WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The start of this weekend's Super Rugby playoffs are expected to be the first of three formalities completed before the trophy is presented, again, to the Christchurch-based Crusaders.
There are quarterfinals, semifinals and a final, but the Crusaders are heavily favored to capture the Super Rugby championship again for the ninth time and for the second year in a row.
The Crusaders face the Durban-based Sharks, the Johannesburg-based Lions meet Argentina's Jaguares, the New South Wales Waratahs play the Dunedin-based Highlanders and the Wellington-based Hurricanes host the Hamilton-based Chiefs in the first round of playoffs.
The overpowering lesson of the regular season has been that the Crusaders — who finished first with a 14-2 record and 17 points clear of their nearest rival — are better than any other team in the competition.
The Crusaders will make the usual protestations that the playoffs are knockout matches and nothing can be taken from granted. But few teams would ever have started the playoffs a firmer favorite to win the tournament than the Crusaders who have a well-rehearsed game plan and strength across the field and on the bench.
They are likely to be further strengthened Saturday by the return from injury of All Blacks captain Kieran Read and center Ryan Crotty. Their only notable absentee is prop Joe Moody, who has a knee injury.
If there is any concern for their Crusaders it is that the Sharks, who won only seven games this season, will be the first South African team they have played in 16 matches. They have won their last three matches against the Sharks but lost at home to the Durban-based team in 2014.
The technical challenge for the Crusaders will be that the Sharks lead the tournament in offloads and have missed fewer tackles than any other team.
"It's fine-tune (time)," said coach Scott Robertson, who led the Crusaders to the title last year in his first season in charge. "We have to be better around some of the key aspects of our game, around our maul and our scrum and mentally we need to be sharper with a couple of our calls that we made and little bit of tactical stuff."
The Hurricanes will host the Chiefs in the first quarterfinal Friday, a week after losing to the Chiefs 28-24 in Hamilton.
After winning 10 consecutive matches during the regular season, the Hurricanes lost three of their last four and are limping into the playoffs. Captain Brad Shields, who will quit the club at the end of the season to play in England, is in doubt for Friday's match because of a rib injury.
The Lions, who won the African conference and finished second behind the Crusaders on the overall table, will be without influential scrumhalf Nic Groom when they take on Argentina's Jaguares on Saturday. Groom will miss the playoffs series with a broken hand.
Captain Warren Whiteley said it was essential for the Lions to exploit the home advantage they will enjoy until the final.
"It's in our hands. It's definitely a mental game," Whiteley said. "Each team in the quarters can't do much now. The hard work has been done a long, long time ago. Now it is about the small little things."
The Waratahs, who finished first in the Australian conference, face a Highlanders team in good form and playing some of the best attacking rugby in the tournament.
"They are very good at reacting to things that their backfield create, forwards included," Waratahs backrower Ned Hanigan said. "They move the ball around and I think they will probably look to have us moving about a fair bit and organized chaos is their game and they are good at it."