The Canterbury Crusaders will pitch their unbeaten 13-match run against the in-form Otago Highlanders in an enticing Super Rugby showdown after yet another New Zealand rampage this weekend.
The seven-time champions registered a 41-19 bonus-point victory over the hapless Melbourne Rebels to protect an 11-point lead at the top of the all-conquering New Zealand conference with one week remaining until the break for the international Test window.
The Crusaders look set to finish top of the regular season standings, but they face a test of their title credentials against the Highlanders at home next weekend.
The Highlanders flexed their muscles with a 44-28 win over Australia’s NSW Waratahs in Dunedin for their ninth consecutive win, and fancy their chances of ending the Crusaders’ march.
The benchmark Crusaders scored six tries to three and although they encountered stiffer resistance from the Rebels in the second half after leading 31-7 at half-time, they still won by 22 points.
The latest victory equalled the 13-match unbeaten record of the 2002 Crusaders — who featured current coach Scott Robertson.
“We wanted to come away with a performance we were proud of and we wanted to play quick and fast rugby, and we did that,” Robertson said.
“We probably didn’t always execute when we could have and left a lot tries out there but that was pleasing all the same.”
The Crusaders’ free-wheeling win stretched New Zealand’s dominance to 20-0 over Australian opposition this season and it has been a full year since the last Australian victory over a Kiwi team.
Defending champions Wellington Hurricanes were too clinical for South Africa’s Northern Bulls in Pretoria, winning 34-20 despite playing without key fly-half Beauden Barrett.
Barrett withdrew as a precaution after suffering a head knock while playing last weekend.
Barrett is the successor to retired New Zealand rugby legend Dan Carter, and is set to play a major role when the All Blacks confront the British and Irish Lions next month.
The Hurricanes scored five tries to two in beating the troubled Bulls and remain second in the New Zealand standings behind the Crusaders.
The Highlanders supplanted the Waikato Chiefs from third spot in the Kiwi conference with their six-tries-to-four win over the Waratahs.
Otago were trailing 13-14 at half-time, but when Waratahs lock Dean Mumm was sin-binned early in the second half, the Highlanders pounced with two tries and never looked back.
Rieko Ioane made his case for All Blacks selection for the British and Irish Lions Tests as the Auckland Blues and Chiefs fought out a frustrating 16-16 draw.
The draw was costly for the Chiefs, who slipped down to fourth spot in the New Zealand conference.
Top South African contenders Golden Lions will look to keep the Crusaders in their sights on the overall standings with a big victory over the Southern Kings in Johannesburg later Sunday.
The Coastal Sharks are nine points behind the Lions in Africa 2 conference after a 22-10 win over Africa 1 group leaders Western Stormers in Durban.
The ACT Brumbies extended their lead over the Waratahs to nine points in the Australian conference with a 39-15 win over Argentina’s Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
South African playmaker Peter Grant kicked and guided Western Force to a morale-boosting 40-26 win over the Queensland Reds in Brisbane to move to third in the Australian conference.
Flanker Uzair Cassiem scored two tries as South Africa’s Central Cheetahs thrashed Japan’s Sunwolves 47-7 in Tokyo.
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