Preview: Chiefs v Crusaders

Date published: June 30 2016

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The New Zealand Conference table pace-setters meet in the first Super Rugby match of the weekend when they face off in Fiji on Friday.

The return of the All Blacks to both sides following their 3-0 whitewash of Wales sets the tone for what is expected to be a mouth-watering clash.

Fiji will play host to two of the strongest teams in the competition but the crowd will be torn between two local heroes, Fiji wing Nemani Nadolo and New Zealand's recently Test capped Seta Tamanivalu, who are on opposite sides of the field.

The Chiefs, who are the 'hosts' for this historic clash, have the upper hand in this fixture having won seven of the last nine matches, including the last three meetings.

There is no doubt that the crowd will be entertained, in true New Zealand rugby style, for a full 80 seeing that on two of the last four encounters the game was won by the side trailing at the break.

The Chiefs do however get over the advantage line with ease and coming off the 40-7 thrashing of Wales in a midweek friendly their confidence with ball in hand will be high for this one.

Since the Round One's 27-21 loss to the Chiefs, the Crusaders have won 10 from their last 11 matches while the Chiefs have lost three of their 12 games.

Three points separate these two franchises in the New Zealand Conference with the seven-time champions at the summit.

We can expect the scrum set-piece to provide a solid platform to launch both of these talented and skilful backlines, and there's no hotter back right now in New Zealand than All Blacks full-back Israel Dagg, who the Chiefs will have to restrict and starve of the ball.

Despite not earning a Test cap, Dagg's opposite number Damian McKenzie is an equal match as he tops the charts for most carries made (162) and defenders beaten (54), which testifies to his counter-attacking ability. With 20 offloads so far he has shown how much damage he can do with the ball in hand.

The Crusaders have scored five tries more in the competition than the Chiefs and given the excellent form of the likes of Dagg and Nadolo the Chiefs will have to be clinical on defence.

The last time the teams met: The Chiefs beat the Crusaders in a game that swung one way and the other in the second-half before the visitors landed the victory with a try by Sam Cane. It was an exciting come-from-behind 27-21 victory for the Chiefs in Round One as they scored four tries, one of them by Damian McKenzie. The full-back also created a try, converted a long-range penalty that got the visitors on the board and pulled off a try-saving tackle on Nadolo.

Players to watch: For the Chiefs it'll be a special occasion for Hika Elliot as he brings up 100 appearances for the side, which is some achievement when you consider how close he was to retirement a couple of years ago due to injury. The four-times capped All Black has some healthy competition from Nathan Harris on the bench for the starting spot at hooker. Taleni Seu has shown what a gain-line threat he can be with the ball in hand several times this year, while Stephen Donald is again charged with steering the ship at fly-half.

As for the Crusaders they will look to the running threat of David Havili at inside centre to try and suck in Chiefs defenders in order to open up space out wide. Used in midfield and at full-back this season, he's caught the eye with some smart footwork. In a strong pack of forwards Jordan Taufua will always be worth monitoring too with the work he does from ruck to ruck and his power from short-range.

Team news: Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie has named an experienced line-up. In the forwards Kane Hames, Hika Elliot and Japan prop Hiroshi Yamashita pack down in the front-row, with Dominic Bird and Brodie Retallick forming a formidable lock partnership. The skillset and work ethic of Taleni Seu, Sam Cane and Tom Sanders make for a potent loose forward combination.

In the backs, Brad Weber dons jersey nine, with Stephen Donald's exceptional performance against Wales being rewarded with a start at fly-half. Anton Lienert-Brown and Seta Tamanivalu link up in the midfield, while James Lowe, Toni Pulu and Damian McKenzie complete the backline in jerseys 11, 14 and 15 respectively.

Todd Blackadder has named a near full strength Crusaders side with seven returning All Blacks in the 23, the only omissions are centre Ryan Crotty and second-row Luke Romano, who are ruled out through injury. Both Mitchell Hunt and Jed Brown feature in the 23 for the first time, and will potentially make their debuts from the reserves bench.

Form: With 10 wins from their 12 matches the Crusaders are atop the New Zealand Conference, with one of their losses coming against the Chiefs in Round One. The seven-time champions have pulled off remarkable wins, two in particular, against the Sharks in Durban and the Force in Australia. The Chiefs are in second position, three points behind their opponents having lost one game more than the Crusaders. The most notable defeat against the Lions in Round Two on home soil while the 48-23 thrashing of the Brumbies in Canberra a brilliant display of what they are capable of doing with ball in hand.

Prediction: The opening round loss to the Chiefs sparked an eight-week winning streak for men from Christchurch and they will redeem themselves. Crusaders to beat the Chiefs by five.

Previous results:

2016: Chiefs won 27-21 in Christchurch
2015: Chiefs won 26-9 in Christchurch
2015: Chiefs won 40-16 in Hamilton
2014: Crusaders won 17-18 in Hamilton
2014: Chiefs won 18-10 in Christchurch
2013 (semi-final): Chiefs won 20-19 in Hamilton
2013: Crusaders won 15-43 in Christchurch
2013: Chiefs won 28-19 in Hamilton

The teams:

Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Mitchell Brown, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Sam McNicol

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Jone Macilai, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 David Havili, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Sean Wainui

Date: Friday, July 1
Venue: ANZ National Stadium, Suva
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Will Houston (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)

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