Wellington, Feb 26 NZPA - New Zealand's hobbling Super 14 rugby teams will at least match last week's one-win return but prayers for better in the third weekend of action could well go unanswered.
The Crusaders host the Hurricanes in a battle of the giants tomorrow night but beyond that it will be an upset if any of the Highlanders, Chiefs or Blues can turn around defeats from last week.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry observed this week the New Zealand teams all looked rusty, something that is customary for February.
"They'll get better as the season goes on, obviously," he said.
However, some of them had better get a move on or the current South African-Australian shared mortgage in the top four could cement.
Super rugby's most frequently-played scenario -- it is the 11th time the Crusaders have hosted the Hurricanes in Christchurch -- should kick-start the weekend on a high.
Both teams have suffered their gains and losses, with the Crusaders farewelling hooker Corey Flynn for the season with an arm injury.
That is at least countered by the return from the ward of skipper Richie McCaw and fellow All Blacks forwards bruiser Brad Thorn.
The Hurricanes have had their issues at hooker, too, with Dane Coles banned for a booze-fuelled indiscretion last weekend.
Their All Blacks strengthening comes in the midfield, where Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu are reunited after curious bench duties last week.
The Hurricanes were the only victorious New Zealand team last weekend but will do well to repeat tomorrow, having won just once against their bogey side in Christchurch.
Last year's semifinal there was won 33-22 by the Crusaders, the scoreline doing no justice to their utter domination that night.
The Highlanders follow immediately afterwards against the unbeaten New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney, a match that will come down to the odd point if any sort of history is observed.
The Waratahs have opened 2009 with two narrow wins, and the Highlanders two narrow defeats, both continuing the pattern of last year.
It is quirky that the last six meetings of the sides has been won by the visiting side, although the Highlanders' overall record is just three from 13.
The Waratahs won 15-12 in a drenched Dunedin last year while the New Zealand side scraped home 26-25 in Sydney the year before.
Still missing are injured All Blacks Jimmy Cowan and Jamie Mackintosh, leaving them as firm outsiders to end the Waratahs' eight-game home winning streak.
Henry's patience with the New Zealand teams didn't extend to the Chiefs, with him describing their set piece work against the Waratahs as "abysmal" in last weekend's loss.
The scrum and lineout were a debacle in Sydney and will need rapid repair against a tough Sharks outfit who have emerged as genuine title hopefuls.
The last time the Sharks were in Hamilton they lost 27-35, with visiting coach Dick Muir famously stating a sniper would have been the only thing to stop powerful Chiefs No 8 Sione Lauaki that night.
Lauaki returns from injury on Saturday but the news isn't so good for crocked All Blacks backs Richard Kahui and Mils Muliaina.
The Blues are strengthened for their match against the Stormers, hoping to quickly put their embarrassing 26-59 loss to Bulls behind them.
Three new fathers -- winger Joe Rokocoko, halfback Taniela Moa and No 8 Jerome Kaino -- will make a difference but the Stormers at home are formidable foe.
Like Waratahs counterpart Phil Waugh, Blues flanker Justin Collins will play his 100th Super rugby match.
The ACT Brumbies can remain unbeaten if victorious at home.
Their unchanged side will meet a Western Force side dealing with another week of off-field turmoil, following the announcement that star playmaker Matt Giteau will return to the Brumbies next year.
Competition leaders the Bulls face cross-veldt rivals the Lions in Johannesburg while the Queensland Reds round out the weekend with their first home match, against the winless Cheetahs on Sunday night.
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