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RugbyU: Chiefs set to reclaim Super 15 lead

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Waikato Chiefs will reclaim top place in the Super 15 standings on Friday by winning a New Zealand derby against visiting Wellington Hurricanes.

Title-holders Chiefs trail Australian side ACT Brumbies by three points in the southern hemisphere provincial championship, but have played two matches less.

Third-place Northern Bulls can also go above the inactive Canberra outfit if they collect a bonus-point victory on Saturday at home to struggling fellow South Africans Southern Kings.

Otago Highlanders host record seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders in another New Zealand showdown and Western Stormers have home advantage against Central Cheetahs in a second all-South African affair.

The lone fixture with an international flavour pits the South African Coastal Sharks, who parted ways with coach John Plumtree this week after a poor season, against the Auckland Blues from New Zealand in Durban.

None of the five Australian franchises are involved this weekend or next because of Test matches against the British and Irish Lions in Melbourne and Sydney.

Chiefs, who overwhelmed travel-weary Sharks in the previous final, have made three changes to the side that conquered Crusaders 28-19 last month ahead of the three-week Test window.

Right-wing Lelia Masaga, outside centre Tim Nanai-Williams and tight-head prop Ben Afeaki are drafted in as Chiefs seek a double over the 'Canes' after a five-point win last month.

"Hurricanes are still in the competition mathematically and have everything to play for. It will be pretty physical -- two positive teams on the field having a real arm wrestle," said Chiefs coach Dave Rennie.

The 'Canes' are seven points behind sixth-place Crusaders, who occupy the last play-offs place, and skipper and outside centre Conrad Smith is among seven returning All Blacks in the starting line-up.

Coach Mark Hammett ducked queestions about snatching an improbable place in the knock-out stage, saying his aim was simply to defeat Chiefs, Otago Highlanders (home) and Crusaders (away).

Highlanders have had a rotten season, lying bottom with only two wins from 13 outings, but a 38-28 early June success over the Blues proved they are capable of much better than the place on the standings suggests.

While the men from Dunedin play for pride, a Crusaders team stacked with All Blacks back from a 3-0 series whitewash over France cannot afford any slips as they seek to consolidate a top-six place.

"It is a huge game for us," admitted veteran scrum-half Andy Ellis, "as the next three are must-win matches. Highlanders really stood up against the Blues and played some stunning rugby."

Although the Blues lie eighth, they are best placed of the teams outside the top six to squeeze into the play-offs, provided they can overcome the Sharks and Cheetahs on a two-match South African tour.

"We are still in the hunt," stressed veteran Blues hooker Keven Mealamu. "Our aim is to go over there (South Africa) and make sure we push the team a bit further in this competition."

Sharks and 2012 semi-finalists Stormers have flopped this season -- losing seven of 13 games each -- and the Cape Town-based side will lack unfit centre and skipper Jean de Villiers for the visit of fifth-place Cheetahs.

The revelation of this season, the Cheetahs will look to stars like hooker Adriaan Strauss, centre Robert Ebersohn and right-wing Willie le Roux to secure a win that would greatly boost hopes of a first top-six finish.

A bicep injury has sidelined Bulls No. 8 and skipper Pierre Spies for the rest of the season and Springboks JJ Engelbrecht (centre), Morne Steyn (fly-half) and Juandre Kruger (lock) start on the bench against the Kings.

dl/pi

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130626/rugbyu-chiefs-set-reclaim-super-15-lead