WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Crusaders and Highlanders will put lengthy unbeaten streaks on the line when they meet in a shortened 15th round of Super Rugby that also will feature the first tournament match played in Samoa.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders are unbeaten in 13 matches this season — equaling the longest winning run in the team's history — and the Highlanders have won nine straight, also a club record, since their fourth-round loss to the Wellington-based Hurricanes.
The Dunedin-based Highlanders' only other losses this season were to the Chiefs in round one and the Crusaders in round two, when they gave up a 27-6 lead in the second half to lose 30-27.
The Highlanders' form upswing since then has been pronounced and included wins over the New South Wales Waratahs, ACT Brumbies, Melbourne Rebels and Western Force from Australia, South Africa's Stormers, Cheetahs and Bulls and Japan's Sunwolves.
However, their only win over a New Zealand opponent came at the expense of the Auckland-based Blues who are in last place in the domestic conference. The Highlanders are in third place in New Zealand, three points behind the Hurricanes and 14 points behind the Crusaders, who have likely already clinched first place and home advantage through the playoffs.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown has described the challenge that his team faces against the Crusaders on Saturday as "massive."
"To go and play the Crusaders in Christchurch in front of a full stadium where both teams are going to go hell for leather and throw the ball around and be really physical," Brown said, "it's going to be an intense match. There's no better way to finish before the (international) break."
Super Rugby breaks for four weeks to give room to New Zealand's test series against the British and Irish Lions and for Australia and South Africa's mid-year test matches.
The tournament goes into that break with a history-making match on Friday between the Queensland Reds and the Blues in the Samoa capital Apia which forms part of 55th anniversary celebrations of Samoa's independence.
The match is Super Rugby's latest venture into the Pacific Islands after the Crusaders and Chiefs played in Fiji in each of the last two years. Both the Blues and Reds have substantial Samoa contingents within their squads and the match helps recognize the massive contribution of all Polynesian players to New Zealand and Australian rugby.
The Reds hope the match at a neutral venue will also allow them to improve their recent poor form which included a loss last week to the Western Force. Australian teams have lost all 19 matches against New Zealand opponents so far this season.
"We know the strength of the New Zealand conference," Reds coach Nick Stiles said. "It's been a tough year for Australian sides but hopefully over here in Samoa of all places we can be the first Australian side to beat a New Zealand side in 2017."
All Blacks flanker Jerome Kaino, who was born in American Samoa, arrived in Apia in advance of the remainder of the Blues squad and said the town is buzzing and showing support for the Auckland team.
"It's all starting to get a good vibe here in Apia and everyone is starting to get excited," Kaino said. "You see the Blues flags flying in town, flying on cars so it's all exciting as we draw nearer to the game.
"I haven't seen many Reds flags to be honest. One fact that I know: there will definitely be some blue, whether it's the Manu Samoa blue or the Blues blue. Regardless, as long as there's blue at the stadium we will be happy with that."
The Chiefs, who play the New South Wales Waratahs, and the Hurricanes, who play the Force on Saturday, have a chance with the Blues to enlarge New Zealand's winning record against Australian sides this season.
The ACT Brumbies will meet the Melbourne Rebels in a match which may be vital in deciding whether the Brumbies are able to hold on to first play in the Australian conference.