Sydney – Seven-time Super Rugby champions the Crusaders face dropping out of the top six if they lose to competition leaders the Chiefs in the upcoming penultimate round.
The Crusaders, for so long the benchmark of the southern hemisphere provincial championship, are just three points ahead of the chasing pack as they go into Friday's crunch Super 15 game against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
The Hurricanes upset the Crusaders 23-22 last weekend in Christchurch to move into sixth spot and raise the spectre of the Canterbury side missing a place in the Super Rugby play-offs for the first time in 11 years.
The Chiefs have already locked up top spot in the New Zealand conference and are looking to protect their four-point lead over South Africa's Stormers on the overall standings with just two games left to the top-six playoffs later this month.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has rushed back All Blacks Israel Dagg, Dan Carter and Kieran Read from injury for the must-win showdown with the Chiefs.
“The guys are pretty fired up,” Blackadder said. “We're pleased we've got a good line-up for a big game.
“We're playing the best team in the competition and it's been one of those seasons where we haven't nailed those moments, so this is a good test for us against the Chiefs.”
Former All Black assistant coach Wayne Smith, who is part of the Chiefs backroom staff, said his team had to push on now they had finished top of their group.
“The challenge is, once you've reached one goal, which was being top of the New Zealand conference, can you get the edge to keep pushing on and be top in the whole competition, win a semi-final and get yourself in a final?” Smith said.
“So there's a hell of a lot to play for, but you've got to show you've got the ability to push on and that's what we're trying to do.”
The Stormers have been bolstered by the return of flanker Rynhardt Elstadt for Saturday's match against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
The Cape Town-based outfit must win to keep ahead of the three-time champion Bulls in the South Africa conference and coach Allister Coetzee has opted to forego his usual rotation selection policy.
“This is the best loose trio available for this match,” Coetzee said. “When we go about the breakdown play we must take the referee out of the equation and ensure greater accuracy on our part.”
The Stormers will know what they have to do with the Bulls taking on the Sharks in Durban on Friday.
Bulls captain Pierre Spies said it was vital for his side to beat the Sharks if they wanted to keep alive their hopes of securing a home playoff.
“Our motivation is to get a home quarter or semi-final and we want to get the best result we can,” Spies said.
The Sharks, who are in eighth place on the overall log, also must win to stay in the race for the finals.
The Brumbies face a test against rivals the Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday in a match they must win to keep the defending champions Queensland Reds at bay at the top of the Australia conference.
The Brumbies are five points clear of the Reds but face an underachieving Waratahs team under pressure for results after a dismal season of just four wins from 14 matches.
The Reds are at home to New Zealand's Highlanders on Friday with a defeat for either team probably ending their playoff chances.
In this weekend's remaining games, the Blues host the Force in Auckland, the Lions play the Rebels in Johannesburg, while the Hurricanes have the bye. – Sapa-AFP