Cross-conference contests hold interest in Super Rugby
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Teams with a proven ability to win across conference lines have a chance to consolidate their standings in Super Rugby during an Easter round of mainly undistinguished match-ups.
The tournament's fifth round features only one true derby, the usually anticipated clash between Australian rivals the Queensland Reds and New South Wales Waratahs. This year's meeting is likely to lack its traditional luster as the Reds have yet to win a match and the Waratahs are coming off back-to-back losses for the first time in three years.
Japan's Sunwolves and Argentina's Jaguares are at home to South African teams in matches which are between rivals from the African group but which lack the feel or provenance of derbies.
More importance will be attached to matches involving the table-topping Sharks and Chiefs.
The Sharks remain the tournament's only unbeaten team, though their record was slightly blemished by last week's 25-25 draw with the Bulls in a match they should have won. They now face a Crusaders team which has won its last two games and demonstrated its attacking ability in last weekend's 57-24 win over the Kings.
The Durban-based Sharks have also beaten the Kings — 43-8 in round one — and had impressive wins over the Stormers and Jaguares before last week's draw with the Bulls, which they might have converted into their fourth-straight win with an extra-time penalty.
Saturday's match at Durban will likely be the toughest both teams have faced this season. The Crusaders have already indicated they will name their strongest-possible lineup, including an All Blacks-strength forward pack which will share almost 300 test caps.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read is likely to play alongside international teammates including prop Joe Moody, hooker Codie Taylor and scrumhalf Andy Ellis. Flanker Matt Todd and center Ryan Crotty are also being considered after recent injuries.
"One of the things we a mindful of with selection is putting the best team on the field for this weekend's game and to also understand that it's a three-week trip and its' a long season," Crusaders assistant coach Tabai Matson said.
While the Crusaders scored eight tries against the Kings last week, their attack still depends to a large extent on the strength of their scrum and the ability of winger Nemani Nadolo to fracture opposition defenses.
The Crusaders beat the Sharks 52-10 in Durban last year but this season's Sharks have conceded only 52 points in four matches.
"They will play to their strengths," Matson said. "The Sharks will have a pretty strong forward-orientated game and also a kicking game.
"And they have also got probably the best attacking fullback at the back in (Willie) le Roux. We also really mindful of that, to expect the unexpected."
The ACT Brumbies set the early pace in this season's tournament, winning their first three matches before last weekend's 31-11 loss to the Stormers in Cape Town. That was their third loss in their last five matches in South Africa and highlighted their costly inability to regularly win away matches against South African opponents.
The Brumbies have a chance to regain winning form on Saturday against the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs, whose only win in four matches this season came at the expense of Japan's Sunwolves and then by only one point. While the Brumbies have won eight of 11 meetings with the Cheetahs, three of their last four matches have been decided by fewer than six points.
Argentina's Jaguares will also be determined to overcome the disappointment of last weekend's loss to the Chiefs when they host the Stormers on Saturday. The Jaguares seemed set to make their first-ever match in Buenos Aires more historic when they led the Chiefs with three minutes to play but the Hamilton-based team snatched the match with a late try.
After playing in South Africa and Argentina in the last two rounds, the Chiefs return home to face the Western Force on Saturday. If the Chiefs can win again after such an arduous travel schedule, then beat the Brumbies in Canberra last week they will have negotiated the toughest part of their season and made themselves title contenders.
In other matches, the Hurricanes host the Kings in Wellington, the Melbourne Rebels meet the Highlanders who are seeking their second-straight win in Australia and the Sunwolves meet the Bulls.