The looming British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand has added a twist to the Crusaders this week as the Canterbury franchise look to go top of the Super Rugby table.
With the Waikato Chiefs and Wellington Hurricanes having the weekend off and the Western Stormers already a game behind, the Crusaders will hit the front should they beat the Western Force on Friday.
Coach Scott Robertson has made eight changes to the run-on side that beat the Auckland Blues last week including a shift to blindside flanker for four-Test lock Scott Barrett.
The All Blacks are well placed with locks at present -- the Crusaders, without Barrett, can start two with Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano -- but there is limited back-up to Jerome Kaino in the six jersey when the Lions arrive in June.
The versatile Steven Luatua is to join English club Bristol later in the year, and Robertson said the way was open for the 1.97 metre (6ft 5in) Barrett to display his added value potential.
"He is a great athlete. It gives another lineout option. For him it is something he can add -- maybe at a level up if he needs to create an extra opportunity to be selected," Robertson said.
Although unbeaten after four rounds, the Crusaders have had to come from behind to win three of the games and are short of bonus points.
Robertson said that has to stop against a Force side needing to prove they should be kept in a trimmed down Super competition, with governing body SANZAAR still discussing the shake-up.
"They are fighting for a lot more than the points. There is all that stuff going on over in Aussie at the moment and they want to represent their family and their people. We are expecting everything from them," he said.
- Play at pace -
The Stormers, keen to resume their winning start to the season after a bye last week, have been hit with further backline disruption as they head to Singapore to play an improving Sunwolves.
Centre Huw Jones is out for the year, and out of contention for the Lions tour after tearing a hamstring playing for Scotland against Italy last week.
The Stormers Springbok midfielders Juan de Jongh and Damian de Allende are already sidelined with leg injuries and will be put of action for another six weeks.
Jaguares enjoy their third successive game in Buenos Aires and will need to make the most of their home advantage against the Queensland Reds to retain their points differential lead over the Golden Lions in the Africa 2 group.
The Lions are in Port Elizabeth to play the Southern Kings who also have a question mark over their future in a smaller Super competition.
History and form favour the Lions who beat the Kings in a promotion-relegation game to enter the competition in 2014 and beat them by margins of 35 and 36 points in two matches last year.
Top Australian side ACT Brumbies, with only two wins from four games, host an Otago Highlanders in a dire one-from-four state, with both former champions desperate to show they remain serious threats.
The Highlanders like to play at pace and have an effective kick-chase game, while Brumbies prop Alan Alaalatoa said they will stay with their forward power game.
"Doesn’t matter who we play. Kiwi, Australian or South African we have to step our game up and keep building as a team," the Wallaby prop said.
"That means sticking to our guns and backing our system."
The Central Cheetahs and Coastal Sharks square off in a South African derby, while the Northern Bulls host the Blues in a clash of two sides with only one win a piece so far this season.