WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Super Rugby competition will resume Friday after a four-week break for June tests, kicking off with an historic match in Fiji between two of the leaders in the race for the title, the Crusaders and Chiefs.
With three rounds remaining in the regular season the Christchurch-based Crusaders sit atop the overall standings, three points ahead of the Hamilton-based Chiefs and the Johannesburg-based Lions who lead the South African conference.
The late rounds of the regular season will see a clamor not just for playoffs places but for the greater prize of home playoffs advantage, which is distilled in Friday's match between the Crusaders and Chiefs. Only the winner of the New Zealand conference will have home advantage when the playoffs begin on July 22.
The winners of the two African conferences and the Australian conference will also host playoffs.
One of the key factors as the season resumes will be in discovering what toll mid-year test matches have taken on international players, particularly in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The All Blacks swept Wales 3-0, the Wallabies lost 3-0 to England and the Springboks beat Ireland 2-1 in series that likely took a physical toll on leading players from all three nations. The Jaguares, who are heavy with Argentina test players, will also be affected after the Pumas' series against France as, to some degree, will the Sunwolves who had several players involved in a Japan's recent test against Scotland.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie has taken a relatively cautious approach, including All Blacks flyhalf Aaron Cruden, hooker Nathan Harris and scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow on the bench for Friday's match in Suva. Cruden didn't play in last week's third test against Wales because of a neck injury but Rennie says he is fit. Instead, veteran Stephen Donald, who led the Chiefs to a 40-7 midweek win over Wales, will start at No. 10 jersey.
Lock Brodie Retallick and flanker Sam Cane, who started in all three tests against Wales, are in the Chiefs' starting 15.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has six All Blacks in his starting side and another on the bench for the match which might determine first place in the New Zealand conference.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read, fullback Israel Dagg, lock Sam Whitelock, props Owen Franks and Wyatt Crockett and hooker Codie Taylor will start, and prop Joe Moody is in the reserves. Center Ryan Crotty and Luke Romano are unavailable.
Read said returning to Super Rugby six days after playing a test was challenging.
"Your mind starts whirring around again trying to remember all those calls from four weeks ago," he said. "You've got all the All Blacks calls in your head still.
"The body is in good shape. It's always sore after test match footy but I'll make sure I look after it for the next couple of days and be ready to go on Friday."
In South Africa, the Lions take on the Durban-based Sharks, who remain in line for a wildcard place among the eight playoffs qualifiers. A win would make the Lions' position atop the combined South African conference almost impregnable.
But the Lions' campaign was dealt a major blow when captain Warren Whiteley injured his shoulder in the third test against Ireland which likely will rule him out of the remainder of the Super Rugby season.
The Lions said medical advice showed Whiteley doesn't require surgery yet, but could miss six weeks of rugby. Jaco Kriel takes over as captain.
In the Australian conference, the ACT Brumbies and New South Wales Waratahs are in a tight contest for top spot. On current standings only one team will likely qualify for the playoffs.
The Brumbies and Waratahs, each on 34 points, have tough finishes to the regular season.
The Waratahs travel to Japan to play the Sunwolves on Saturday, then face the Wellington-based Hurricanes and Auckland-based Blues. The Brumbies host the Queensland Reds on Friday before matches against the Blues and the Perth-based Western Force.
History will also be made Saturday when Australia's Amy Perrett acts as assistant referee for the Melbourne Rebels vs. Cape Town-based Stormers, becoming the first woman to officiate in a Super Rugby match.