Fresh from a bye and with stars returning to their XV, the Crusaders should make it seven wins from seven against the Sunwolves on Friday.
Kieran Read, Richie Mo’unga and Seta Tamanivalu all make their return from injury in Christchurch in a timely boost for the in-form team. This trio possess such quality that it is looking more and more likely that the Crusaders are the real deal in this season’s competition.
While Whetu Douglas, Mitch Hunt and George Bridge have done impressive jobs standing in, expect to see the Crusaders lift their game to a new level from this week, with Mo’unga’s X-factor, Read’s skills and the power of Tamanivalu set to pose the Sunwolves plenty of problems.
They do face a visiting team buoyed by a morale-boosting home win over the Bulls, but one feels this could be a tough evening for them.
Nonetheless it will be a memorable game not only for their players but also the franchise as this is the first time they’ve played in New Zealand. It is also the first ever clash between these sides, though the Sunwolves’ only previous encounter with a New Zealand side ended in an 83-17 loss to the Hurricanes. That doesn’t bode well especially with travel taken into account and the Crusaders having fresh legs.
As mentioned, the Crusaders are in excellent form and have won 12 of their last 14 games at home, scoring an average of 37 points per game across that period. But the hosts would be foolish to write off the Sunwolves as an attacking threat as they have scored four tries in two of their last three games away from home after doing so only once in their six Super Rugby away matches before that. They can punish teams.
The Crusaders are also deadly when given a sniff though and with a record of having won their last 14 regular season matches against teams from outside New Zealand, scoring an average of 38 points per game across those triumphs, all the signs point to the red and black machine rolling to victory, setting them up nicely for next week’s cross-Conference clash with fellow pace-setters the Stormers at this same venue.
The last time these teams met: Yet to play.
Players to watch: Three key players return to the Crusaders side this Friday and they are Kieran Read, Richie Mo’unga and Seta Tamanivalu. Read’s comeback will be of keen interest, not only to Crusaders supporters but also the All Blacks, who will want him peaking by the time the British and Irish Lions land. On his day Read is a unique ball-playing number eight and there’s few, if any, better when he is firing.
For the Sunwolves keep an eye on the danger that Derek Carpenter poses in midfield. A massively underrated centre in this competition, the New Zealander will relish this opportunity to face his countrymen in a Super Rugby fixture after deciding to move to Japan in 2013. He’ll take on the experienced Tim Bateman at 12, who also spent time in Japan, so these two will know each other well in a fascinating contest.
Team news: Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett will set a new record for the most Super Rugby appearances by any player when the team faces the Sunwolves. A raft of changes to the side that beat the Waratahs a fortnight ago have been made, with just five players in the 23 remaining in the same position. Captain Sam Whitelock and vice-captain Matt Todd retain their spots at lock and loose forward, Mitchell Drummond is scrum-half and utility backs David Havili and Marty McKenzie will again wear the 15 and 22 jerseys respectively. Kieran Read will make his first appearance of the 2017 season, having recovered from wrist surgery to take the number eight spot. Fly-half Richie Mo’unga is also to make his comeback from a fractured a bone in his hand. Two other players returning from recent injury are Jack Goodhue, who will start at outside centre, and Seta Tamanivalu who will run out on the opposite wing to his nephew Manasa Mataele in Christchurch for the first time.
Sunwolves head coach Filo Tiatia has made eight changes to his starting line-up. Australian Ed Quirk returns to the side and will captain the Japanese outfit. Yoshitaka Tokunaga drops out for Quirk while flanker Shunsuke Nunomaki and lock Sam Wykes replace Shuhei Matsuhashi and Uwe Helu respectively. Takuma Asahara, Takeshi Kizu and Keita Inagaki all come into the front-row for Friday’s away fixture. Meanwhile in Sunwolves the backline, Yu Tamura starts ahead of Hayden Cripps at fly-half while Teruya Goto is on the wing in place of Kenki Fukuoka.
Form: Coming into this game off a bye week the Crusaders look to continue their excellent start to the season. Six straight wins have put the seven-time champions top of the Australasian Group but the Hurricanes and Chiefs are just two points adrift in a difficult Conference.
The Sunwolves ended a five-game losing run in Super Rugby 2017 when they pulled off a come-from-behind victory against the Bulls last week in Tokyo. That much-needed 21-20 success took them just one point behind the Pretoria outfit and three adrift of the Cheetahs in Africa 1.
Prediction: Home win here as the unbeaten New Zealanders will keep their winning streak going for another week at least. Crusaders by 25.
Previous results: Yet to play
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Manasa Mataele, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Pete Samu, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Whetu Douglas, 21 Leon Fukofuka, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 George Bridge
Sunwolves: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Takaaki Nakazuru, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Derek Carpenter, 11 Teruya Goto, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, 7 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 6 Edward Quirk, 5 Sam Wykes, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Takuma Asahara, 2 Takeshi Kizu, 1 Keita Inagaki
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Heiichiro Ito, 19 Shinya Makabe, 20 Yuhimaru Mimura, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 William Tupou, 23 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi
Date: Friday, April 14
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Nic Berry
Assistant Referees: Will Houston, Cam Stone
TMO: Glenn Newman