WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Christchurch-based Crusaders can consolidate their place atop the Super Rugby table when they play the Hamilton-based Chiefs in an abbreviated 16th round, before the tournament breaks for June internationals.
The Crusaders moved five points clear in first place when they convincingly beat their closest rival, the Wellington-based Hurricanes, last weekend and have the chance to lengthen that lead and extend their winning streak to 10 games against the fifth-placed Chiefs.
The manner in which the Crusaders beat the Hurricanes, while missing six current All Blacks who were either injured or suspended, has led some commentators to declare it a certainty that the eight-time champions will win the title for the second straight year.
Coach Scott Robertson said the victory of a severely-depleted side over the star-studded Hurricanes "was just a very proud night in the Crusaders history."
"I think the fans weren't sure what to expect and that probably sums it up, the amount of emotion that was shown post-game," Robertson said.
He said the Crusaders are not taking for granted a win on Saturday in what appears an easier match against a Chiefs team heavily hit by injuries.
"The Chiefs have an extremely good scrum," Robertson said. "Given their injuries they have done a great job with the players that have come in for them - as have we, so it will be a great battle."
The Hurricanes must quickly recover from their poor performance against the Crusaders to keep pace with the tournament leaders three rounds from the end of the regular season.
Coach Chris Boyd said any lessons learned from the loss to the Crusaders would not be applicable to the Highlanders, who play a different type of game.
"They kick more than anyone else," Boyd said. "They're very good at strike play. They're quite prepared to say 'well you have the ball and we'll knock you over and you make the mistake and we'll pick it up and score.'"
The New South Wales Waratahs also have a chance to consolidate their lead in a tight Australian conference before Super Rugby breaks for test series between Australia and Ireland, New Zealand and France and South Africa and England.
The Waratahs, who face the Queensland Reds on Saturday, lead the conference by a point from the Melbourne Rebels who meet the Auckland-based Blues in a round from which the South African teams are absent.