. “We are looking to up the ante up front, especially at set piece as well as in the loose phases and even in the breakdown.
“The Stormers definitely brought it physically and they had the upper hand but that is in the past. Our focus is on the Bulls.”
Matches between the Rebels and Brumbies are usually keenly anticipated but the anticipation of Friday’s match has been dulled a little by the fact they met only three weeks ago when the Rebels won 34-27.
The Crusaders’ clash with the Chiefs is also less enticing because the Crusaders are 3-0 and the Chiefs 0-3. The Chiefs look unlikely to break their winless streak this weekend after last weekend’s shambolic loss at home to the Sunwolves, which gave the Japan-based club its first ever win in New Zealand.
Chiefs coach Colin Cooper said he had been working hard to ensure there were not recriminations among players over the team’s poor start to the season.
“(There’s) been bit of finger pointing and soul searching and we’re in a hole basically,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable, it’s disappointing. So we got to look at how we can get out of that.”
The poor starts to the season by the Chiefs and Blues focus attention on the bottom of the table, where they and the Queensland Reds are the only teams without a win so far.
After losses to the Crusaders, Sharks and Jaguares, the Blues desperately need to beat the Sunwolves in Tokyo on Saturday to put their season back on track. But the Auckland-based team, which has the largest player catchment of any New Zealand franchise, seem locked in the same rut that has seen it miss the playoffs in each of the last eight years.
The Reds, meanwhile, will be aiming to end a nine-loss losing streak to archrival New South Wales.