Wellington: The Super Rugby title aspirations of both the Canterbury Crusaders and Otago Highlanders will get a reality check on Friday when the two clash in what could be the defining game of the regular season.
The Crusaders won their eighth successive game last Friday with a clinical 38-5 victory over the Queensland Reds to move to the top of the Super Rugby table on 37 points from nine games.
The Highlanders then went out and executed a tactical kicking game plan to perfection 24 hours later to beat the previously high-flying Waikato Chiefs 26-13.
The Chiefs also have 37 points and are third in the Australasian group but have played an extra game. The Highlanders have 32 points from 10 games.
While much of the attention in the first half of the season was on the Chiefs, who until a month ago were running rampant with a high tempo game that has yielded a competition-leading 47 tries, the Crusaders were cruising below the radar.
It was not until they destroyed the ACT Brumbies 40-14 in Canberra on April 24, however, that people truly noticed Todd Blackadder's side were starting to show the type of form that propelled them to the last of their seven titles in 2008.
"The Crusaders are now playing like their champion sides of the past," columnist Phil Gifford wrote on Fairfax Media at the weekend. "Their run of victories makes them the current standard-bearers amongst the Kiwi teams."
That claim should be tested by the Highlanders after they produced the type of performance against the Chiefs in Hamilton that drove them to their first title last season.
They nullified the home side's high octane game with superb tactical kicking, scrambling defence and patient use of the possession they did not kick away.
This week's clash is also the Crusaders' first game against a New Zealand side since week two when they beat the Blues 28-13, and given the quality of the local derbies, it should give a better indication of their credentials.
New Zealand teams have won all but two of their 14 games against Australian opposition this season and lost just three of 17 against teams in the South African group.
"It should be berserk down there and the players love it," Crusaders assistant coach Tabai Matson told Fairfax Media in Christchurch on Monday ahead of their clash.
"It should add to the intensity of the battle. It is going to be a doozy."