SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Auckland Blues have the perfect opportunity to kickstart their stuttering Super Rugby Pacific campaign in round six this weekend when they take on unbeaten competition leaders the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton.
The Blues, who dominated the regular season last year, have already suffered two losses and turned in an unconvincing performance in their round five win over Western Force, albeit after a stomach bug had ripped through the squad.Fourth in the standings behind the Chiefs, Wellington Hurricanes and ACT Brumbies, the Blues welcome back All Blacks lock Patrick Tuipulotu for a match in which they could make a season-defining statement.
"The Chiefs have been the form side so far this season," said Blues captain Dalton Papalii, looking forward to Saturday's clash.
"But there's a focus and intensity to what we've been doing this week, we're ready to head down the road and take the game to them."
The Brumbies were the other team to hold an unbeaten record until they sent a weakened side to Christchurch to take on the Canterbury Crusaders last week and were duly beaten.
The big Wallabies names return for this week's home clash against the New South Wales Waratahs, who have slumped to 1-4 after starting the season with a loss to the Brumbies in Sydney.
Despite their loss to the Chiefs last week, the Waratahs proved again that they are far from the rabble that went winless two years ago and Brumbies halfback Nic White is preparing for a titanic battle at Canberra Stadium on Saturday.
"You heard Sam Cane talk about them after the weekend, how much the Chiefs had to be on their game when the Waratahs are on their game," said the Wallabies scrumhalf.
"We're fully aware that they're hurting so they will be desperate."
The Melbourne Rebels have been one of the most improved outfits in the competition so far this season but they face a major challenge in Saturday's early game when they take on Fijian Drua in the heat and humdity of Suva.
The Drua proved with their famous win over the Crusaders in round three that they are a different proposition when they are playing in front of a big crowd in Fiji, as the Rebels discovered when they lost a pre-season match 24-0.
"It wasn't a good experience at the time but it was a good learning experience about accepting the hard conditions and not letting it affect our game plan and our attitude," said Rebels fullback Joe Pincus.
Competition organisers SANZAAR on Thursday revealed that the law variations they introduced this season were having the desired effect in ridding the game of dead time and making it more entertaining.
There have been a record average of 61 points per match this season, SANZAAR said, and there should be plenty more when the Wellington Hurricanes, who are already closing on 200 points for the season, host the Western Force on Sunday.
Moana Pasifika open round six against the Otago Highlanders in Auckland on Friday before the Queensland Reds take on the might of the Crusaders at Brisbane's Lang Park.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford)