Sam Whitelock has given the All Blacks and his unbeaten Canterbury Crusaders side a boost ahead of their toughest test of the Super Rugby season against Western Stormers this weekend.
Double World Cup winner Whitelock, New Zealand's most capped lock with 84 Test appearances, Thursday signed a new deal to stay with the Crusaders and All Blacks until 2020.
The news came just hours after the British and Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand in June was revealed, delighting New Zealand coach Steve Hansen.
"He's a world-class lock," Hansen said. "It's great to have another one of our key men re-sign with New Zealand Rugby."
Hansen made it clear that all of New Zealand's Super Rugby stars would be in contention for All Black places against the Lions -- including those heading overseas at the end of the season.
"Our responsibility is to pick the best team that we possibly can and we'll do that," said Hansen.
It means players such as Waikato Chiefs half-back duo Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden plus Auckland Blues forward pair Steven Luatua and Charlie Faumuina will remain on Hansen's radar to face the Lions despite departing later this year for lucrative contracts in Europe.
Whitelock's renewed commitment is timely for the Crusaders side who, despite being unbeaten in seven Super Rugby outings, will have a realistic gauge of their title credentials after this weekend's encounter with the Africa 1 conference leaders.
The Crusaders' toughest opposition to date has been fellow New Zealanders the Otago Highlanders who were beaten 30-27 only with two late tries after the Christchurch-based side had trailed 27-6 at one point.
Although the Stormers arrived in New Zealand off the back of a 29-16 defeat to the Africa 2 conference leaders the Golden Lions, their sole loss of the year, coach Robbie Fleck said they have already put that behind them.
"Every week we start from scratch, that is what we have been good at this year. Whether it is a win or a loss we have got to come back and work hard all over again," he said.
- Power pack -
Crusaders' strength revolves around Whitelock and their All Blacks-laden pack, and Stormers assistant coach, New Zealander Paul Feeney, acknowledged it will take a big effort to contain them.
"They are very good at set-piece, very physical, very organised. It is the best forward pack going around in Super Rugby, it’s as simple as that."
The Crusaders have never lost to the Stormers at home although a quirk of the Super Rugby system means the two sides have not played each other since Tom Taylor kicked the Crusaders home 14-13 in Christchurch three years ago.
As pool play reaches the halfway pont, the Chiefs, Stormers, Lions and Wellington Hurricanes form a tightly packed bunch with six wins from seven games, all poised to overtake the Crusaders should they fall.
The Chiefs face Western Force in Perth on Saturday while the Lions stay home in Johannesburg to host the Jaguares who have slipped to third in the Africa 2 conference and found it difficult to win away from Buenos Aires.
The Hurricanes have named loose forward Brad Shields as captain for the first time when they host the Australia conference leaders ACT Brumbies in Napier on Friday.
With the Brumbies having won only three of seven games, the Hurricanes have taken the opportunity to bench scrum-half TJ Perenara.
The NSW Waratahs host the struggling Southern Kings in Sydney, the Northern Bulls and Cheetahs face off in an evenly matched South African derby in Pretoria, the Coastal Sharks host the Melbourne Rebels in Durban while the Highlanders play the Sunwolves at Invercargill, Super Rugby's southernmost outpost.