The Auckland Blues have relegated three frontline All Blacks to the bench for tomorrow's heavyweight Super 14 clash with the Coastal Sharks in a surprise move as the competition intensifies.
Even though the Canterbury Crusaders are within striking distance of the table-topping Blues, coach David Nucifora said he was taking a broader view as he starts without Keven Mealamu, Ali Williams and Joe Rokocoko.
The Blues head into the weekend on 36 points, four clear of defending champions the Crusaders, with the Sharks third a further two points back.
But even leading the competition at this stage does not yet guarantee the Blues a semi-final berth, with most sides still holding a mathematical chance at least of making the top four.
In deciding to keep Mealamu, Williams and Rokocoko out of the starting line-up against the Sharks, Nucifora said he had to take into account player management and next week's departure for a two-match trip to South Africa.
"Travel time, recovery and strengths of our opponents all need to be factored into decisions made for team selection both now and in the weeks to come," he said.
"If the true quality of a side is revealed when on tour, then managing individuals carefully over the next few weeks is even more crucial," Nucifora said.
The Sharks arrested a two-match losing streak when they thumped the Queensland Reds last week.
But they will need a 100 percent defensive effort to shut down a side renowned for attacking at every opportunity, and described by Sharks coach Dick Muir as "formidable ... a side we've been watching most of the season."
The Crusaders, who wobbled through the first half of the season, are making their charge when it counts and look set to account for the Otago Highlanders this weekend.
In the past two weeks the Crusaders have piled on 14 tries and against the Highlanders they have the luxury of resting All Blacks Rico Gear and Andy Ellis and replacing them with fellow All Blacks Scott Hamilton and Kevin Senio.
The Highlanders, level with the Waikato Chiefs and Northern Bulls on 22 points, just behind the fifth placed Western Force, lack the big game-breakers many other sides possess.
They also had the misfortune this week to lose All Blacks lock James Ryan, who is out for the rest of the season with a knee ligament injury.
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