Heading out on tour to South Africa after a big win over the Cheetahs, the Crusaders visit the Bulls at Loftus on Saturday.
We’re used to the seven-time champions not really finding top gear until later in the season, but even they must have been edging closer to the panic button after a very slow start to the year.
Things now look a lot better, with last week’s victory providing a compact summary of their season to date. Only up 14-10 against the Cheetahs in Christchurch by half-time and failing to hit their mark, the Crusaders then racked up 47 points including seven tries in a mightily impressive blitz.
It’s no secret that their sudden injection of urgency has come with the return of Sam Whitelock, Nemani Nadolo, Kieran Read and Dan Carter, with Richie McCaw coming back into the side at Loftus helps to give the side a ton of class.
Carter’s return is probably the most intriguing. Just when the all-time leading Test points scorer was being written off, he produced a 27-point haul in the Cheetahs thrashing and showed those touches of class we’ve been spoiled with over more than a decade.
Add in some consistent playing time, whether at fly-half or as has been the case in recent weeks at inside centre, and Carter can become a nightmare to play against again.
Being able to call on McCaw too is ideal for what is set to be a physical war against the Bulls back row.
The Crusaders set-piece has been flying, with a scrum ranked the best in the competition thanks to a 95 percent success rate, but Victor Matfield and his pack will look to cause some real problems.
The veteran returns at lock after a week’s rest against the Force, when his team flirted with defeat but eventually snuck over the line thanks to the boot of the excellent Handré Pollard.
Sitting in ninth after five games (and three wins) the Bulls attack was completely uninspiring last weekend and showed very little cutting edge.
More is needed from the all-Springbok centre pairing of Jan Serfontein and JJ Englebrecht to disrupt the Crusaders defensive line and create chances, because Pollard can’t carry the Bulls on his own.
That blunt edge to the Bulls’ attack is reflected statistically given they sit around the bottom for carries, metres and clean breaks.
It feels like a benchmark fixture for the Bulls. Win and they can be taken seriously as a top side, but defeat will just confirm the expectations of many when it comes to their chances in Super Rugby this year.
The last time these sides met: Two years ago in Round 5 the Bulls travelled to Christchurch and suffered a 41-19 defeat, with the Crusaders running in six tries in a very convincing victory as Robbie Fruean and Willi Heinz were among the try scorers.
Players to watch: Sitting at full-back Jesse Kriel has had a promising start to the season, with his running a real threat in broken play. Arno Botha is also back in action after a lengthy injury layoff and has real talent.
As for the visitors they will look to get Nemani Nadolo into the game as much as possible. The Fijian is a wrecking ball of a player out on the wing. Ben Funnell is another to keep tabs on as he comes back into the side.
Team news: Ludeke has recalled props Morné Mellett and Trevor Nyakane. Matfield returns to the lock position, swapping places with Grant Hattingh, who moves back to the bench. Lappies Labuschagne also did not recover from a chest injury sustained against the Force and will sit out, replaced by Botha.
McCaw will start on the openside flank and Carter at fly-half. There are also two rotations in the front row, with prop Joe Moody and Funnell taking the starting spots this week in place of Wyatt Crockett and Codie Taylor who are both on the bench. Tom Taylor is at inside centre.
Form: Despite their differing approaches, both teams have three wins from two games and sit on 14 points. The Bulls big win over the Cheetahs came before their bye but they started with back-to-back losses to the Stormers and Hurricanes. That shocking loss to the Rebels on the opening day was a low for the Crusaders, as was a soft outing against the Chiefs, while wins have come over the Highlanders, Lions and Cheetahs.
Prediction: We get the feeling the Crusaders might sneak a victory at Loftus, especially if they can get their attacking game into gear. Crusaders by five.
2013: Crusaders won 41-19 in Christchurch
2012: Crusaders win 28-13 in Christchurch
2012: Bulls won 32-30 in Pretoria
2011: Crusaders won 27-0 in Timaru
2010: Bulls won 39-24 in Soweto The teams:
Bulls: 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Arno Botha, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Jacques du Plessis, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Morné Mellett.
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Dean Greyling, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Hanro Liebenberg, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Jurgen Visser.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Tom Taylor, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Colin Slade, 23 David Havili.
Date: Saturday, March 28
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Kickoff: 19:10 local, 04:10* AEDT, 06:10* NZDT, 17:10 GMT
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Marius van der Westhuizen, Stephan Geldenhuys
TMO: Deon van Blommestein