Crusaders, Hurricanes contest 1st place in Super Rugby

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Players who were allies during the week will become adversaries again when the Christchurch-based Crusaders and Wellington-based Hurricanes contest first place in Super Rugby in a 15th-round match on Friday.

Ten Crusaders and eight Hurricanes were among 33 players who attended an All Blacks training camp midweek to begin preparations for next month's three-test series against France. Most of those players found themselves rooming together, two to a room, and talk of Friday's match was put on hold for the sake of national team harmony.

Flyhalf Beauden Barrett was one of the only Hurricanes players to have a neutral roommate — he was paired with Chiefs utility Damian McKenzie — and said players were happy to suspend hostilities until match day.

"I'm not too sure if there's any snooping around or anything like that," Barrett said. "At the moment, in my mind, we're in All Black camp. It's just a wee mindset shift in a couple of days' time. It's obviously a big game on Friday, but we have to re-focus in a couple of days."

Finding focus shouldn't be difficult with first place in the New Zealand conference and the overall table at stake. The Crusaders are on top with 46 points — 10 wins from 12 games — while the Hurricanes are a point behind with 10 wins from 11 games, all consecutive.

The match will likely see a clash of styles between the Hurricanes, who favor all-out attack, and the Crusaders, who have adopted a more conservative approach in recent matches, relying to the strength of their forwards.

That strength may be compromised by the absence of new All Blacks captain and lock Sam Whitelock, who has a head injury, and All Blacks props Joe Moody and Owen Franks, who are suspended. Uncapped All Blacks prop Tim Perry sustained a hamstring strain during the All Blacks cap and center Ryan Crotty will miss the match while recovering from a concussion.

Crusaders' Manasa Mataele goes over for a try uring the Super Rugby match between Hurricanes v Crusaders, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, Saturday 10th March 2018.
Crusaders' Manasa Mataele goes over for a try uring the Super Rugby match between Hurricanes v Crusaders, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, Saturday 10th March 2018.

"(The loss of three props) has really tested us," coach Scott Robertson said. "I'm a solution-minded person so I always try and find a way forward."

Regular fullback Jordie Barrett will play at center for the first time in his professional career in a Hurricanes backline reorganized around the loss to injury of Matt Proctor.

New England recruit Brad Shields returns to lead the Hurricanes and coach Chris Boyd has again defended Shields' decision to make himself available for England's June tour to South Africa after being overlooked by the All Blacks.

"I think Brad's been incredibly patient around selection," Boyd said. "I have no problem with the fact that the All Black selectors have ignored Brad or chosen not to select him and gone for other people. But in our mind he was playing well enough to be an All Black a long time ago."

The New South Wales Waratahs' win over the Dunedin-based Highlanders last weekend ended the 40-match losing streak of Australian teams against New Zealand rivals. That relieves some of the pressure on the Waratahs, who take on the Hamilton-based Chiefs on Saturday, and the Queensland Reds, who play the Highlanders.

The Melbourne Rebels face a Sunwolves team on a two-match winning streak for the first time in its history. In South Africa, the Cape Town-based Stormers face the conference-leading Lions in a match which might end the Stormers' playoff hopes.

The Jaguares, second in the South Africa conference, host the Durban-based Sharks on Friday in Buenos Aires to complete the weekend lineup. The Auckland-based Blues have a weekend bye.

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