Crusaders, Highlanders clash in Super Rugby, round 12
The Crusaders have the chance to consolidate first place on the Super Rugby table when the seven-time champions play defending champions the Highlanders on Friday in the opening match of the 12th round.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders moved into first place when they beat Queensland last weekend while the Highlanders upset the previously first-placed Chiefs.
The Hamilton-based Chiefs have a bye this weekend which will allow them to nurse injuries and recharge their batteries ahead of the last five rounds of the regular season. Their form had begun to falter, with narrow wins over the Blues, Sharks and Hurricanes, before the Highlanders inflicted their first loss in eight games.
Last weekend's round also saw the ACT Brumbies and New South Wales Waratahs move past the Melbourne Rebels to the top of the Australian conference.
The Brumbies face the Rebels in a critical match in Melbourne on Friday while the Waratahs meet the Bulls.
In South Africa, the Cape Town-based Stormers and Johannesburg-based Lions lead their respective conferences while the Pretoria-based Bulls — a point behind the Stormers — and the Durban-based Sharks — a point behind the Lions — remain in playoff contention.
The Stormers have a chance to extend their lead when they take on the Sunwolves in Singapore while the Sharks can continue their midseason resurgence when they meet the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. The Lions host the Blues who struggled to beat the Kings last weekend for their first away win in two years.
The Wellington-based Hurricanes will meet Queensland on without five players suspended for breaking curfew on the night before a game during their recent tour to South Africa: Victor Vito, Cory Jane, Julian Savea, Ardie Savea and Chris Evens.
"Though some people may not see staying out late as being particularly serious, the team set their standards very high this year and everyone bought into that at the start of the season," coach Chris Boyd said.
The Hurricanes loss to the Sharks dropped them back to fourth place in New Zealand.
The Crusaders have bolstered their lineup for the match against the Highlanders by recalling three New Zealand internationals to their starting XV: Owen Franks at tighthead prop, Luke Romano at lock and Andy Ellis at scrumhalf. They have looked imposing on a seven-match winning streak, though Friday's match is their first against a New Zealand opponent since round two.
"There is nothing like a classic Southern Derby to bring out the best in both the Crusaders and the Highlanders," coach Todd Blackadder said. "It is always a great game with an amazing atmosphere and with both teams playing well and hungry for the win there is sure to be plenty of passion on the field this Friday."
The Highlanders have had a tougher draw beating the Chiefs, Brumbies, Waratahs and Hurricanes, often thriving while playing with a deficit of possession.
The Brumbies have named an unchanged lineup for their match with the Rebels — the first meeting between the teams this season.
Backrower Colby Fainga'a said the match is the biggest the Rebels have played this season but is not a "must win."
"There are still a few games to go so I don't think it's the be all and end all," he said. "We have put a lot of effort into this game to preview these guys and what we have done well in the past few games and what we are working on."
The Stormers say there will be no room for complacency in their clash with the first-year Sunwolves.
"There are one or two things we are working on and it's going to be important to get our set pieces right and not think about them too much," prop J.C. Janse van Resnburg said.