It promises to be another entertaining New Zealand derby when the Crusaders host the Hurricanes in their final regular-season game.
It promises to be another entertaining New Zealand derby when the red hot Crusaders host the Hurricanes in the final fixture of their regular-season.
The Crusaders know what they need do – win with a bonus-point and then it will be up to the Chiefs to secure the minimum one point required to top the New Zealand conference. Of course, the 'Saders would still be set for a home playoff next as the Brumbies are expected to beat the Force.
Many expect the Crusaders to win this following their strong recent performances, but it is worth noting that the Hurricanes were triumphant in Wellington. Despite scoring four tries to the home side's two, Todd Blackadder's men lost 29-28 so revenge may be in the air when the action starts.
As mentioned, the form of this week's hosts has been impressive in recent games – against the Highlanders and Chiefs – and while the 'Canes have been scoring well, their defence has been flaky. They have conceded 113 points in their last three outings, with last week the worst of the lot.
The way they let the likes of Hosea Gear and Colin Slade to stroll through their defensive line illustrated why they have the fourth worst points against tally in the competition – only the Rebels, Highlanders and Kings sit below them in that area. Beauden Barrett is third on 33 missed tackles. Such leaks frantically need to be plugged on Friday or they are in for a hiding against an ultra clinical Crusaders side.
Despite pivot Barrett's unwanted stat, his attacking form has recovered to what it was in 2012 – cameos in June were top quality – and Steve Hansen is surely licking his lips at the prospect of using Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and the Hurricanes back during the Rugby Championship, Barrett maybe more at number 15 as we saw against France.
There are plenty of other players gunning for All Blacks squad places and with Richie McCaw making his return to club rugby this weekend, Matt Todd is set to possibly find himself back out of the international reckoning. He, like Sam Cane, are the future of the 7 slot though, of that there's no doubt. Also keep an eye out for Baby Blacks star Ardie Savea, who is set for big things in the ITM Cup and then next season's Super Rugby competition.
Another looking to make a statement will be Hurricanes blindside flanker Brad Shields, who continues to bang on the door after being a threat in the wider channels last weekend – his offload to a scoring Julian Savea was out of the drawer and he may now be above team-mate Victor Vito in Hansen's back-row thinking as the regular-season ends.
The future, as one might have already guessed, is very bright in New Zealand and this game could well be a celebration of that fact in terms of running rugby. While recent South African derby fixtures (excluding the Bulls v Sharks clash of last weekend) have been low on attacking initiative and basic skill sets – siding more towards the physical – this promises to be a quality filled opening showdown to kick-off the last round of the regular campaign.
And with McCaw set to possibly return to Super Rugby as early as next week, it would be a brave reader to write the Crusaders off for the 2013 silverware. We certainly haven't.
Prediction: Surely the Hurricanes defence cannot be as bad as last week? While Mark Hammett will have addressed that facet in the week, it won't be enough to upset this Crusaders juggernaut that heads for the play-offs. Crusaders by 18 points!
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Tom Marshall, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Tom Taylor, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Tom Donnelly, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Jimmy Tupou, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tyler Bleyendaal, 22 Telusa Veainu.
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Alapati Leiua/Matt Proctor, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Reynold Lee-Lo, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben May, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Reggie Goodes, 17 John Schwalger, 18 Blade Thomson, 19 Faifili Levave, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 Ope Peleseuma, 22 Matt Proctor/Andre Taylor.
Date: Friday, July 12
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19.35 (07.35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)