Crusaders hope to extend Super Rugby winning streak

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock will return from suspension to lead the Crusaders in Friday's Super Rugby match against the Chiefs in Fiji as they attempt to extend their winning streak this season to a club and tournament-record 12 matches.

With last weekend's 20-12 win over the defending champion Hurricanes, which Whitelock missed while serving a two-match suspension for striking, the Crusaders matched the record of the Crusaders team which was unbeaten in 11 regular-season matches on the way to the 2002 Super Rugby title.

Still in their sights is the Stormers' 2012 record of 14 wins in a regular season — not consecutive — and the record of the Crusaders team which won 16 consecutive matches over two seasons in 2005 and 2006.

Last weekend's convincing win over the Hurricanes, built around the overwhelming superiority of a test-strength forward pack, left little doubt that the Crusaders are capable of ending the 10-year drought that has followed the franchise's seventh Super Rugby title in 2007.

A win over the Hamilton-based Chiefs, who are two-time Super Rugby champions, would increase the Crusaders' lead in the New Zealand conference but would still leave them with work to do after 13 of 17 regular-season rounds to clinch first place and home advantage through the playoffs.

The Chiefs are second in the New Zealand conference, eight points behind the Crusaders with nine wins from 10 games and unbeaten in their last four matches. They beat the Crusaders 23-13 in the equivalent match in Suva last year.

The Hurricanes are in third place in New Zealand after last weekend's loss to the Crusaders which ended their six-match winning run while the Highlanders, in fourth place, remain a threat to the Crusaders if they can extend a streak which currently sits at a club record seven games.

The Hurricanes are at home in Wellington on Saturday to the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs, while the Highlanders face a slighly more demanding match against the Western Force in Perth.

The Crusaders are hoping the return of Whitelock will help them keep up the energy they need to continue winning. Whitelock takes back the captaincy from Matt Todd who led the team well in his absence and in the continued absence of All Blacks captain Kieran Read who is injured.

Coach Scott Robertson said Whitelock is "fresh, real fresh. Everyone's trying to pull him back. He's an energetic man and he's really clear what he wants out of his group. He was gutted to miss those two opportunities."

Center Ryan Crotty, who missed last year's match against the Chiefs in Fiji, said the Crusaders were eager to repair a recent poor record against their Hamilton-based rivals.

"They have probably had the upper hand over us the last few years," Crotty said. "That's only added motivation for us."

The Chiefs will be without All Blacks center Charlie Ngatai who is again showing concussion-like symptoms. Ngatai played his first match in a year in the Chiefs' most-recent match against the Queensland Reds but has again been suffering headaches after training.

The Johannesburg-based Lions, second on the overall championship table and four points behind the Crusaders, will attempt to extend their club-record seven-match winning streak when they host the Pretoria-based Bulls on Saturday.

Last weekend's win over the ACT Brumbies in Canberra improved the Lions' record to 10 wins from 11 matches, leaving them 13 points clear of the Sharks in the Africa 2 conference and almost assured of a home playoff with matches remaining against the Kings, Sunwolves and Sharks.

The Lions struggled to beat the Brumbies 13-6, winning only 40 percent of possession and being forced mainly into a defensive role. They will likely face a similar challenge against a strong Bulls pack.

In other weekend matches, the Stormers host the Auckland-based Blues in Cape Town on Friday, the Sunwolves take on the Sharks in Singapore on Saturday and the Southern Kings host ACT in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. New South Wales plays Melbourne on Sunday in Sydney to conclude the round.

The Buenos Aires-based Jaguares and Queensland have weekend byes.