Wellington, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealanders are watching the unfolding Super Rugby season with increasing trepidation as each round brings new injury concerns for the All Blacks as they prepare for their mid-year series against the British and Irish Lions.
The 11th round features the competition-leading Crusaders — unbeaten in nine games — traveling from Christchurch to face the Bulls in Pretoria and the Dunedin-based Highlanders meeting the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. The Hamilton-based Chiefs host the Queensland Reds and the Blues play the New South Wales Waratahs.
Bulls captain Adriaan Strauss said the Crusaders were setting the benchmark in the competition, but tipped a classically tough encounter at Loftus Versfeld with rugged backrower Jacques Potgieter joining the hosts XV and the visiting squad missing Sam Whitelock and Keiran Read.
The teams “have the ability to bring out the best in each other and these are the type of games you want to be involved in,” Strauss said. “We know what is at stake — now it is time to go out there and deliver the goods.”
The Wellington-based the Hurricanes face the Stormers, who are second in the South African group but have conceded more than 50 points in matches against the Crusaders and Highlanders
While New Zealanders have little reason at the moment to be concerned about the outcome of the competition — which will likely be won by one of the New Zealand teams that currently occupy four of the top five places on the combined standings — the toll on the All Blacks’ preparation for the June series against the Lions is increasing.
All Blacks captain Read, vice-captain Ben Smith, backrower Jerome Kaino and hooker Dane Coles are among leading players who are sidelined with injuries.
Read broke his thumb in the Crusaders’ match against the Cheetahs and may be sidelined for six weeks; Kaino has undergone surgery to repair a knee injury which makes it unlikely he will play another Super Rugby match before the Lions series begins; Coles has concussion symptoms which are affecting his ability to recover from calf and knee injuries; and Smith has a sprained ankle.
At the same time, lock Whitelock — who seems the most likely candidate to assume the captaincy if Read misses the first test — has had his preparation for the Lions series disrupted by a two-match suspension. Whitelock was banned for striking Cheetahs’ prop Charles Marais in retaliation to a dangerous tackle which went un-penalized.
Among other players struggling with injuries, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Israel Dagg — who both cover wing and fullback — are also currently sidelined. Dagg has undergone knee surgery and hopes to be fit within two weeks while Milner-Skudder has a broken foot and is targeting a June 9 return.
With the start of the Lions series only six weeks away, each new injury leaves players in a race against time to be fit for the three-test series.
Many of the injuries occur in the derby matches between New Zealand teams which achieve a physical intensity close to test match level. Kaino was injured in a match between the Auckland-based Blues and the Hurricanes, Coles in a match between the Hurricanes and Highlanders.
The All Blacks’ injury problems have not escaped the attention of the Lions. In an interview with Britain’s Sky Sports, Lions coach Warren Gatland carefully noted the extent of the injuries to leading players and said his All Blacks opposite Steve Hansen has good cause to be concerned.
The Lions, in contrast, have received positive news recently about injuries to captain Sam Warburton, scrumhalf Conor Murray and lock Alun Wyn Jones.
“I spoke to Sam yesterday and he feels that he could play now … I expect him to play before he goes to New Zealand,” Gatland said. “The prognosis with (Murray) looks pretty positive in terms of hopefully getting back and getting a game for Munster as well.”
In other 11th-round matches, the Johannesburg-based Lions, on top of the South African combined conferences with eight wins from nine matches, play the struggling Melbourne Rebels, the Durban-based Sharks host the Western Force and Argentina’s Jaguares are at home to Japan’s Sunwolves.