bulls by a nose

SYDNEY - Injuries and suspensions have added an extra dimension to this weekend's Super 14 semifinals, which are looming as the most open in years.

SYDNEY - Injuries and suspensions have added an extra dimension to this weekend's Super 14 semifinals, which are looming as the most open in years.

South Africa's Bulls are slight favourites to win the title after finishing the regular season in first place, but face a formidable challenge from the three qualified New Zealand teams.

Their semifinal opponents at Loftus Stadium in Pretoria tomorrow are the Canterbury Crusaders, defending champions and seven-time winners.

The Bulls will face them without centre JP Nel, suspended for a dangerous tackle in last weekend's narrow win over the Sharks, but can count on lock Bakkies Botha, who escaped a ban.

The Crusaders have surprised everyone by making the playoffs after losing three of their first four games, and have a habit of producing their best at this time of the season.

With long-time coach Robbie Deans having packed up and gone to Australia and Richie McCaw and Dan Carter missing for most of the season, the Crusaders looked dead and buried before a late resurgence saw them scrape into the semis on percentages.

The Crusaders have been hit by injuries in the lead-up to the match, however, with lock Brad Thorn and scrumhalf Andy Ellis both in doubt.

The Waikato Chiefs, who host the Wellington Hurricanes at Hamilton in today's first semifinal encounter, have an even longer casualty list as they chase their first appearance in the final.

The Chiefs have lost scrumhalf Brendon Leonard, prop Ben May and centre Richard Kahui to dent their hopes of going one better than their only previous semifinal in 2004.

The Hurricanes have made the playoffs for the sixth time, and the fifth in the past seven seasons, but have reached the final just once, losing to the Crusaders in 2006.

They boast the best attacking record in the competition this season but lost to the Chiefs two weeks ago and have injury concerns over lock Jeremy Thrush. - Reuters

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