Wobbly Blues endanger Kiwi winning streak in Super Rugby

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) An Australian team may have its best chance to end a two-year losing run against New Zealand sides in Super Rugby when the New South Wales Waratahs host the Auckland-based Blues in the weekend’s 12th round.

The Kiwis’ winning streak stands at 36 matches against Australian teams and should reach 37 when the defending champion Crusaders play the Melbourne Rebels on Friday in Christchurch, given the Rebels have lost their last four games and the Crusaders have won their last five.

But the Waratahs have a real chance to snap the streak on Saturday when they play the Blues in Sydney. The Waratahs lead the Australian conference with five wins and a draw after eight games while the Blues are once again at the bottom of the New Zealand conference with two wins from nine games.

While the Waratahs are coming off their second bye of the season, both teams had embarrassing losses in their latest games. The Waratahs were beaten 29-0 at home by the Johannesburg-based Lions while the Blues were beaten 20-13 by the Jaguares, becoming the first New Zealand team to lose to the Argentinian side.

Both also have had off-field distractions. The Blues have to fend off almost daily speculation over the future of head coach Tana Umaga as they stumble through another unsuccessful season, already with no hope of reaching the playoffs.

Recently the Waratahs had to deal with controversy over anti-gay comments made by Wallabies fullback Israel Folau. And this week the team fined Wallabies scrumhalf Nick Phipps for misbehavior during his bachelor party – Phipps, who is the Waratahs’ club captain, apologized during a news conference for urinating on a bar.

The Waratahs will enter the match as favorites on the basis of their superior winning record, though they have padded that record with wins over rivals in the weak Australian conference while the Blues owe their losing record to regular games against much stronger New Zealand teams. The Blues haven’t won a New Zealand conference match in two years.

Captain Augustine Pulu said the Blues are not dwelling on the prospect of becoming the team that ends the New Zealand winning streak.

“We don’t want to think about that too much,” Pulu said. “We know the Waratahs can play They’ve been more dynamic lately and their forward pack can get around and do that grunt work really well. For us it’s about fronting up and getting that set piece right first.”

The Crusaders are confident of extending the streak against the Rebels and coach Scott Robertson says the beleaguered Blues might also keep the run alive.

Robertson said even with the axing of the Western Force at the end of last season, the Australian teams lacked the player depth to be fully competitive over the course of the long Super Rugby season.

“The depth of squad is always tested and that’s the most critical thing in Super Rugby,” he said. “If you’ve got the ability to go three or four deep in a position and still find ways to win, you’re a chance.”

In other 12th-round matches, the Hamilton-based Chiefs host the Jaguares, who have won their last three matches in Australia and New Zealand and now loom as playoffs hopes. The Hurricanes meet the Lions in Wellington in a repeat of the 2016 final.

The Stormers host the Pretoria-based Bulls in Cape Town and the Durban-based Sharks meet the Dunedin-based Highlanders. The ACT Brumbies, Queensland and the Tokyo-based Sunwolves, who have lost their first nine matches and are the only winless team in the tournament, have weekend byes.