Sydney – Australian conference leaders ACT Brumbies' dominant scrum of recent weeks will face a tough test against a seasoned Auckland Blues campaigner in Super Rugby this weekend.
The Brumbies' pack have earned two penalty tries from overwhelming their opposing forwards in recent weeks but will scrum against the All Blacks' most-capped prop, loosehead Tony Woodcock, and a huge Blues front eight in Canberra on Friday.
The Brumbies can narrow the six-point gap to Super 15 leaders Coastal Sharks with victory over the Blues, with the South Africans having a bye this weekend.
The front row has been one of the Brumbies' strengths. Led by Wallabies hooker Stephen Moore alongside the 61-Test capped Ben Alexander, they have an almost 90 percent scrum success rate this campaign.
The Blues have had the worst performing scrum with a 67 percent success rate, but Alexander is respectful of Woodcock's experience.
“If you want to talk about consistency, (Woodcock's) been consistent over a long time and the scrum laws have changed a lot over that time,” Alexander said, while admitting that some elements of the new scrums laws introduced this year may have worked in the Brumbies' favour.
“The hit's been taken out of it. I don't think we were really ever trying to get a big hit. So maybe that's benefited us,” he said.
The Brumbies, under first-season coach Stephen Larkham, have won four of their six games but historically strike trouble with the Blues in Canberra.
The Blues, who will have All Blacks blindside flanker Jerome Kaino back as team captain, have the added incentive of taking over at the top of the New Zealand conference if the Waikato Chiefs falter in South Africa this weekend.
The Chiefs are expecting their suspect lineout to be tested by the Central Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
The defending champions' main weakness was exploited in the 34-34 draw with the Northern Bulls in Pretoria last weekend and Chiefs forwards coach Tom Coventry expects it will again be tested against the Cheetahs.
“It's a big part of their game,” Coventry said.
“They grow up with it (in South Africa). There are technical issues that we need to look at that are going to make us better at stopping it. A lot of it is attitude but it's a difficult thing to stop once it gets going,” Coventry said.
It's been a rocky few weeks for the Chiefs. They were upset 18-15 by Western Force on the way over to South Africa and last weekend they needed a stoppage-time touchline conversion to snatch a draw with the Bulls.
But the Chiefs have a good record in Bloemfontein, winning two and drawing another in their four meetings.
Fourth-placed Golden Lions have the seven-time Super Rugby champions Canterbury Crusaders in Johannesburg on Saturday.
The Lions, promoted back into Super 15 this year, have been one of the surprises with a 4-2 record, while the Crusaders have struggled and are 2-3, leaving them bottom of the New Zealand conference.
Wallaby star Israel Folau is expected to return for the New South Wales Waratahs against the Western Stormers in Cape Town after missing the Tahs' 32-10 drubbing by the Sharks last weekend.
“I'm feeling pretty good actually. My throat's feeling fine and there's nothing really I'm too worried about,” eight-try Folau said. “I'm more than half a chance to play.”
Regular captain Flip van der Merwe is fit again and back to lead the Bulls against the Wellington Hurricanes in Napier on Saturday.
The 67-cap lock takes over the captaincy and number five jersey from Victor Matfield, who will only play on the Australasian tour if there is an injury to the other locks, coach Frans Ludeke said.
In this weekend's other games, the Otago Highlanders host the Melbourne Rebels and the Queensland Reds are at home to the Western Force. – Sapa-AFP