Unbeaten Crusaders block out title talk
Wellington - The unbeaten Crusaders have shut out Super Rugby title talk as they grapple with an arduous schedule that has them playing in their fourth country in as many weeks on Saturday.
The competition leaders are in Melbourne to play the struggling Rebels at the end of a month that has taken them from South Africa, New Zealand, Fiji and now Australia.
With an 11-point lead in the tough New Zealand conference, only three games left in the regular season and the impending return from injury of All Black Israel Dagg, the Crusaders have reason to feel confident.
Victory over the Rebels, who have lost all but one game this year, would be win number 13, equalling the record held by the 2002 Crusaders - who featured current coach Scott Robertson.
But despite dominating the competition, the seven-time champions insist they are not yet thinking about the play-offs.
"If we are already in them, tell me where and when. Who are we playing?" assistant coach Brad Mooar said, when it was suggested the Crusaders will cruise into the knock-out phase.
"There is a lot more footy to go yet. We are totally focused on the Rebels this week."
The Crusaders' focus may be owing to the fact that they still have to play the Highlanders and the Hurricanes again, while their nearest rivals for the coveted top spot, the Lions, have an easier run-in.
The top South African side, only three points behind the Crusaders, have the Kings this weekend followed by the Sunwolves and Sharks.
The Crusaders are on 54 points and the Lions 51 while the Hurricanes and Chiefs, both with a game in hand, remain within striking distance on 43.
In the much-criticised competition format, which guarantees the four conference winners fill the top four places with home advantage in the play-offs, the Stormers (30 points) and Brumbies (23) are ranked third and fourth with the Hurricanes and Chiefs fifth and sixth.
On Friday, the Chiefs travel to the neighbouring lues whose loss to the Stormers last week saw their play-off hopes replaced by the role of potential spoilers.
The Blues have not beaten the Chiefs since June 2011, but apart from the notable exception of Jerome Kaino, they will be at near full-strength and with Sonny Bill Williams needing to impress All Blacks selectors before the squad to play the British and Irish Lions next month is finalised.
The Lions, with captain Warren Whiteley appointed this week as the new Springboks leader, play the Kings in a rare Sunday match for South African teams.
"It's not ideal," said coach Johan Ackermann whose Lions are looking to extend an 11-match winning streak at their Ellis Park fortress in Johannesburg.
"The reality is we're in an era of professional sport and if the competition dictates that we play on a Sunday then we will do so."
The Hurricanes, still without Dane Coles who continues to battle concussion symptoms, are in South Africa to play the Northern Bulls.
Africa 1 conference leaders, the Stormers, play the Sharks while the Brumbies are in Argentina to face the Jaguares.