WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Cape Town-based Stormers and Hamilton-based Chiefs put unbeaten records on the line when they play Saturday in the seventh round of Super Rugby, the first major meeting of leading teams in different conferences this season.
The Stormers, who have home advantage at Newlands, are unbeaten after five matches with wins over the Bulls (37-24), the Jaguares (32-25), the Southern Kings (41-10), the Sunwolves (44-31) and the Cheetahs (53-10).
The Chiefs are also 5-0 after beating the Highlanders 24-15, the Blues 41-26, the Hurricanes 26-18, the Melbourne Rebels 27-14 and the Bulls 28-12.
Comparison of those records point to the Chiefs as the stronger team. The Stormers' unbeaten run has been built on easy wins over the 15th-place Bulls, 16th-place Kings and 17th-place Sunwolves, teams which have only two wins from 15 matches this season.
The Chiefs have had a much harder run with three matches against New Zealand opponents, including the defending champion Hurricanes. They are being held out of first place in the powerful New Zealand conference by the Crusaders, who are the only other unbeaten team with six wins from six games and who have a bye this weekend.
The teams last met in the first round of last season's playoffs when the Chiefs crushed the Stormers 60-21 at Newlands. Saturday's match will help determine whether that margin, which measured the gulf between the New Zealand and South African conferences, has been reduced.
The Chiefs will be without three key players after losing flanker Sam Cane and prop Nepo Laulala to head injuries and center Jonny Fa'auli to suspension.
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said Cane, especially, was a loss to the Chiefs, but he expected the New Zealanders to make up for his absence.
"He's one of their inspirational leaders," Fleck said. "He's one of the top players in New Zealand at the moment and he leads by example. He was a tough customer (in 2016) and he personifies what the Chiefs are about; attitude and aggression and heart."
Fleck is an unashamed admirer of the Chiefs and their coach Dave Rennie.
"What for me is really strong about the Chiefs is their culture and what they stand for," Fleck said. "Anybody who plays for the Chiefs under Dave Rennie is a good player."
The Hurricanes, who are 5-1, their only loss coming against the Chiefs, meet the New South Wales Waratahs in the opening match of the round Friday looking to continue the 100 percent winning record of New Zealand teams against Australian rivals this season.
New Zealand teams have won seven out of seven matches against Australian opponents. Since 2015, Australian teams have won only 10 of 55 matches against New Zealand opposition.
The Dunedin-based Highlanders meet the Auckland-based Blues Saturday in another important match within the New Zealand conference. Both teams have 3-3 records and the match allows them the chance to close the gap on the conference leaders.
The ACT Brumbies, who lead the Australia conference with a 2-3 record, take on the Queensland Reds, who have lost their last five matches.
In other matches Saturday, the Sunwolves host the Pretoria-based Bulls in Tokyo and the Sharks play the Jaguares in Durban, South Africa. The Perth, Australia-based Western Force host South Africa's Kings on Sunday to complete the seventh round.
The Cheetahs, Lions and Melbourne join the Crusaders with weekend byes.