Crusaders aim to bounce back after Super Rugby streak ended
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The defending champion Crusaders hope to take the first step Friday toward a new winning streak in a round of firsts in Super Rugby.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders lost 20-12 to the New South Wales Waratahs last weekend to end a year-long, 19-match streak which was a record for the tournament. They face the Wellington-based Hurricanes, hoping to immediately return to winning form in a season broken by the horror of the March 15 mosque shootings in Christchurch.
The Crusaders will be helped by the return of New Zealand All Blacks captain Kieran Read, who will play his first match of the season in this weekend's seventh round.
Read has regularly been a late starter in Super Rugby, rested because of the pressure of his role as All Blacks captain and the physical demands of his backrow position. He didn't appear until the eighth round of the 2017 tournament and not until after the June international break last year.
Read's last match was New Zealand's season-ending test against Italy in Rome in November and this is his first in the lead-up to the World Cup in October.
The Crusaders appeared to be a shadow of their usual selves in the match against the Waratahs, which was their first since tragedy struck their home town. On a wet night in Sydney and without several of their All Blacks, they weren't able to play with their usual precision.
"It was just our skill execution let us down but we've addressed that," assistant coach Jason Ryan said. "It was just a bad day. We have to learn from it, though.
"That's not the Crusaders' standard."
The Waratahs will play Japan's Sunwolves in their first-ever Super Rugby match in Newcastle, north of Sydney, as they attempt to back up a win which has taken them to the top of the Australian conference.
Mack Mason will start a Super Rugby game for the first time at flyhalf as the Waratahs rest Wallabies No. 10 Bernard Foley along with Adam Ashley-Cooper and Jack Dempsey.
"We wouldn't be putting (Mason) in if we didn't have confidence in him," coach Daryl Gibson said. "He has been patiently waiting for an opportunity over the last two years. He gets that on Friday."
In another first in the Australian conference, former Wallabies flyhalf Quade Cooper will play for the first time against his old club, the Queensland Reds, when he lines up for the Melbourne Rebels in Brisbane.
Cooper was forced out of the Reds by current coach Brad Thorn and, after maintaining impressive form for the Rebels so far this season, has the chance to give Thorn cause to regret that decision.
Wallabies scrumhalf Will Genia combined in the halves with Cooper in Queensland in 2011, guiding the Reds to the Super Rugby title.
Now they're both playing for the Rebels. Genia said if Cooper is keyed up for Saturday's match, he hasn't shown it.
"He's brought the same intensity, the same work ethic, the same qualities he brings to every session," Genia said. "He didn't leave on bad terms with the Queensland public and the Reds fans. His focus hasn't been on what it's going to be like and personal battles and what he's coming up against . it's just a case of him doing his job within the team to make sure we get a result."
In South Africa, the Durban-based Sharks host the Pretoria-based Bulls in a match which might create a little breathing space in a tight conference.
The Lions sit atop the conference with 18 points but have a bye this weekend and the Sharks have the chance to move at least temporarily into first place if they can beat the Bulls for the first time since February, 2014. Both teams have 3-2 records this season but the Sharks are currently in second place, the Bulls in fourth in a conference in which only five points covers the first four teams.