Despite injuries, Crusaders remain on course for 2nd spot ahead of Super Rugby Pacific playoffs
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A lesser team than the Christchurch-based Crusaders might have been laid low by the barrage of injuries and other setbacks which have dogged the latter part of the regular season in Super Rugby Pacific.
The defending champion Crusaders have lost three All Blacks props to injury during the course of the season and last weekend were forced to call up from France another former All Blacks prop. John Afoa, at 39 years and 223 days, subsequently became the oldest man to play Super Rugby.
Injuries in their most-recent match against the New South Wales Waratahs cost the Crusaders two more New Zealand internationals: center David Havili and one-test All Blacks backrower Cullen Grace.
Yet, despite those challenges, the Crusaders still are comfortable in the second place in the championship standings going into the last round of the regular season this weekend against the Wellington-based Hurricanes. They are five points ahead of the Auckland-based Blues, who finish the regular season against the eighth-place Highlanders.
The Crusaders’ points differential is 33 points better than the Blues. And they would have to lose to the Hurricanes and the Blues would have beat the Highlanders by a substantial margin to reverse their current placings. A single point from their match against the Hurricanes on Saturday would guarantee a second-place finish.
And that carries the substantial prize of home advantage throughout the playoffs, apart from the final if the league-leading Chiefs qualify during the knockouts.
The Crusaders once again have gone international to find a solution to their latest injury problem, calling up Ryan Crotty from Japan to replace Havili. Crotty played the last of his 48 tests for the All Blacks at the 2019 World Cup and played 151 times for the Crusaders, becoming their sixth most-capped player.
Havili and Grace both are out for the rest of the Super Rugby season, bringing to nine the number of Crusaders players who will miss the playoffs. At the same time Afoa and Crotty likely won’t be eligible because rules require players to have played in New Zealand by April 1 to qualify for the playoffs.
The Crusaders could apply for dispensation to play Afoa if they do not have a full complement of props.
“There are obligations for us to put a team out that’s safe and players are ready.” Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said. “Essentially the rule is someone who has played in New Zealand before April 1 is eligible to play for finals and John (Afoa) definitely wasn’t that.”
The Chiefs are seven points clear atop the standings, with their only loss of the season so far coming against the Queensland Reds at home last month.
The Blues, ACT Brumbies and Hurricanes currently occupy third, fourth and fifth places, separated by five points, which means the contest for third and fourth places will not be resolved until the Blues play the Highlanders, the Brumbies play the Melbourne Rebels and the Hurricanes play the Crusaders.
The Brumbies need at least two points to secure a top four place. The Hurricanes have to beat the Crusaders to have any chance of finishing inside the top four.
The Highlanders, the Western Force, the Fijian Drua and Rebels all are within two points of eighth place and their last regular season matches also will determine the last quarterfinalists.
The Hurricanes will finish in fifth place if they lose to the Crusaders; the Waratahs are safe in sixth and the match between the Fijian Drua and Queensland Reds in Suva on Saturday will determine whether one or both of those teams hold on to top-eight placings.
The Drua already have beaten the Crusaders and Hurricanes in Fiji this season and, with a win over the Reds, could make history by reaching the playoffs for the first time.
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