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Early losses raise pressure on coaches in Super Rugby; hard calls follow

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Coaches of teams beaten in last weekend's first full round of Super Rugby have reacted with unsual swiftness and severity, meeting poor performances with a raft of selection changes.

In a seven-month competition, a single loss near the start of the season might seem at worst a minor hiccup, a cause for cautious analysis and slight adjustment. But it may be a measure of the pressure coaches find themselves under that some have acted ruthlessly to prevent losses turning into streaks which could quickly undermine a team's title hopes.

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has dropped All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg and made a change at flyhalf as he tries to correct his team's performance after its 18-10 loss to defending champions the Chiefs.

Colin Slade will start at fullback in Friday's match against the Blues at Auckland and in his first appearance for the Crusaders since 2010.

Both the Crusaders and Blues were first round losers and that vastly increases the stakes in a match which opens the tournament's third round. Neither can easily absorb another loss so early in the season without attracting the greater scrutiny and the steadily-increasing pressure that descends on losing teams.

Blackadder said as the season began that he was prepared to mark the "hard calls" necessary to tackle individual or collective losses of form.

He has acted on that pledge by dropping Dagg and moving quickly to staunch a problem at flyhalf by replacing Tyler Bleyendall, who missed five shots at goal in the first half of last week's match against the Chiefs, with Tom Taylor, who missed two of four as a second half substitute.

Blues coach John Kirwan has also dropped his starting flyhalf as he addresses his team's 29-21 loss to the Dunedin-based Highlanders. The Auckland-based Blues trailed 24-0 after a disastrous first half and couldn't make up that ground despite an improved second half performance.

Kirwan has demoted flyhalf Chris Noakes and handed the starting role to 20-year-old rookie Simon Hickey, a player largely untested at Super Rugby level.

"Pre-season is over. This is a tough game," Kirwan said. "We'll pick on form next week too. Both teams are under pressure and we need the points."

In South Africa, three-time champions the Bulls have become the first team this season to lose back-to-back matches and now take on the resurgent Lions who, with the Sharks, have started with two wins from two games.

Bulls coach Frans Ludeke has made four changes to his starting lineup, calling up veterans Jacques-Louis Potgieter and Victor Matfield.

"It is still early in the competition but we have to be honest with ourselves," Ludeke said. "We cannot afford a repeat of the first two weekends where we were lethargic and inaccurate in our set plays."

Jaco Taute returns at fullback, causing a backline shakeup for the Cape Town-based Stormers who face the Wellington-based Hurricanes after being beaten 34-10 by the Lions in their opening match last weekend. The Hurricanes are also without a win after going down 29-7 to the Durban-based Sharks.

"I've learnt from this competition that you take nothing for granted, it is never easy," Stormers coach Allister Coetzee said. "You have to take your opportunities.

Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett has dropped All Blacks prop Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen as he addresses the scrum weakness which was a feature of the loss to the Sharks.

"I'm happy with the effort and the preparation so the majority of the group get a second chance," Hammett said. "But there were some performances that weren't at the level we need them to be and we aren't hiding from that."

The Queensland Reds and New South Wales Waratahs meet in Sydney in a continuation of one of Australia's sternest inter-state rivalries while the Melbourne Rebels play their first match of the season against the Cheetahs and the Western Force host the ACT Brumbies.

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