WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A clash of former champions — the Crusaders and Brumbies — should provide the highlight of the weekend's 12th round of Super Rugby in which South Africa's Sharks also put their precarious championships lead on the line in Australia.
The Sharks, who suffered their second loss in nine matches at home to the Highlanders last weekend, top the tournament ladder by a single point ahead of the Brumbies and could end their season-long stay in first place if they lose to the Rebels in Melbourne on Friday.
The second-placed Brumbies will take the lead if the Sharks lose and if they beat the eighth-placed Crusaders on Saturday. To do so, the two-time champion Brumbies need to beat the seven-time champion Crusaders in Christchurch for the first time in 14 years.
The Rebels match appears the easiest of the games the Durban-based Sharks will play on the road over the next four weeks, but it still contains a possible trap for the high-flyers who are 7-2 just beyond the regular season's midpoint.
Six of the Sharks' seven wins have come at home and they are only 1-1 away from home this season. While they have beaten the Queensland Reds, New South Wales Waratahs and Wellington-based Hurricanes in Durban, four of their seven wins have come against substantially weaker South African teams.
There are 11 points between the Sharks and the Bulls, the second-placed team in South Africa, and teams from the regions occupy three of the last five placings on the championships table, raising questions about the overall strength of the South African conference.
The Sharks' draw also could be seen as overly generous, awarding them an unusually early run of home games. But the sting in its tail is that they must now play six of their last seven games away from home. The match against the Rebels starts a train of matches against the Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues which will severely test the Sharks' championships credentials.
Coach Jake White said the Sharks had to quickly regroup from last week's loss to the Highlanders to reassert their claim to first place.
"This Rebels game becomes the most important game for us," White said. "We want to bounce back.
"We want to get our tour off to a good start and take momentum through the tour and in order to do that we need to get a win in the first game."
The Brumbies will retain first place in the Australian conference whatever the outcome of their match against the Crusaders. Their closest rivals in Australia, the Western Force, have a bye and the Waratahs — who play the Hurricanes in Sydney on Saturday — are six points behind them, third in Australia and sixth on the overall table.
The Brumbies catch the Crusaders in a mid-season form revival. After losing three early matches, the Crusaders have won three in a row, becoming the first overseas team to win twice in South Africa this season, then edging the defending champions Chiefs 18-17 in Hamilton.
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw also returns to the Crusaders lineup on Saturday and will likely take an important leadership role in the absence of regular captain Kieran Read, who has been ruled out of the match with concussion.
"We've been fairly successful over the last couple of years at creating challenges and rising to those challenges and this is another challenge for the team," Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham said. "There's elements of our game that have improved and particularly this year we feel our attack has come a long way."
The sixth-placed Waratahs host the third-placed Hurricanes, the new leaders of the New Zealand conference, in another of the weekend's critical matches. The Waratahs suffered a shock loss last weekend to the Auckland-based Blues and now take on a Hurricanes team on a four-match winning streak.
In other matches, the Blues face the Queensland Reds in Auckland, the Chiefs play the Lions in Hamilton, needing to revive their season after recent losses to the Crusaders and Brumbies, the Stormers meet the Highlanders in Cape Town and the Bulls play the Cheetahs in Pretoria.