Bulls B-Team can affect Super14 play-off race

Defending champions the Bulls added a note of intrigue to the final round of rugby’s Super 14 by making 14 changes for their top-of-the-table match against the Stormers, possibly handing a win to their hard-pressed South African compatriots.

The Pretoria-based Bulls, who lead the tournament by eight points, are certain of hosting one of next week’s semifinals while six other teams, including the second-place Stormers, are competing for three other playoffs spots.

By benching most of their stars for Saturday’s match at Cape Town – the last of the regular season – the Bulls have increased the Stormers’ chances of winning and also securing a home semifinal, while jeopardizing the playoffs chances of other teams.

Coaches of Australian and New Zealand teams still in contention warned that the Bulls might use their unassailable position in the standings to hand a lifeline to the Stormers, who could miss the playoffs if they lose on Saturday.

The New South Wales Rugby Union, whose Waratahs must beat the Wellington Hurricanes Friday to have any chance of making the semis, said it would complain to tournament organizers SANZAR if the Bulls named a weakened team but later withdrew that threat.

Even Australia coach Robbie Deans, who coached the Crusaders to five Super rugby titles, joined the debate, saying the Bulls were within their rights to name a weaker team but took a risk if they meddled too much with established lineups.

“They have earned the right to choose their own path,” Deans told The Australian newspaper.

“When you sit that far ahead of everybody else, you are entitled to make your own selection choices as you do week-to-week. Personally, I think it’s probably not in their best interests, to be honest.”

Waratahs coach Chris Hickey, whose team could miss the playoffs if the Stormers beat the Bulls, said it was for the Bulls to decide on selection.

“That’s their issue,” Hickey said. “History will show that sometimes these things backfire on you anyhow.

“But, look, all we’re focused on is Friday night. If we take care of what we need to there, we’ll be in the finals series.”

Bulls coach Frans Ludeke defended his selection which leaves top players such as Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Morne Steyn, Gurthro Steenkamp, Gary Botha, Wynand Olivier and Pierre Spies out of the starting side.

Only Jacques-Louis Potgieter remains from the starting 15 which beat the Crusaders last week and is playing in a different position.

“This is not a B-team,” Ludeke said. “There are seven national players in this team and we have a lot of respect for our opponents. But we are here to run our own race and we are doing nobody favors.”

The Crusaders play the Brumbies and the Waratahs play the Hurricanes in the first two matches of the round. The winners of those matches will likely continue to the semifinals while the losers are eliminated.

The seventh-place Reds have to beat the Highlanders Saturday, then rely on an unlikely combination of results in other games to continue a season of over-achievement.

A win by the Stormers over the Bulls would likely take a playoffs place out of the Reds’ reach.

The final round of the season finds the Crusaders, seven-times champions, in sixth place. After three-straight losses on the road, the Crusaders return to Christchurch to face a Brumbies high after recent derby wins over the Reds and Waratahs.

“It’s great that we are playing the Brumbies, who I’m sure will look to play an open, attacking, game. It’s winner takes all and we’re all looking forward to it,” Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said.

The Brumbies will once again be without former Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock as they try to extend their season and deny the Crusaders an 11th appearance in Super rugby playoffs.

“It’s a very simple formula,” coach Andy Friend said. “No bonus poi

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