Christchurch -The 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 the 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
In the other last eight match-ups, Brumbies play the Sharks,
the Hurricanes face the Bulls and Argentina's Jaguares host the Chiefs.
The Crusaders topped the regular season ladder at a canter despite
many of their numerous All Blacks being injured or rested for long
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 Mauger 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
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."
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
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
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.
15 David Havili, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Whetu Douglas, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Substitutes: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor
15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Tei Walden, 11 Sio Tomkinson, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock (co-captain), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 1 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Substitutes: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Shannon Frizell, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Elliot Dixon