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Off-Field Issues Distract Chiefs, Highlanders

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Off-Field Issues Distract Chiefs, Highlanders

Sydney, March 11 NZPA - Off-field dramas blight the preparations of two New Zealand Super 14 rugby sides while referees are evidently on notice to lift their games when round five action opens in Hamilton tomorrow night.

The standing down of Australian Paul Marks for failing to award the Sharks a potentially matchwinning penalty try against the Waratahs last week may be scant consolation for the winless South Africans but his demotion at least indicates Sanzar is acting to address questionable performances by its match officials.

Chiefs and Highlanders management also meted out their own brand of disciplinary action against errant personnel despite the ramifications it may have on their respective matches against the Crusaders and Bulls.

Damaging No 8 Sione Lauaki has been omitted from the Chief's line-up at Waikato Stadium tomorrow night as he faces assault charges, while in South Africa the Highlanders' already difficult task in Pretoria has not been helped by the suspensions of All Black Adam Thomson and first five-eighth Michael Hobbs.

The pair were punished for breaching a team curfew in the aftermath of the Highlanders' 0-33 loss to the Stormers in Cape Town last weekend.

Already weakened by halfback and captain Jimmy Cowan's tour-ending finger injury, the Highlanders must now combat the rested and previously rampant reigning champions at Loftus Versfeld early on Sunday (NZT) without two influential players.

Discouragingly for the Highlanders, the Bulls typically click back into form after the bye, having recorded wins after the break over the last four years.

They have also dished out some fearful second half punishment during the unbeaten start to their title defence, racking up 30 unanswered points against the Brumbies and another 30 to subdue the Waratahs.

While the Bulls' title credentials may only be clearer once they hit the road, the second-placed Chiefs and fifth-placed Crusaders should put down a marker on their prospects in New Zealand's feature match of the round.

The Crusaders got back on track after being upset in Brisbane with home wins over the Sharks and Blues, and now the Chiefs must regroup after their own slip up against the Reds last week.

The contest looms as an intriguing match-up between the pragmatic Crusaders and a Chiefs side blessed with offensive firepower out wide.

In contrast to the Highlanders, New Zealand's other team touring South Africa have enjoyed smoother preparations as they plot a much-improved performance in Cape Town.

Buoyed by Ma'a Nonu's surprising sidestepping of the judiciary despite last weekend's spear tackle against the Cheetahs, the Hurricanes have also been reinforced by the arrival of backs Conrad Smith and Tamati Ellison for Sunday's (NZT) match against the third-placed Stormers.

Tightening discipline has been a focus for the Hurricanes who were kicked off the park in Bloemfontein; they will also need a cutting edge in attack given the Stormers have conceded just 38 points in four games, the stingiest defence in the competition.

South Africa's remaining teams are expected to gain little traction in Australia.

The Lions play the Waratahs tomorrow night, with former All Blacks and Auckland first five eighth Carlos Spencer making his 100th Super rugby appearance.

Durable former Wallabies flanker Phil Waugh will log his 119th appearance for the Waratahs, a franchise record.

The Lions have lost on all seven visits to the Sydney Football Stadium while the Sharks' track record in Canberra is equally uninspiring.

The Sharks have not won in the Australian capital since 1998 and face a side with the luxury of naming an unchanged match 22 for the fourth consecutive round.

In Sunday's all-Australian derby, the bottom-placed Western Force return from the bye to face the Reds in Brisbane with new recruit, former Chiefs pivot David Hill, making his debut for old coach John Mitchell.

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