Pressure increases on defending champion Highlanders
The Highlanders defense of the Super Rugby title has been put in jeopardy by back-to-back losses to the Queensland Reds and Sharks and they now face a crucial match against the ACT Brumbies in the 10th round.
The Canberra-based Brumbies are also under pressure to revive their playoffs campaign after a heavy loss to the Crusaders pushed them back to second place in the Australian conference behind the Melbourne Rebels.
The round is likely to be crucial for several other teams clinging to the tail of the playoffs race including the New South Wales Waratahs who steadied their campaign with a win over the Western Force after losing four of their five previous matches.
In the South African conference, the Bulls and Sharks have to make up ground on the Stormers and Lions.
The Sharks have the toughest challenge of the round, taking on the competition-leading Chiefs in Hamilton. The Bulls meet the Western Force in Perth and the Stormers are at home in Cape Town to the Waratahs.
The Johannesburg-based Lions host the Hurricanes, who also need to stimulate their playoffs challenge after last weekend's one-point loss to the Chiefs.
The Rebels can maintain their unexpected lead in Australia with a win in Auckland against the Blues, who are last in the New Zealand conference and likely out of playoffs contention.
Matches between the Reds and Cheetahs in Brisbane and the Jaguares and Kings in Buenos Aires are between teams also out of the playoffs race. There is small interest in seeing whether the Jaguares — an Argentine team that started the season with high hopes — can bounce back from last weekend's humiliating loss to Japan's Sunwolves.
No team faces greater pressure to re-establish itself in this season's title race than the Highlanders, who won the Super Rugby title for the first time last year and started this season with five wins from their first six games.
One-point losses to the Reds and the Sharks have derailed their momentum, and the problems affecting the Dunedin-based Highlanders in the mid-season are not easily remediable.
Discipline has frayed and the early loss of center Jason Emery to a red card played a major part in their loss to the Sharks. Emery has been suspended for four weeks, compounding concern over selection consistency after recent injuries.
The Highlanders' game lacks structure and their policy of all-out attack would work more effectively if they based it on a solid set piece and field position.
The Brumbies need to rebuild after their 40-14 loss to the Crusader, when they were overwhelmed at set pieces which limited their attack and disrupted defensive cohesion.
"We certainly need a lift out of the boys now," Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham said. "Losing two of our last three is certainly not a record that we're proud of."
An unexpected win over the Highlanders was vital to keeping the Sharks in touch with the leaders in the South African conference, lifting them to 21 points, behind the Stormers (28 points), the Lions (27) and the Bulls (23).
The performance against the Highlanders showed character but they paid for indiscipline with two players given yellow cards. The Sharks have made six changes for their clash with the Chiefs, including resting of hard-working captain Tendai Mtawarira.
"The win against the Highlanders was a great confidence boost," Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold said. "We are playing the best team in New Zealand this Friday and it's going to be a massive game for us.
"We have an opportunity to create history in New Zealand and we need to be clinical and take our chances."
After losing recent matches at home to the Brumbies and Highlanders, the Waratahs desperately needed last weekend's win in Perth and will have to step up further against the Stormers, the best defensive team in the competition.
"We haven't been far off but it's just a matter of being patient and executing at critical moments," hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau said. "It was great to see that happen against the Force and now that we have got a taste for it, it's a matter of taking that into this game against the Stormers."