WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Matches involving New Zealand teams in Super Rugby are expected to become more intense with the announcement in London of the British and Irish Lions team to tour New Zealand in June.
The weekend's ninth round contains no matches between New Zealand teams and only one derby match in any conference, between South Africa's Bulls and Cheetahs. But focus on the form of New Zealand team and players will likely increase after Lions coach Warren Gatland named his 41-man squad Wednesday for the three-test tour in June.
New Zealand's five Super Rugby teams have already been carefully managing the workload of players likely to be involved in the series against the Lions. Several of those players will begin to step up their workloads from this weekend, injuries permitting.
The Lions will play all of New Zealand's Super Rugby teams during their 10-match tour and those matches are also looming large for teams and players who rarely have the opportunity to play against a touring team.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders, who remain the only unbeaten team this season with seven wins from seven matches, play Saturday against South Africa's Stormers, whose unbeaten streak ended last weekend with a loss to the Johannesburg-based Lions.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said his players will not allow the prospect of a match against the Lions to affect their Super Rugby performances.
"It could be a distraction if we let it," Robertson said. "But the planning and preparation we've done and the mindset of the players. It's an opportunity, something pretty special."
The defending champion Hurricanes are the first New Zealand team in action this weekend and, typical of most New Zealand teams, are cautiously nursing injured All Blacks.
Hooker and captain Dane Coles will miss Friday's home match against the ACT Brumbies with knee and calf injuries which have kept him on the sideline since mid-March. The All Blacks' first-choice hooker is not expected to return before the May 5 clash with the Stormers.
Winger and fullback Nehe Milner-Skudder has been out of action since March 10 with a broken foot and is not expected to play before mid-May. Milner-Skudder sustained his latest injury almost immediately after returning from a year-long break for left shoulder surgery.
Hurricanes and All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett has been in outstanding form this season, leading his team to six wins from seven games. But Lions coach Warren Gatland has tried to make Barrett's lack of goalkicking form an issue ahead of the June series, suggesting it may be a weakness for the All Blacks.
Barrett shares the Hurricanes' goal-kicking duties with his brother Jordie.
The Dunedin-based Highlanders, who play Japan's Sunwolves on Saturday, will be strengthened by the return from injury of All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo. Backrower Liam Squire also returns to the starting lineup, forcing his All Blacks teammate Elliot Dixon to make an unusual appearance on the openside flank, rather than in his usual spot on the blindside.
Brown will be interested in the form of the Sunwolves as he is due to leave New Zealand at the end of the current season to take up an assistant coaching role with Japan's national team.
The Hamilton-based Chiefs, who have had a difficult time managing their All Blacks' workload because of a high injury toll, face the Western Force in Perth on their way home from South Africa.
In other matches, the New South Wales Waratahs face South Africa's Kings and need a convincing win to boost their season after taking only two wins from their first seven matches. The Lions, who share a 6-1 record with the Stormers, face Argentina's Jaguares. The Bulls host the Cheetahs in Pretoria while the Durban-based Sharks are at home to the Melbourne Rebels.
The Auckland-based Blues and Queensland Reds have weekend byes.