Preview: Blues v Crusaders

Date published: May 27 2016

The Crusaders will be hoping to continue their winning ways when they face the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday.

Todd Blackadder's troops bounced back brilliantly after the Highlanders broke their eight-match winning streak two weeks ago, when they outsmarted the Waratahs 29-10 in Christchurch last week.

That result brought the men in red and black within one point of the New Zealand Conference leaders, the Chiefs, while the Blues are languishing at the bottom of the table despite having more points than most of the top sides in the other three Conferences.

It seems the seven-time champions have found a groove that works for them, having scored 47 tries which ranks them in the top three for most tries by a team. What's more impressive is the kicking form of young Richie Mo'unga.

The pivot has been successful with 28 conversions, with only All Blacks star Beauden Barrett having succeeded with one more.

The Blues have not been enjoying as smooth a season as the other New Zealand sides. The men from Auckland have lost four games and drawn one this season, a relatively poor track record when compared to their New Zealand counter-parts.

Nemani Nadolo's return to the side will be encouraging as the 130-kilogram monster will keep the Blues defence guessing.

The winger not only has a nose for the try-line but keeps his team-mates in mind as well, as he ranks fourth in the competition statistics for assists and off-loads.

The last time the teams met: The Round Two match was won 28-13 by the Crusaders after enjoying a comfortable 10-point lead at the break. Thanks to a dominant set-piece the Crusaders were always out in front of the Blues, who arrived off the back of a morale-boosting win over the Highlanders looking to secure their first victory in Christchurch since 2004. Todd Blackadder's men however controlled possession and territory throughout, and arguably the score-line never fully reflected the grip they held on the contest until the end. Tries by Kieran Read and Richie Mo'unga later on then wrapped up the win, with Tevita Li's score in response coming too late to affect the result, as the Blues paid for coughing up too many penalties and for lacking a little direction in attack with some aimless kicking.

Players to watch: Johnny McNicholl has been a man on fire recently. The flyer bagged a try and gave a game-changing assist last weekend when he tapped the ball to Israel Dagg mid-leap. He adds to his already impressive tallies of six assists and four tries this season with 671 metres run. The Blues defence will be spread wide while trying to handle the speedster.

Crusaders fly-half Richie Mo'unga has been a revelation for his team. The Christchurch-born pivot has had a blinder of a season. He tops the competition statistics in points, is second in conversions, while ranking fourth in the try-scoring stakes making him a points machine.

The Blues' Samoan born Melani Nanai could be a danger man for the Crusaders. The elusive winger has the pace and unpredictability to be a thorn in the seven-tme champions' if they underestimate him.

Team news: The Crusaders have made three changes to their side for this clash. Nemani Nadolo comes back and replaces Jone Macilai on the left-wing. Mitchell Drummond is promoted to starting scrum-half ahead of All Black Andy Ellis and Scott Barrett will start in the second row after Sam Whitelock sustained a hamstring injury in his team's fixture against the Waratahs last weekend.

Blues loose forward Kara Pryor comes off the bench to make his first start of the season as he replaces Tanerau Latimer after the flanker was crocked with a knee injury. This change sees Jack Ram come onto the bench. George Moala is bracketed after recovering from a bruising affair with the Force last weekend, and will be replaced by Japan international Male Sa’u if he is not declared fit. Michael Little will come on to the bench if Sa’u starts.

Form: The Blues were looking pretty good after winning three games on the trot against the Sharks, Rebels and Kings. That was before receiving a 43-5 hiding at the hands of the Lions in Johannesburg which seemed to have dampened the Auckland side's spirits as they subsequently scraped a 17-13 win over the Western Force in Perth last weekend.

The form team of the tournament, the Crusaders are playing wonderful attacking rugby of late. Although their 34-26 loss to the Highlanders was unexpected, their constant routing of every other team is. In their last four wins they have amassed a lead of at least 17 points, scoring 23 tries in their last six games.

Prediction: The Crusaders have the momentum of a tournament winning side while the Blues seem to be innocuously lethargic. Crusaders by 12.

Previous results:
2016: Crusaders won 28-13 in Christchurch
2015: Crusaders won 34-11 in Auckland
2015: Crusaders won 29-15 in Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 21-13 in Christchurch
2014: Blues won 24-35 in Auckland
2013: Crusaders won 23-3 in Christchurch
2013: Blues won 15-34 in Auckland
2012: Crusaders won 59-12 in Christchurch

The teams:

Blues: 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala/Male Sa’u, 12 Piers Francis, 11Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Billy Guyton, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Hoani Matenga, 20 Jack Ram, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Male Sa/u/Michael Little, 23 Lolagi Visinia

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Luke Romano, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Tim Boys, 21 Andy Ellis, 22 David Havili, 23 Marty McKenzie

Date: Saturday, May 28
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Paul Williams, Brendon Pickerill
TMO: Glenn Newman