Rugby-Blues target rare Christchurch win to lock up Super Rugby top spot

  • Rugby
  • Thursday, 23 May 2024

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Auckland Blues can lock up top spot in Super Rugby Pacific and home advantage throughout the playoffs on Saturday but only if they can beat the Canterbury Crusaders in Christchurch for just the second time in two decades.

The match pitches a Blues side riding high on the top of the standings on the back of a nine-match winning streak against a Crusaders team in full crisis, wallowing in 10th place with two wins from 12 matches.

The Blues broke an 18-year win drought in Christchurch two years ago but it is fair to say the Crusaders, who lost a string of All Blacks after winning a seventh straight Super Rugby title last season, are not a patch on the 2022 side.

Coach Rob Penney, who took over when Scott Robertson moved on to the All Blacks job, is clearly feeling the pressure of failing to meet expectations in his first season in charge at a club where winning is usually the default.

Crusaders chief executive Colin Mansbridge issued an apology on Thursday after Penney was caught by microphones using a profanity to describe a reporter who had questioned him about his job security after a press conference on Wednesday.

"If you're looking to apportion blame, I'll leave that to others," Penney had told the reporter in a tense exchange.

"All I know is that everyone in the organisation is working really hard to get the outcomes that we're deserving, and would love to see."

So far this season, that hard work has not been enough to stop an unprecedented slide for reigning Super Rugby champions and a loss to the Blues on Saturday would see their slim hopes of making the playoffs disappear.

The Blues know they will still face a furious forward battle and need to be wary of All Blacks winger Sevu Reece, who has played out of his skin this year and scored a competition-leading 12 tries.

Blues number eight Hoskins Sotutu has scored nine tries and will again be at the back of a pack that has overpowered most opposition this season, while Rieko Ioane returns in the centres and Stephen Perofeta at fullback.

"We simply need to keep improving each week," said coach Vern Cotter.

"Wins down in Christchurch are rare for the Blues and we want to make sure we prepare well this week and go down with a focus and determination befitting of the occasion."

The penultimate round of the regular season opens with another blockbuster on Friday night when the second-placed Wellington Hurricanes visit the Waikato Chiefs, who are fourth.

The ACT Brumbies, who are third, will have the chance to take immediate advantage if the Hurricanes slip up in Hamilton when they host the Melbourne Rebels in Canberra in Friday's second match.

(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Stephen Coates)

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