WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The defending champion Crusaders must swiftly bounce back from last week's humbling home draw with the Sharks to face the South Africa conference-leading Bulls in Pretoria on Friday in a Super Rugby round which could shake up standings in all three zones.
The Crusaders needed a converted try after the full-time siren to draw 21-21 with the Sharks, ending their 25-match winning streak at home and having their lead in the New Zealand conference cut to six points.
In response, the Crusaders have rushed All Blacks backs Richie Mo'unga and Ryan Crotty into their starting lineup at flyhalf and inside center for the match against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld. Mo'unga's importance to the Crusaders is emphasized by the fact they have lost one and drawn one of the two matches they have played in his absence this season.
The Crusaders remain just below full strength in the absence of prop Owen Franks, who is injured, and lock Sam Whitelock, who is on family leave. Fullback Will Jordan is also sidelined by a foot injury, but the Crusaders' outside backs stocks remain so great that Braydon Ennor, one of the form players of the season, can only make the bench.
"If someone like Braydon Ennor comes off the bench, it's a tough conversation because he's in fine form, too," coach Scott Robertson said. "But those are the things that get you through to win you championships — the ability to rotate squads and guys come on and take opportunities and put pressure on the other guy and the whole standards lift."
Winger Sevu Reece has another chance to impress selectors as he finds himself under pressure to declare his national allegiance ahead of this year's World Cup. Reece is seen as an outside chance of making the All Blacks' Cup squad but is also sought by his native Fiji.
Fiji coach John McKee told Radio New Zealand that Reece wants to play for Fiji but could not turn down the chance to secure his professional future if chosen by New Zealand.
Loftus Versfeld is usually a forbidding stadium for visiting teams but the Bulls have struggled to draw crowds this season, attracting only 7,400 for last weekend's match against the New South Wales Waratahs. Tickets for Friday's match are being offered at around $2 in the hope of filling more of the stadium's 50,000 seats.
The Bulls' 28-21 win over the Waratahs put them atop the South Africa conference, narrowly on points differential ahead of the Sharks though they also have a match in hand. Only six points separate the first- and fifth-place teams in the conference.
The Australia conference is similarly close with three points between the first-place Melbourne Rebels and fourth-place Brumbies. Only the Sunwolves, who are 12 points behind the Rebels, can be counted out of the playoffs race at this stage.
The Rebels face a crucial match Friday against the Queensland Reds, who are only two points behind them in third place in the Australia conference. They will need to make a better start than they did last weekend against the Hurricanes when they conceded 26 points in 21 minutes before rallying in the second half.
The Canberra-based Brumbies, second in the conference but having played one more game than the Rebels and Reds, have an easier assignment this week against the Sunwolves, who seem to have lost some of their fight as the countdown continues to their ejection from Super Rugby.
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