WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The unbeaten Crusaders and defending champion Hurricanes will face a major test of their title ambitions Saturday when they meet in the 12th round of Super Rugby.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders are unbeaten in 10 matches and sit atop the New Zealand conference while the Wellington-based Hurricanes are in third place with eight wins from nine games, separated from the Crusaders by the Hamilton-based Chiefs who have nine wins from 10 games.
Both the Crusaders have strolled through recent matches and Saturday's encounter marks a considerable step up in intensity for both teams with only five regular-season rounds remaining before the playoffs. Matches between New Zealand teams which dominate the tournament standings have been the best in Super Rugby this season and Saturday's clash at Christchurch is likely to see another increase in standards.
"In all these New Zealand derbies you can feel the boys drive the intensity a little bit more than the coaches," Hurricanes assistant coach Jason Holland said. "It's great to be playing them because they're on top of the table and we're not far behind."
The Hurricanes and Crusaders are both playing outstanding attacking rugby this season — the Hurricanes lead the tournament with 63 tries — and that will likely lead to an eager battle for possession.
Hurricanes flyhalf Beauden Barrett has been superb in guiding his team's attacking play and he looms as the greatest threat to the Crusaders' unbeaten record. Their ability to limit the tactical threat of Barrett's kicking game will go a long way to deciding the outcome.
The Crusaders have gained a new lease on life this season under rookie head coach Scott Robertson. After wretched starts to recent seasons, they have begun this year with an unprecedented winning streak.
But while they have easily won recent matches against inter-conference rivals — beating South Africa's Bulls 62-24, Cheetahs 48-21 and the Stormers 57-24 in their last three matches — they have been less comfortable against New Zealand opponents. The Crusaders needed remarkable come-from-behind performances to beat the Dunedin-based Highlanders and Auckland-base Blues early in the season.
Their attack has developed in recent weeks and they have been formidable even in the absence of several leading players.
"Attack-wise they're pretty accurate in what they're doing at the moment and they've got a good style of play," Holland said. "They can be pretty direct and their set piece is pretty solid, but they can also play with a bit of width, so they've got a lot of threats. But I think the first one we've got to stop is their set piece and their attack being strong around the maul and scrum."
Both teams will be without their regular captains on Saturday. Crusaders' captain Sam Whitelock is under-suspension and his teammate, All Blacks captain Kieran Read is injured while the Hurricanes will be without Mark Coles, who is recovering from a concussion.
In other 12th-round matches, the Johannesburg-based Lions are likely to extend a club-record seven-match winning streak when they play the ACT Brumbies in Canberra on Friday. Lions coach Johan Ackermann has made five changes to his lineup for the match, naming an all-new front row of Corne Fourie, Robbie Coetzee and Johannes Jonker.
The Auckland-based Blues begin the round at home to the Cheetahs while the Melbourne Rebels and Queensland Reds meet Saturday in a low-key Australian derby. The Bulls are home to the Highlanders in Pretoria, the Kings host the Durban-based Sharks in Port Elizabeth and the Jaguares play the Western Force in Buenos Aires.
The Chiefs, New South Wales, Stormers and Sunwolves have weekend byes.