First-time Fijian Drua face playoff experts the Crusaders in Super Rugby Pacific quarterfinals

FILE - New Zealand All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock holds the Bledisloe Cup after they defeated Australia 57-22 in the second rugby test at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, on Aug. 14, 2021. (Brett Phibbs/Photosport via AP, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — On paper it appears to be the biggest mis-match in the Super Rugby Pacific playoffs. First-time quarterfinalists the Fijian Drua on Saturday will play the defending champion Crusaders, who have won 11 Super Rugby titles and are unbeaten in 26 matches at home.

That would seem to make the Drua’s trip to Christchurch an impossible mission.

But that may not be the case. The Crusaders of 2023 are not the Crusaders of previous seasons. Injuries have made them unusually vulnerable and they already have lost four matches in the regular season, including to the Drua in Fiji three months ago.

Their attack has not been firing and they have leaned heavily on their lineout drive for points. Their defense has been solid: they have the second-best record among the playoff teams for points and tries conceded.

But the Crusaders come into the playoffs without momentum, on the back of a loss to the Hurricanes last weekend. The Drua, meanwhile, ended their regular season with a convincing win over fellow quarterfinalists the Queensland Reds.

The disparity in experience favors the Crusaders but the Drua’s teamwork has improved and their confidence has grown as the season has progressed. Their squad is big and powerful and they are able to pound defenses and create gaps with offloads before finishing with speed out wide.

“They are 11-time champions and this is our first-time taste of (playoffs) so we are prepared for a very physical game,” Drua coach Mick Byrne told Radio New Zealand. “We understand that we’ve got to be more physical than we have been this year.

”(The Drua players) were very physical at training this week and that was scary to watch. They are ready to go down to Christchurch and compete in a quarterfinal.”

The Crusaders will be without All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock, who didn’t finish the match against the Hurricanes because of an Achilles tendon injury.

“Sam’s not available this week,” coach Scott Robertson said. “We’re waiting on examinations and tests an scans from his Achilles, but we’re hopeful for next week.

“He wanted to look after it in the context of the match and the season ahead, which we did, but he’s not quite right this week.”

In other quarterfinal matches, the Auckland-based Blues will play the New South Wales Waratahs on Friday, the Hamilton-based Chiefs will play the Queensland Reds and the ACT Brumbies will play the Wellington-based Hurricanes on Saturday.

The Blues also are without an All Blacks lock: former captain Patrick Tuipulotu is out with a broken arm. The Waratahs have several players on the injured list including scrumhalf Jake Gordon with concussion, Jed Holloway, Langi Gleeson, Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese.

“We’ll take stock of who we’ve got. I think we’ve put too much work in for the last eight months to fly the white flag,” coach Darren Coleman said.

The Reds were the only team to beat the top-ranked Chiefs in 14 matches in the regular season and fate brings them together again in the playoffs.

“It’s nice to be home and it’s nice to be first and know you’ll be playing here,” Chiefs fullback Shaun Stevenson said.

“We’re looking forward to getting back to (Hamilton) in front of our fans and we’re stoked it’s a 4.35 p.m. game. We’re keen to rip in and we know it’s a bit of a redemption game after our only loss. We’re keen to right a few wrongs.

“Going into the finals, what has been done in the regular season you have to put to the side.”

The Brumbies are the only Australian team to have earned a home quarterfinal but they also are hard-hit by injuries. Winger Corey Toole and captain Allan Alaalatoa both are in doubt for the match. Lock Nick Frost also limped from the field last weekend.


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