The Blues and Crusaders go toe-to-toe on Friday following respective opening round defeats which has led to a few heads rolling.
The Blues and Crusaders go toe-to-toe at Eden Park on Friday following respective opening round defeats which has led to a few heads rolling.
Sir John Kirwan's men will lament their sluggish start at the Highlanders as they lost 29-21 in Dunedin while the Crusaders fell to the Chiefs.
The Blues less so than the Crusaders but they have still got the hook out following defeat as Chris Noakes and Liaki Moli lose their places. Noakes is in fact axed from the matchday 23 and replaced by youngster Simon Hickey, with Benji Marshall deemed not yet ready for a big start.
More notable for the Blues though is the absence – due to injury – of inside centre Francis Saili and possible unavailability of flanker Luke Braid. Braid's inclusion is imperative for the Blues if they're to stand a chance of beating a visiting team very much set to be bringing a backlash.
The Crusaders left 21 points on the field in Christchurch via seven missed penalty attempts and will be wondering how they lost to the Chiefs. But that is why the Waikato franchise are a back-to-back champion outfit as they got the job done despite not putting in a strong performance.
Changes have subsequently been made by Todd Blackadder and it comes as little surprise that Tyler Bleyendaal is dropped, with All Blacks squad member Tom Taylor getting the nod at fly-half. Some continue to wonder why he was behind Bleyendaal in the first place.
Blackadder has also knocked Israel Dagg and Johnny McNicholl out of his team, instead putting Colin Slade and Rob Thompson in jersey numbers fifteen and fourteen at Eden Park. The return of IRB World Player of the Year Kieran Read is though the ultimate boost.
One realised the importance of that opening game at AMI Stadium when at full-time the Chiefs celebrated with purpose as the away win – which also deprived the hosts of a losing bonus-point – gave Dave Rennie's side a real leg-up in the early race for the conference.
Friday therefore is the first step in provisionally closing the gap ahead of the Chiefs' clash with the Highlanders. The question is though, will the Crusaders be facing the Blues side of Round One from the first or second-half? If it's the latter, this result could go either way.
Prediction: The visitors should have enough up front to grind out a win. Crusaders by 10.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 George Moala, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid (c)/Brendon O'Connor, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Sam Prattley.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Tony Woodcock, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Liaki Moli, 20 Brendon O'Connor/Jordan Manihera, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Benji Marshall, 23 Pita Ahki.
Crusaders: 15 Colin Slade, 14 Rob Thompson, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nafi Tuitavake, 10 Tom Taylor, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Richie McCaw, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Dominic Bird, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Adam Whitelock, 23 Israel Dagg.
Date: Friday, February 28
Kick-off: 19:35 (06:35 GMT)
Venue: Eden Park Stadium, Auckland
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Television match official: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)