Preview: Crusaders v Blues

Date published: April 24 2015

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Coming off the back of consecutive home defeats, the Crusaders' play-off hopes hang in the balance as they host their great rivals, the Blues, in Christchurch on Saturday.

With ten Super Rugby titles between them, this was once New Zealand's – perhaps even the whole competition's – greatest rivalry, but with the Crusaders struggling in tenth spot overall and the Blues almost certain to finish bottom of the Kiwi conference, much of the shine has been taken off the great North-South showdown.

The Crusaders remain the tournament's most successful team but they have a massive task on their hands if they are to have any chance of continuing their impressive record of making the play-offs every year since 2002.

It's been a funny old season for the seven-time champions. Their slow start to the year has almost become expected yet their massive win over the Sharks in Durban had seemed to signal their perennial mid-season resurgence.

Indeed, the Crusaders returned from their tour of South Africa bubbling with confidence but back-to-back losses on home soil and growing concerns over the form of stalwarts Richie McCaw and Dan Carter have set the alarm bells ringing. Not only would another loss equal their worst-ever sequence, it would spell disaster.

They're scoring plenty of tries (in fact, more than anyone else this term) but they're turning possession over far too cheaply. No team has conceded more turnovers this year than the Crusaders.

They have the competition's best scrum too. The Crusaders have scored the most tries from scrums – eight – this season, with the Blues ranking in joint-second with six. So expect plenty of attacking around the set piece.

"We're definitely in a tight spot but the boys are very confident," said in-form flanker blindside flanker Jordan Taufua.

"We know it's another big local derby and we need to get the little things right – just the simple catch and pass, running hard and protecting the ball."

Having spent most of the year under the spotlight, Blues coach Sir John Kirwan knows his team too are under pressure to get a positive result.

"It's always going to be tough down there," said Kirwan.

"They're a proud side and they were embarrassed about last week. We're getting them on the hop, when they're hurting and that's a dangerous time to get them. It will be a classic derby.

"They're under pressure, we're under pressure, so it makes for an interesting evening."

The last time these team met: A double from Nemani Nadolo saw the Crusaders home in a high-tempo contest in Round 18 last year, as they overturned a two-point half-time deficit to win 21-13 in Christchurch. An intercept try from Frank Halai helped the Blues reach in the interval in front, but the visitors failed to score in the second period.  

Players to watch: All eyes will be on Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. Widely regarded as the greatest flanker and playmaker respectively in the history of the game, neither has been up to scratch this year. A turn around in their team's fortunes could well depend on their return to top form. The All Blacks selectors will be watching the battle of the front rows closely, with Charlie Faumuina set to be a key man for the Blues. He made a hug impact off the bench last week. After an inconsistent outing with the boot last week, the Blues will need Dan Bowden's radar to be working better.  

Team news: The Crusaders have made four changes to their XV. Codie Taylor and Ben Funnell have rotated so that Taylor starts at hooker, as have Owen Franks and Nepo Laulala with Franks starting at tighthead prop. Mitchell Drummond starts at scrum-half with Andy Ellis moving to the bench. Ryan Crotty has recovered from a head knock and will start at outside centre, with Kieron Fonotia ready to provide some impact from the bench.

The Blues have made a whopping eight changes as All Blacks Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Charlie Faumuina are elevated from the bench to form a new starting front row. Mealamu will also assume the captaincy with Jerome Kaino rested along with James Parsons and Charles Piutau. Steven Luatua returns to play at number eight while Jimmy Cowan is back at scrum-half and Lolagi Visinia at full-back.

Form: The Crusaders have won five of their nine games this year, but have lost three of their five on home soil after consecutive losses (to the Chiefs and Highlanders) in their most recent outings.

Despite losing 10 of their last 11 matches, the Blues’ heaviest defeat in this run was a 23-11 loss to the Waratahs and they have snared losing bonuses in seven of these games. They beat the Brumbies a fortnight ago and picked up two bonus points in last week's loss away to the Highlanders.

Predictions: When the chips are down, the Crusaders usually come good. The home side on the day has won the last five clashes between these teams and we expect that trend to continue. Crusaders by less than seven points.

Previous results:
2014: Crusaders  won 21-13 in Christchurch
2014: Blues won 35-24 in  Auckland
2013: Crusaders won 23-3 in Christchurch
2013: Blues won 34-15 in Auckland

The teams:

Crusaders: 15 Tom Taylor, 14 David Havili, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Andy Ellis, 22 Kieron Fonotia, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Francis Saili, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Dan Bowden,9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Brendon O’Connor, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Culum Retallick, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Tevita Li.

Date: Saturday, April 25
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off:  19:35 local,  (07:35 GMT; 17:35 AEST, 09:35 SAST)
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant referees: Kane McBride; Jamie Nutbrown
TMO: Chris Wratt

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