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Crusaders-Sharks clash may measure strength of New Zealand Super Rugby teams

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - The Crusaders vs. Sharks match on Saturday will go a long way to either confirming or disproving the growing perception that this year's Super Rugby title will be won by a New Zealand team.

While the Durban-based Sharks have held first place for most of the season and retained a one-point lead despite last weekend's loss to the ACT Brumbies, their reign may owe a good deal to distortions created by Super Rugby's conference system. They had six matches at home in the first half of the season and only two of their matches so far have been against New Zealand teams.

The Sharks beat a Hurricanes team still finding its feet in the tournament's second round, but were trounced 34-18 by the Highlanders.

After last week's loss to the Brumbies in Canberra, in a drab match which did little to highlight the title claims of either side, the Sharks face a Crusaders side which, after starting the season with two losses, has bounded into fourth place with five-straight wins heading into the 14th round.

That streak encompasses wins over teams from all three conferences, includes victories over the defending champion Chiefs and the Brumbies and hit new heights with last weekend's crushing 57-29 defeat of the Queensland Reds.

"Every week we're getting better," Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said.

Though they are still in second place behind the Chiefs in the New Zealand conference, the Crusaders' recent form has steadily carried them toward favouritism to win this season's tournament, to claim their eighth Super Rugby title and their first since 2008.

The Christchurch against the Sharks will measure more accurately the strengths of that title claim and, also, the difference between New Zealand teams and those from other conferences. The strength of the New Zealand conference has become increasingly evident in recent weeks as the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders and, to a lesser degree, the Chiefs have all showed impressive form.

There are three New Zealand teams among the top six in the overall standings — the second-placed Chiefs, fourth-placed Crusaders and sixth-placed Hurricanes — and at various times this season all five New Zealand teams have commanded places in the playoffs zone.

There are also only 10 points between the first and last placed teams in the conference: the Chiefs on 35 points and the 10th-placed Blues on 25 points. In Australia, 17 points separate the first-placed Brumbies from the last-placed Reds, and in South Africa 21 points divide the first-placed Sharks and last-placed Stormers.

That seems to provide evidence of the closeness and general strength of the New Zealand conference but also points to another feature and possible deficiency of the conference system. Teams within each conference play each other twice every season, granting a significant advantage to teams playing in weaker conferences.

The Brumbies have competition in Australia from the fifth-placed Western Force and eighth-placed New South Wales Waratahs. But their recent 40-20 loss at the hands of the Crusaders seemed also to point to a discrepancy in that form when weighed against New Zealand teams.

Sharks coach Jake White predicted, after his team's 16-9 loss to the Brumbies last weekend, that the teams will meet again in the playoffs. If so it would mean an all-New Zealand playoff on the other side of the draw.

But the Brumbies and Sharks may only make the playoffs as the respective leaders of their conferences. Without the conference system, New Zealand teams could command four of the top-six placings by the end of the season.

A win for the Crusaders on Saturday would finally dislodge the Sharks from first place which could then be claimed by the Brumbies, if they beat the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, or by the Crusaders themselves. The Chiefs have a bye and, while inactive, could concede first place in the New Zealand pool to the Crusaders.

The Hurricanes and Highlanders meet in the opening match of the round on Friday, both on 30 points and in sixth and seventh places respectively.

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