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Stars align for Crusaders in bid for 10th Super Rugby crown

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Christchurch (New Zealand) (AFP)

The Canterbury Crusaders have delivered an ominous warning as they bid for a third consecutive Super Rugby crown with news that they expect to be at full strength for the play-offs.

The nine-times champions already have an impressive record having never lost a home playoff game since Super Rugby's launch in 1996, and are unbeaten in their last 27 home fixtures.

They confirmed their place at the top of the table this year with one round to spare and then had to wait until the end of the final game of the regular season at the weekend to learn they will be playing the Otago Highlanders in the first quarter-final next Friday.

The second-seeded Jaguares play the Waikato Chiefs in Buenos Aires, the ACT Brumbies host the Coastal Sharks in Canberra while the Wellington Hurricanes are at home to the Northern Bulls.

The Crusaders achieved home-ground advantage for the play-offs despite having many of their All Blacks out of action for much of the season, but the cavalry is returning when required.

Tighthead prop Owen Franks, who has been plagued by a shoulder injury and only played four games in the regular season, has been cleared to return as has hooker Codie Taylor who has been out for a month with a broken finger.

Another All Blacks frontrower Tim Perry, who broke an arm in round one, rejoined the side for their last pool match while senior All Blacks Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock were rested for the first month to manage their workload in a World Cup year.

"To win a championship, a lot has got to go right. Full squad, full team. To give every chance to go through in that finals series, you need to have the opportunity to pick your best squad," Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said.

- 'Freshen up' -

While most sides were under pressure for the final round of the regular season, Robertson gave the Crusaders the week off to "really freshen up"- 'Freshen up' -.

Adding to their impressive record, the Crusaders topped the try-scoring list in the regular season with 73 and had the least scored against them with 31.

"If you're going to win it, you have to beat the Crusaders in Christchurch," Chiefs coach Colin Cooper said.

Undaunted, Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger said: "We can go through and beat anybody."

When the Bulls beat the Golden Lions in the final match at the weekend, it kept last year's beaten finalists out of the final eight and confirmed the Chiefs would finish seventh and the Highlanders eighth.

It also meant the Chiefs, who made the quarter-finals through a hefty win over the Melbourne Rebels on Friday, travelled back to New Zealand on Saturday then flew to Argentina on Sunday to face South African conference winners Jaguares.

If the Chiefs win, they then have to fly to Australia or South Africa for a semi-final against the winner of the Brumbies-Sharks match.

A Jaguares win will see the Argentines host the winner of the Canberra clash in the semi-finals.

The winner of the Crusaders-Highlanders match will play the winner of the Hurricanes-Bulls encounter.

If the Crusaders win they stay home but if the Highlanders prevail then, as the bottom qualifier, they must travel for their semi-final.

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