Wellington - The Crusaders will look to newly re-signed Richie McCaw and Dan Carter to lead them against the first-place Reds on Sunday in a match that may be a preview of this season's Vodacom Super Rugby final.
All Blacks captain McCaw joined flyhalf Carter this week in re-signing for four years with the Crusaders and New Zealand Rugby Unions, lifting any uncertainty about the futures of two of the Crusaders' key players.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has called on the New Zealand union to act with similar haste to secure the future of All Blacks inside centre Sonny Bill Williams, who will play against the Reds on Sunday before entering the ring for his fourth professional boxing bout.
Blackadder says league convert Williams is as important to the All Blacks and Crusaders as McCaw and Carter and should be offered similar incentive to remain in New Zealand.
McCaw and Carter's four-year deals include provisions to take breaks from rugby, or play overseas on short-term contracts. Blackadder said Williams should be offered a similar deal which would allow him to remain with the All Blacks and Crusaders while pursuing his boxing interest.
"I think he's just as important (as McCaw and Carter) to be honest," Blackadder said. "He's just been inspirational."
Reds coach Ewen McKenzie agrees, saying a key part of the Reds' preparation for Sunday's match has focused on the threat posed by Williams.
"I am not surprised (by Williams' success in rugby)," McKenzie said. "He is an excellent athlete, got good skills. They have adapted their game around it and profited from that."
McKenzie said while Williams' offloads were a dangerous attacking weapon, they carried a level of risk the Reds hoped to exploit. Williams has offloaded around 43 times this season but often loses the ball in tackles while trying to pass.
"He's got a good offloading game but those offloads don't always come off," McKenzie said. "There is a bunch of turnovers that come with it. Go through the stats. Some games he was effective and others he wasn't."
McKenzie said the Crusaders posed a broader theat as Reds tries to post its 12th straight home win.
"We will be coming up with a strategy that is right for us, not spending all our time on one player," he said. "There are All Blacks everywhere."
The Reds-Crusaders match is the most significant in the 15th round, carrying more influence on potential playoff combinations than any other. The Reds are atop the table after 15 rounds, the Crusaders in fourth place but only six points behind.
On current form, the two teams appear the best in the competition and increasingly seem on course to meet in the final on July 9.
While the Auckland Blues head the New Zealand conference, two points ahead of the Crusaders, they have lost over the last two weeks to the Reds and Stormers.
The Cape Town-based Stormers looked impressive in beating the Blues in Auckland last week but had to come from 19-3 down to do so. The Blues' defence - the most impressive feature of their game this season - has begun to unravel in recent weeks.
In other 15th-round matches that bear on the playoffs, the third-place Stormers will play the Brumbies in Canberra, the fifth-place Waratahs l meet the seventh-place Sharks at Durban, the sixth-place Highlanders will play the last-place Lions at Dunedin and the eighth-place Bulls take on the Cheetahs in Pretoria. Eight teams will compete for six playoffs spots over the last four weeks of the season.
Waratahs coach Chris Hickey believes his team can finish in fourth place if it can win demanding matches in South Africa over the next two weeks against the Sharks and Bulls. Both South African teams are immediate playoff rivals.
"If we can pick up both those games I think even a fourth place is not out of the question," Hickey said.
The Sharks were challenging the Stormers for top spot in the South African conference until last week's loss to the Bulls, which left them five points behind the conference leaders.
The Highlanders will play their second-to-last match at Dunedin's Carisbrook stadium when they host the Lions. Next week's match against the Western Force will be the last Super 15 match played at the stadium before the Highlanders move to Dunedin's new World Cup venue.
15 Tom Marshall, 14
Brent Ward, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Zac Guildford,
10 Dan Carter, 9 Willi Heinz, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6
George Whitelock, 5 Chris Jack, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey
Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Substitutes: 16 Quentin MacDonald / David
Hall, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Luke Romano. 19 Matt Todd/Joe Wheeler, 20 Steve
Alfeld, 21 Matt Berquist, 22 Ryan Crotty