WELLINGTON – The Canterbury Crusaders have named a full-strength team for the first time this season as Super Rugby's pace-setters take their quest for a third straight title, and 10th in all, into the competition's knockout phase.
The defending champions, packed with All Blacks stars, are overwhelming favourites to maintain a daunting home record and down South Island rivals Otago Highlanders in the quarter-finals on Friday.
They have not lost a playoff in Christchurch since Super Rugby launched in 1996 - a sequence of 21 matches - and are currently on a 27-game unbeaten run at home dating back to July 2016.
The return of front-row forwards Owen Franks and Codie Taylor will only shorten their odds, allowing the Crusaders to field the entire All Blacks' tight five of Franks, Taylor, Joe Moody, Scott Barrett and Sam Whitelock.
In the other last eight match-ups, ACT Brumbies play Coastal Sharks, Wellington Hurricanes face Northern Bulls and Argentina's Jaguares host Waikato Chiefs.
The Crusaders topped the regular season ladder at a canter despite many of their numerous All Blacks being injured or rested for long periods.
Senior players such as Kieran Read and Whitelock have been trickling back, with the return of Franks (torn shoulder) and Taylor (broken finger) finally giving the defending champions access to all their stars at the sharp end of the season.
Franks said he was wary of the Highlanders, who scraped into the last eight but have been boosted by the return of All Black fullback Ben Smith after more than a month out with a hamstring injury.
“A lot of people thought they might not be in there so they've almost got that nothing-to-lose feel, which is pretty dangerous to play against,” he said.
Highlanders coach Aaron Maugher bristled at suggestions his side were lucky simply to make the finals, saying his players were itching to “have a crack” at their highly fancied neighbours.
“We've had people sticking the knife in but we're confident with our game and where it's at,” he said. “The scoreboard is nil-all at the moment.”
Bumbies ‘representing Australia’
Sharks coach Robert du Preez also took a potshot at critics after a last-gasp win over the Stormers completed an unconvincing run to the finals, labelling sections of the media “cockroaches”.
His team faces a Brumbies outfit on a six-match winning streak, bursting with confidence and out to give inspirational captain Christian Lealiifano a victorious send-off.
Cancer survivor Lealiifano, who revealed this week he is off to Japan at the end of the season, has sparked talk among the Brumbies' faithful of the team recapturing the glory days of the early 2000s.
Coach Dan McKellar said the Brumbies were also playing for national pride as the sole Australian team to reach the finals.
“There's a sense that we're representing the country,” he said.
“You get a bit sick of rugby getting beaten up in Australia for one reason or another. I'd love for us to keep working hard and put some really positive stories together.”
Quarter Final confirmed! It’s a Southern showdown this Friday night when we take on the @Highlanders 🙌🏽 Early Bird discount is available through to midnight tomorrow - sign up to receive the password at https://t.co/b2U3R1jVjL #playoffsfooty #battleofthemainland #CRUvHIG— BNZ Crusaders (@crusadersrugby) June 15, 2019
The Brumbies beat the Sharks to win the 2001 title and have never lost a playoff to a South African side.
The Hurricanes have won the most matches of any team this season with 12 victories, but did not meet the Bulls, who have troubled them in the past.
The Hurricanes, who will be back to full strength after resting several key players last week, have a 11-10 winning record over the men from Pretoria.
The last time they met was February 2018, when the Bulls edged a 21-19 victory at home.
The Jaguares will host a playoff match in Buenos Aires for the first time after finishing second on the ladder in a standout season, losing only one of their past 10 matches.
However, they were defeated in their only two previous meetings at home against the Chiefs.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)