WELLINGTON (Reuters) – The Canterbury Crusaders have been in dominant form this season and their chances of landing a 10th Super Rugby title are set to improve further ahead of the playoffs with several senior players due back from injury in the next few weeks.
The Crusaders lead the New Zealand conference and top the overall table on 53 points, 13 ahead of second-placed Wellington Hurricanes with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Christchurch-based side, who have two matches left, have virtually guaranteed themselves home advantage throughout the playoffs, with the South African-leading Jaguares on 36 points and the ACT Brumbies leading the Australian group with 34.
All three conference winners occupy the top three seedings for the playoffs and are guaranteed home matches.
The Crusaders have dominated despite being without a large contingent of senior players this season, with All Blacks centurions Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock having a late start to manage their workload ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
Owen Franks has battled a shoulder injury since early April, Joe Moody and Codie Taylor have also had lengthy injury layoffs, while fellow All Blacks front rower Tim Perry broke his arm in the first game of the season.
Assistant coach Jason Ryan, however, said that Perry had been cleared to play club rugby this weekend while his team mates are in Fiji facing the Waikato Chiefs on Saturday.
“He’s showed a lot of resilience, and put himself in a position that’s going to put pressure on us for selection,” Ryan told reporters in Christchurch on Tuesday.
Franks, who suffered a minor shoulder tear against the ACT Brumbies on April 6, was at training on Tuesday and could be in contention for their final game against the Melbourne Rebels on June 8, Ryan added.
“If he gets through another good week next week, he should be all going well for the Rebels, but he’s got to get through a training week,” Ryan said.
Read would also be available for the Chiefs clash after he sustained a slight neck/shoulder injury and missed the Crusaders’ 19-19 draw with the Stormers in Cape Town.
He also sat out the game against the Auckland Blues last Saturday, where in wet conditions the Crusaders demonstrated how difficult it would be to beat them in Christchurch in the middle of winter.
Taylor would also be back from a broken finger in time for the playoffs, Ryan said, which was only good news for the side with competition for places as they pursue a third successive title.
“There’s a bit of cavalry starting to arrive,” Ryan said.
“But they’ve still got to play well and take their opportunity, and they’ve got to train well.
“The boys that have been putting the effort in while they haven’t been there have done a pretty good job.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Peter Rutherford)