The Blues will hope to make up ground on the Crusaders when they travel to Christchurch on Friday in Super Rugby.
Tana Umaga’s side are not bottom of the New Zealand Conference – that surprisingly belongs to the Highlanders – but after the way they tore apart the Rebels in Round 1 expectations around the team have peaked and since subsided.
They might just fancy an upset however this weekend heading to AMI Stadium given the litany of injuries suffered by the Crusaders, the latest of which concerning Israel Dagg sees the All Black ruled out for six weeks.
That has left the Crusaders with a youthful backline which includes match-winning hero Mitch Hunt, who stepped up to see off the Reds with that late penalty in Brisbane for a 22-20 win
Coping without the likes of Dagg, Seta Tamanivalu and Richie Mo’unga is a tough ask for a young group, which puts the onus on the All Blacks tight five, spearheaded by Sam Whitelock and Owen Franks.
Everything about their season so far has been rock solid, from finishing well in the top half in most of Opta’s statistical categories and leading the way for the most offloads in the competition as well.
Their defence however will need to be excellent against a dangerous Blues side featuring Augustine Pulu’s sniping breaks and the talent of Rieko Ioane in midfield.
That said, the Crusaders have every right to feel confident about their chances. The Crusaders have won their last five games against the Blues, the longest winning streak of either side in the history of the fixture.
And they have won seven of their last eight games on home turf, scoring an average of 5.4 tries per game in that span.
The last time these teams met: Ihaia West snatched a late losing bonus point for the Blues in a 21-26 home defeat, with Mo’unga’s boot playing a key role as he finished with 16 points off the tee. Nemani Nadolo and Andy Ellis both scored for the Crusaders, while West and Moala both crossed for the Blues.
Players to watch: A new face out on the wing for the Crusaders is in fact the nephew of Tamanivalu. And if Manasa Mataele can replicate his uncle’s try-scoring efforts from the opening weeks of this year’s Super Rugby, not forgetting that match-winner against the Highlanders, then the Crusaders will be well set. Mataele stood out for Taranaki in the Mitre 10 Cup and will bring plenty of flair and speed out wide.
As for the Blues, the early efforts of Blake Gibson have not gone unnoticed in the back row as the former New Zealand U20 prospect continues to impress with his ability over the ball at the breakdown. Gibson has been dogged in his breakdown work so far this year but can also make an impact in the loose and is an athletic force at the lineout.
Team news: Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has made seven changes to the starting XV. All Black Owen Franks returns to the tighthead prop jersey, while Jordan Taufua and Jed Brown join Whetu Douglas in the loose forward trio. Bryn Hall will start at scrum-half this week against his former team, with Mitchell Drummond on the bench. Mataele will make his Super Rugby debut. George Bridge takes the other wing, with Digby Ioane also ruled out after injuring a finger. David Havili steps into full-back
The Blues have made three changes and one positional tweak to their starting XV. Up front, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti comes back in at lock after starting in the first two games, and will partner All Black Patrick Tuipulotu. Jimmy Tupou will move from lock to loose forward, with All Black Jerome Kaino moving to number eight. In the backs, Piers Francis comes in at fly-half and Melani Nanai returns on the left wing.
Form: The Crusaders have started the season with wins over the Brumbies, Highlanders and Chiefs. The Blues meanwhile hammered the Rebels before falling to the Chiefs and Highlanders. A three-point win against the Highlanders in their last game against New Zealand opposition leaves the Crusaders hunting for back-to-back wins against fellow Kiwi teams for the first time since a win against the Blues in Round 17, 2015. The Blues have won only one of their last 21 games away from home against New Zealand opposition; a 34-20 win against the ‘Canes in Round 2, 2013 their only positive result in that span.
Prediction: The Blues can certainly put up a fight but even with their injuries, the Crusaders’ pack looks to have the edge in this one. Crusaders by seven.
2016: Crusaders won 26-21 in Auckland
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
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Manasa Mataele, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Jed Brown, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Sean Wainui
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Ihaia West, 23 TJ Faiane
Date: Friday, March 17
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Angus Mabey (New Zealand), Cam Stone (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)