2012 repeated or are the Crusaders set to continue their charge to this year's Super Rugby Final? All will be revealed on Saturday.
2012 repeated or are the Crusaders set to continue their charge to this year's Super Rugby Final? All will be revealed in 80 minutes on Saturday.
Hamilton is the setting for this one as memories of Liam Messam racing through off a slick Sonny Bill Williams offload have come flooding back.
That epic contest was one that arguably reset the established order of New Zealand rugby as the Chiefs won before going on to claim the title.
But judging from the bookies' perspective, the Crusaders will be back as top dogs on Saturday due largely to a 38-9 play-off beating of the Reds.
Now before we get into the meat of this weekend, it is worth noting a telling statistic that in Super Rugby's 17-year history, only once has the title winner been a side that did not host a semi-final. And that lone franchise? Of course, it was the Crusaders back in 1999. Subsequently the size of the task awaiting the Cantabrians and Brumbies becomes clear – although the former outfit are slight favourites going off form, which has been highlighted a great deal throughout this week.
Let's get this out of the way, I'm not buying all the hype that the result is going the way of the visitors. In truth it couldn't be more in the balance and we wouldn't want it any other way.
It's not often that the Chiefs' pack gets beaten up but that was what happened on July 5 when they visited Christchurch, losing 43-15. I am expecting a subsequent backlash this week and feel the return of leader Messam on the blindside cannot be under-played.
Chiefs hooker Hika Elliot has already admitted that the recent clash with their countrymen still stings so it should be a brutal battle up front when these two outstanding outfits go at each other. There's no doubt Saturday will be more Hamilton 2012 than Christchurch 2013.
Like last year, Andrew Horrell is once again in the side – this season wearing twelve instead of thirteen – and his inclusion was arguably the surprise from coach Dave Rennie. Clearly the boss saw something from Bundee Aki in Christchurch that didn't sit well and he has plumped for his eighth different centre duo of 2013. In contrast, the Crusaders are settled.
But still there is hesitancy about jumping on the pre-game bandwagon that the Crusaders will prevail as Messam's presence up front combined with Gareth Anscombe starting is a boost. The full-back's form during the early campaign probably caused a few tears of anguish in Auckland from where he was let go, with the youngster scoring points galore at his new franchise. He will be key, especially, if expected, he takes over the kicking duties.
I suppose the big question though is with those aforementioned strengths, will the hosts have enough in the tank to win through? They'll need to gain parity up front against the likes of Wyatt Crockett and Sam Whitelock, which Brodie Retallick and company are more than capable of, but it is momentum that remains the underlying subplot at Waikato Stadium.
There is no doubt the Chiefs needed the week off to get bodies right but that comes with uncertainty over whether they will be able to hit the ground running. Therefore, it seems a wise call from Rennie to cover for such a possibility by having Sam Cane, Aki and Robbie Robinson on the bench, whose impact in the second-half should make for a frantic final quarter. Expect the underdog Chiefs – who will not mind that tag one bit – to finish strongly following a good Crusaders start in what will quickly become a lottery in terms of the result.
Ones to watch:
For Chiefs: It was surprising that Bundee Aki was dropped to the bench after having a strong campaign that's been consistent throughout. His place went to Andrew Horrell, who is a top player but could have been more effective wearing thirteen alongside Aki. Horrell (pictured) was a vital cog in the Chiefs' 2012 Super Rugby triumph at outside centre but has only played twelve twice so far this season. It is therefore quite an ask from coach Dave Rennie then to try and halt this in-form Crusaders midfield duo of Tom Taylor and Ryan Crotty.
For Crusaders: He will be a Chief next season but for now Tom Marshall is one of the top performers in the Crusaders jersey. Outstanding in defence while offering plenty with ball in hand in broken field, he is going to be sorely missed in Todd Blackadder's backline. Credit must to the Chiefs though – who know a good thing when they see it – as their knack of having versatile backs continues. The Crusaders will hope he causes his future team-mates plenty of problems this Saturday, which we are sure he will. Alongside Ryan Crotty and Sam Whitelock, Marshall has arguably been their most consistent player in 2013.
Head-to-head: Much rests of the battle up front and where better to focus than with two of the form props in Super Rugby, Ben Tameifuna and Wyatt Crockett. Tameifuna has taken over the try-scoring exploits of Sona Taumalola (now with Perpignan) and grabbed a brace last time out. The heavy youngster has proved almost unstoppable from close range of late and even the return of Ben Afeaki hasn't shifted the 21-year-old. Crockett meanwhile was superb in the tight last week while his break and offload for Marshall's try was out of the top drawer.
2013: Crusaders won 43-15 in Christchurch
2013: Chiefs won 28-19 in Hamilton
2012: Chiefs won 20-17 in Hamilton
2012: Crusaders won 28-21 in Hamilton
2012: Chiefs won 24-19 in Napier
2011: Crusaders won 25-19 in Napier
2011: Crusaders won 34-16 in Tauranga
2010: Crusaders 26-19 in Hamilton
2009: Crusaders 19-13 in Christchurch
2008: Chiefs won 18-5 in Hamilton
Prediction: Home field advantage, returning players. Chiefs to sneak it by 1!
Chiefs: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Andrew Horrell, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Matt Vant Leven, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Augustine Pulu, 21 Bundee Aki, 22 Robbie Robinson.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Tom Marshall, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Tom Taylor, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Luke Whitelock, 19 Richie McCaw, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tyler Bleyendaal, 22 Adam Whitelock.
Date: Saturday, July 27
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)