Preview: Crusaders v Blues

Date published: July 3 2014

Top of the New Zealand Conference by points difference alone, the Crusaders cannot afford to slip up against the Blues on Saturday.

Top of the New Zealand Conference by points difference alone, the Crusaders cannot afford to slip up against the Blues on Saturday.

Only two weeks remain of the regular season and with the Highlanders coming to town next weekend – the team tied with the Crusaders on 42 points – the drama really will go down to the wire.

Had the Crusaders been able to win in Wellington last weekend against the Hurricanes then they might have been breathing a little easier, but they are still in control of their own destiny.

Their situation though is tricky. Currently in third overall, the Crusaders are three points off the top two places which guarantee a bye week and a home semi-final.

Who would they rather see win on Sunday – the Highlanders doing so would give the Crusaders a chance to reel in the Waratahs in the final Round, while the Waratahs winning may keep the men from Christchurch safe at the top of the New Zealand Conference. It would be amiss to forget that trailing behind the Crusaders by a point are the Hurricanes, who play the Chiefs on Friday.

The New Zealand Conference has been so brilliantly competitive that the permutations are complex, but the Blues, who are still in with an outside shout of making the play-offs, won't exactly roll over.

Todd Blackadder has respected the challenge posed by the visitors from Auckland by fielding his strongest possible side.

In the loss to the Hurricanes last week he cited the absence of experienced figures such as Kieran Read and Dan Carter as a reason for defeat.

Both are back in action on Saturday, along with Israel Dagg and Nemani Nadolo. The Fijian wing has been in sparkling form for his country over the last month, securing their spot at the Rugby World Cup and turning out at inside centre where his goalkicking has been a pleasant surprise. Only Israel Folau has made more clean breaks this year in Super Rugby.

One of the top try scorers in the competition with seven, Nadolo offers a substantial double-edged threat of power and pace for the returning Charles Piutau to contend with.

Two losses in their last four matches have put dents in an impressive campaign for the Crusaders, but they have an excellent points difference of plus 89 to help settle any mathematical arguments should things finish level over the next two weeks.

Their success can be put down to a top-five scrum and a line-out running at 89.1 percent, marshalled and drilled by Sam Whitelock to great effect.

Colin Slade too deserves a ton of credit. Back in Christchurch, he has had an excellent year and scored the third highest amount of points in Super Rugby with 172.

His poor outing last week was uncharacteristic, hence the faith in him to deliver with Carter outside him at inside centre to lend a hand. Those with good memories will remember Carter starring in the 12 jersey when he broke into international rugby over a decade ago.

Finding consistency in the fly-half role has been the burden of the Blues all season, but Ihaia West appears to have finally cracked it.

The 22-year-old from Hawke's Bay has lived up to his billing. West produced his best performance yet against the Force last week, showing a handy turn of pace for the first try and supplying the passes for two more.

Attacking the line the way he does West is going to cause problems, but the key now is consistency. With so much ammunition at his disposal West has to keep delivering for the Blues to be a threat.

If he does, the Blues might even sneak a wildcard spot. It can only happen by stunning the Crusaders and then taking down the Chiefs at home, but neither result is unfathomable.

Ma'a Nonu's bulldozing carry through the normally solid Force defence is what the Blues need to see more of from their All Blacks centre, but where the Blues are great to watch is with their back row.

The combination of Steven Luatua, Luke Braid and Jerome Kaino is full of athleticism and power to benefit the Blues at the breakdown and beyond. Luatua responded to missing out on the Test series against England by excelling in Perth.

No side has a better tackle success percentage than the Blues' 88, but their line-out and scrum have suffered until recently. With an all-New Zealand front row and the presence of rising star Patrick Tuipulotu tucked in behind, that shouldn't be the case on Saturday in a close contest with the Crusaders.

Form: Prior to losing two of their last four matches the Crusaders had racked up seven wins from eight games, after losing their opening two fixtures. They have just scored more tries (35) than they have conceded (34). Inconsistency has plagued the Blues all season but they have won four of their last six matches, having won three of their first six games.

Previous Results:

2014: Blues won 35-24 in Auckland
2013: Crusaders won 23-3 in Christchurch
2013: Blues won 34-15 in Auckland
2012: Crusaders won 59-12 in Christchurch
2012: Crusaders won 19-18 in Auckland

Prediction: The forecast for Saturday is grim rain, which would appear to hand the advantage to the hosts with their set-piece and the kicking game of Slade and Carter. The Blues will give it a good old battle but it's hard to see past the Crusaders at home in those conditions. Crusaders by five.

The teams:

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Sam Prattley, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Francis Saili, 23 George Moala

Date: Saturday, July 5
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kickoff: 19:35 (local, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)