WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) As many as a dozen All Blacks who played in last weekend’s third test against the British and Irish Lions will line up for either the Crusaders or Hurricanes on Saturday in a crucial New Zealand derby in the last round of the Super Rugby regular season.
The importance of the match for the defending champion Hurricanes is underscored by the fact that all of their available All Blacks – including six who played in the drawn test at Eden Park – are backing up only seven days later.
Fullback Jordie Barrett and center Ngani Laumape, who both made their first starting appearances for the All Blacks last weekend, return to the Wellington-based Hurricanes backline along with winger Julian Savea, flyhalf Beauden Barrett and scrumhalf T.J. Perenara. Backrower Ardie Savea was included among the forwards and will start beside lock Vaea Fifita, who made his All Blacks debut against Samoa last month.
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The Crusaders had still to name their lineup Thursday but All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock was expected to return to the captaincy and other veterans of the Lions’ series, including props Joe Moody and Owen Franks, hooker Codie Taylor and winger Israel Dagg were under consideration.
While much has been decided in the 17-week regular season, much is at stake in what may be a dramatic round in which the playoff fate of some teams will depend on the results achieved by others.
The four conference winners have already been found – the Crusaders in New Zealand, the Canberra-based Brumbies in Australia and the Lions and Stormers in South Africa – but seedings through the playoffs will be determined this weekend.
If the Crusaders beat the Hurricanes, they will finish the regular season unbeaten and will take the No. 1 seeding which guarantees home advantage through the playoffs. If they lose, the Johannesburg-based Lions can take the No.1 seeding with a win over the Durban-based Sharks.
The Lions and Crusaders can’t be displaced from the No.1 and No.2 seedings. The Cape Town-based Stormers and Canberra-based Brumbies have the No. 3 and No. 4 seedings sewn up by virtue of their top placings in their conferences.
The Dunedin-based Highlanders are likely to finish as the No. 7 seed and the Sharks as the No. 8 seed if, as expected, they lose to the Lions on Saturday.
That would mean the No. 1 seed – either the Crusaders or the Lions – will likely host the Sharks in the quarterfinals and the No. 2 seed will likely face 2015 champions the Highlanders.
Things become complicated and more urgent from that point.
The No. 4 seeded Brumbies will face either the Hurricanes or the Hamilton-based Chiefs depending on which of those teams finishes in fifth place. The Hurricanes have to beat the Crusaders to achieve that finish, while the Chiefs have an easier assignment against the Brumbies.
The Chiefs have decided to rest All Blacks Brodie Retallick, Anton Lienert-Brown and Sam Cane who played in all three tests against the Lions but have selected flyhalf Aaron Cruden, who came off the bench in each of those matches.
The Brumbies, who can’t be displaced from first place in the Australian conference, are resting 12 frontline players to ensure their fitness for the playoffs.
That may hand the Chiefs a win which carries them into fifth place and into a rematch with the Brumbies in the quarterfinals.
Matches between the Chiefs and Brumbies and between the Highlanders and Queensland Reds give Australian teams their last chance in the regular season to beat a New Zealand opponent and to slightly improve the worst-ever season Australian teams have experienced in Super Rugby.
Australia’s five teams have combined this year for only 20 wins, which is 10 fewer than last year – their previous worst collectively in this format.
One of the questions around the New Zealand teams is whether they will emerge from the lengthy break in the Super Rugby season for the British and Irish Lions tour with the same momentum they enjoyed before.
The Crusaders, who had won 14 straight before the break, need to restart quickly.
”We’ve got a lot to play for,” assistant coach Brad Mooar said. ”It’s really important to us to put a proud performance against the Hurricanes, pick up from where we were in the Super Rugby competition and stay on top of the table overall.”
Near the other end of the standings, South Africa’s Kings and Cheetahs will meet Friday in the last match for both in Super Rugby. Both teams are being cut from the competition as it reduces from 18 to 15 teams next season.