Crusaders face Lions in reunion of former finalists

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Christchurch-based Crusaders' rematch Friday with a former Super Rugby finals opponent is likely to emphasize how far ahead of the field they are in this season's title race.

The Crusaders will take on the Johannesburg-based Lions, who they met in the 2017 and 2018 finals, winning the first encounter in South Africa 25-17 and the second in Christchurch 37-18 for their eighth and ninth championships.

The Lions are probably not the force this year that they were in those two seasons when they were by far the best South African team. They are currently second in the South Africa conference and only a point behind the first-place Bulls but with a moderate 5-4 record, compared with the Crusaders' 7-1 which puts them atop the overall table.

The Crusaders' only loss, to the New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney, came after the Christchurch terror attacks and after they had to endure a difficult eight days without a match. They have since brushed aside the Hurricanes, 32-8, the ACT Brumbies 36-14 and the Highlanders 43-17 to leave little doubt they are the best team in the competition.

The Crusaders will this weekend again illustrate their almost inexhaustible depth. While they are forced to rest center Jack Goodhue, flanker Matt Todd and lock Scott Garrett in accordance with the All Blacks' World Cup preparation policy, they can bring back test hooker Codie Taylor and winger George Bridge, who scored 15 tries last year but has played only four matches this season because of a knee injury.

Such is the Crusaders' depth that coach Scott Robertson has been forced to omit fullback Will Jordan from his match 23, even though Jordan tops the Super Rugby try-scoring list this season with eight.

"That was a tough conversation to have," Robertson said. "But (Jordan) will get his other opportunity. "We've got two great fullbacks that are playing good footy. And obviously Sevu (Reece) has come in and George Bridge who we couldn't leave out either."

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Robertson said resting players of the caliber of Goodhue, Barrett and Todd against the Lions was a risk but one the Crusaders had to take to meet their commitments to the All Blacks and to ensure their own players were adequately prepared for the final surge towards the playoffs.

"We've got a big run ahead of us," he said. "We're on tour (in rounds 13 and 14), we found that giving them a chance to have two weeks off is huge for them, mental and physical."

No other team can match the consistency of the Crusaders — the Hurricanes are next best with six wins and two losses — or their ability to maintain performance while resting top players. That ability will be critical in the late part of the regular season and the playoffs.

Among other 11th-round matches, the Hurricanes play the Chiefs at Wellington and will hope to improve on their sloppy performance against the Sunwolves. The Hurricanes needed a 22-point rally to beat the Sunwolves in Tokyo last weekend.

The Stormers host the Bulls in a match of importance in the South Africa conference, while the Sunwolves play the Dunedin, New Zealand-based Highlanders, again in Tokyo.

New South Wales takes on the Durban-based Sharks in western Sydney while Argentina's Jaguares play the Brumbies in Buenos Aires.

The Auckland-based Blues, Melbourne Rebels and Queensland Reds have weekend byes.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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