Preview: Crusaders v Bulls

Date published: July 21 2012

No visiting team has ever won a Super Rugby knock-out game in Christchurch. Can the Bulls create history at AMI Stadium on Saturday?

No visiting team has ever won a Super Rugby knock-out game in Christchurch. Can the Bulls create history at AMI Stadium on Saturday?

In the blue corner, weighing in at three Super Rugby titles, with 14 internationals in their starting XV and boasting a record of ten wins, six defeats and 11 bonus points this season: From Pretoria, the pride of the Highveld…The Buuuuulls!

In the red corner, weighing in at seven Super Rugby titles, with a starting XV featuring eight World Cup winners and boasting a record of eleven wins, five defeats and nine bonus points this season: From Christchurch, led by King Richie …The Cruuuuusaders!

This is about as big as it gets outside of Test rugby. Whatever your affiliation, you can't help but want to watch a clash between the two most successful teams in the history of Super Rugby.

Not many people outside of Pretoria are giving the Bulls much chance and it's not difficult to see why. It's been 12 years since the Crusaders lost at home – at any stage of the competition – to a non-Kiwi team (the Brumbies won there in 2000).

Not only do the Bulls have to overcome the Crusaders' brilliant record on home soil, the best in Super Rugby, but their own record of just six victories in New Zealand in 37 matches does not inspire confidence. Indeed, the Bulls have never won in Christchurch (although Northern Transvaal did in the pre-franchise days back in 1996).

Beyond the stats, the Crusaders first-half performance against the Force last week suggests the home side are firing on all cylinders. True, the second half of that game was pretty terrible, but with victory and the bonus point already wrapped up by half-time, Todd Blackadder's troops had precious little to play for after the interval.

As a consequence, the bookies are backing the hosts to win by twelve points which might seem a little generous considering the Bulls were the winners in four of the last five games between these sides, including their most recent clash back in April. The men in blue have also come out on top the last three times they've faced each other in a knock-out game.

Of course all of those positive results came in Gauteng and the day-long trek to New Zealand will certainly count against the South Africans this time.

Yet the Bulls play a brand of rugby that has always troubled the counter-attack conscious Crusaders, and they enter the Finals Series as the most effective attacking team left in the competition, with their 50 tries bettered only by the eliminated Hurricanes (58).

Indeed, while the Bulls have always played a structured game based around their set piece, to think that they will rely solely on Morné Steyn's boot would be extremely naive.

No one expects to see the visitors fling it about like a hot potato, and they will look to pile the pressure on at line-out time especially. But their ability to create opportunities for the likes of Bjorn Basson has seen the wing top the try-scoring charts this season.

Many fans are still wondering why they chose to push for a bonus-point win against the Lions last weekend when putting Steyn in the pocket for a drop-goal or two would have been enough to book a ticket to Brisbane. The fact that they did not take the permutations into consideration is a sign of the confidence within the squad. Even if no one else does, the Bulls truly believe they can win.

Bulls coach Frans Ludeke, who was also at the helm when they won the title in 2009 and 2010, is convinced there is very little to choose between the teams this weekend.

“There isn't one team that has an edge on another and it will all come down to which team handles the pressure the best,” said Ludeke.

“This is finals rugby and we know how to handle the pressure. We are playing away but we know this is a once-off game and we know what we have to do.

“We know this is the most important game of our season, and we have to have the belief. We have made one or two small adjustments to our game, but we are confident going into Saturday's game… it will come down to how we handle it.”

Players to watch:

For the Crusaders: A fortnight ago the Crusaders totally dismantled the Chiefs line-out with Luke Romano in devastating form. Those in the know are predicting a big future the 26-year-old but the Bulls line-out is one of the best in world rugby. A tough examination awaits. Left out of the side last week, Robbie Fruean has had a somewhat inconsistent season. Last year there were loud cries for an All Blacks call up but many of those have died down. Fruean is a huge talent though and if he fires, sparks will fly.

For the Bulls: The return of Flip van der Merwe from injury is the only change to the Bulls' side but it is a significant one. Games like these are equivalent to a Test match and experienced heads are invaluable. Van der Merwe will call the shots at line-out time and will lead the charge as the Bulls pack try to bully their hosts. Morné Steyn has his critics but when his confidence is up, there is no more deadlier boot in the game. The Bok pivot was poor against England but bounced back with sterling performances against the Cheetahs and Lions. His duel with Dan Carter remains a classic match-up of styles.

Head-to-head: With Kieran Read absent, Richie McCaw will once again start out of position in the number eight jersey. McCaw is without doubt one of the best loose forwards the world has ever seen, but he cannot match the speed of his opposite number and opposing skipper Pierre Spies. Cutting the big runner down before he can start galloping will be McCaw's chief aim. Once on the deck, Spies's threat is eliminated… but the master's work will have only just began.

Previous results:

2012: Bulls won 32-30 in Pretoria
2011: Crusaders won 27-0 in Timaru
2010: Bulls won 39-24 (semi-final) in Soweto
2010: Bulls won 40-35 in Pretoria
2009: Bulls won 26-23 (semi-final) in Pretoria
2009: Crusaders won 16-13 in Christchurch
2008: Crusaders won 54-19 in Pretoria
2007: Bulls won 27-12 (semi-final) in Pretoria
2007: Crusaders won 32-10 in Christchurch
2006: Crusaders won 35-15 (semi-final) in Christchurch
2006: Crusaders won 35-17 in Pretoria

Prediction: Last year's 27-0 trashing in Timaru has not been forgotten by Bulls fans but it's unlikely we'll see a similar result. The bookies' 12-point head-start seems a bit exaggerated but they've picked the right result. Crusaders by seven points.

Super Rugby betting odds

The teams:

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Adam Whitelock, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Richie McCaw (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George