WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The defending champion Crusaders can bring some on-field certainty to Super Rugby in the 15th round while grappling also with uncertainties off the field.
A home win over the Auckland-based Blues in Christchurch on Friday would likely be enough for the Crusaders to clinch top spot in the New Zealand conference with three subsequent rounds remaining in the regular season.
Ideally, the Crusaders would need seven points to make sure of first place but a win over the Blues, especially with the bonus point, might be enough taking into account the possible outcome of other matches.
The Crusaders have a nine-point lead in the New Zealand conference over the Wellington-based Hurricanes, who have a bye this weekend.
Both teams have three games remaining and the Crusaders have an easier run to the playoffs with home matches against the Blues and Rebels. The Hurricanes face matches in South Africa against the Sharks and Lions before hosting the Blues in the last round.
The Crusaders have clearly been the best team in Super Rugby this season, losing only one of 13 matches. But they have drawn two of their last three games and that may have given opponents some sense that the Crusaders aren't unbeatable.
Those draws, against the Sharks and Stormers, mean the Crusaders are heading towards the playoff with slightly less momentum than they might have hoped.
Allegations of misbehavior by players during the recent tour to South Africa also create an unwanted distraction for the nine-time champions, though one unlikely to derail their campaign. Flyhalf Richie Mo'unga and winger George Bridge, who are among players implicated in the allegations, will play this weekend while New Zealand Rugby and the Crusaders conduct a joint investigation.
The Blues have been seemingly incapable of winning away from home and, while the Auckland team kept slim playoff hopes alive with last week's win over the Chiefs, those hopes likely will end with a loss to the Crusaders.
That might make the Blues more desperate, but desperation is unlikely to be enough to carry them to victory.
"As the tournament gets into its later stages, there's going to be desperation in the air every week. That's something we've felt right the way through," Crusaders assistant coach Brad Mooar said. "It's more about what we need to do to be ready to beat the Blues rather than being wary of an opponent.
"We respect all and fear none and that won't be any different this week."
Desperation is more likely to be evident in the Australia and South Africa conferences where competition for playoffs places is more extreme.
Only six points cover the top four teams in Australia, and six points cover all five teams in South Africa. Each match in this last month of the regular season will tilt the playoffs race in those regions.
Matches this weekend between the Brumbies and the Pretoria-based Bulls, the Johannesburg-based Lions and Durban-based Sharks, the New South Wales Waratahs and Jaguares, the Rebels and Sunwolves, the Queensland Reds and Chiefs, the Stormers and Highlanders will all have an impact on the contest for playoffs spots.
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson spoke for many teams when he said "we are in the fight for our lives."
Perhaps only the Crusaders have the certain knowledge they are going to the playoffs.
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