The Crusaders face a daunting challenge when they host the Western Force in Christchurch in Round 16's opener on Friday.
The Crusaders face a daunting challenge when they host the Western Force in Christchurch in the first match of Round 16 on Friday.
Both teams are amongst the tournament's frontrunners and can ill afford to drop points at this stage of the season.
With the competition taking a break – for the upcoming Test window period during June – both sides will be determined to consolidate their positions in the standings as defeat could see them dropping out of the play-off positions.
The Crusaders are handily placed in pole position on the New Zealand Conference and third overall, after securing a thrilling victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin last weekend, while the Force are in fourth place on the overall table and second in the Australian Conference.
After making a slow start, following successive defeats in their opening matches against the Chiefs and Blues, the men from Christchurch have fought back to be in contention for their eighth tournament title.
They showed against the Highlanders last weekend that they are a superb attacking team with players across the park that can set up and score tries.
One player, in particular, who the Force will be wary of is powerful wing Nemani Nadolo, who wreaked havoc with ball in hand against the Highlanders.
The big news in the home side's camp is the return of regular skipper Kieran Read who last played against the Chiefs in Round 10.
The IRB's current International Player of the Year will be the first to admit that his form hasn't been close to the performances he delivered in 2013. With the All Blacks squad set to be announced on Sunday, Read will be keen to hit the ground running against the Force.
Crusaders boss Todd Blackadder emphasised the importance of this match, in the context of the season, for both teams and said he expects the Force to give his charges a hard time.
“We are up against another very tough team this week and this win is so important for both of us,” ,” said Blackadder.
“So we need to make the most of every advantage we've got, and the home crowd is one of the big ones.
“The Crusaders supporters at AMI Stadium this season have been outstanding and we are determined to show our appreciation with a great performance on Friday night.”
The Force might not have been as pleasing on the eye as their hosts but their style of play have delivered the required results.
They pride themselves on their defence and although the Crusaders possess a superb attack orientated game-plan they will have to be at their best if they want to breach their visitors' try-line.
The Perth-based franchise have been superbly led all season by their captain Matt Hodgson, who has been one of the top performers in the tournament.
The openside flanker has impressed with his leadership but his real strength is his prowess at the breakdowns, where he has outshone most of his direct opponents in previous games.
He goes head-to-head with arguably the best breakdown specialist the game has ever seen in Crusaders number seven Richie McCaw, who, like his back row partner Read, is yet to play to his full potential in 2014.
Hodgson's fine form has been rewarded with a call-up to Australia's 32-man Test squad, for their upcoming series against France. If he can get the better of McCaw, his name could be pencilled into Wallabies boss Ewen McKenzie's matchday 23 for the first Test against les Bleus in Brisbane on June 7.
Another player who has delivered the goods consistently for the Force this season is fly-half Sias Ebersohn. The South African's goal-kicking has been impressive throughout their campaign and if the Crusaders want to be victorious, they must be not concede too many penalties within his range.
Form: The Crusaders moved into top position on the New Zealand Conference, and third spot in the overall standings, after last weekend's 32-30 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin. Prior to that, they suffered a 30-25 loss to the Sharks in Round 14 which brought to an end a five-game winning streak in which they beat the Lions, Cheetahs, Chiefs, Brumbies and Reds. The Force's 29-19 win over the Lions in Perth last weekend was a historical result as it was the first time in the franchise's history that they managed to win eight matches in a season. Before that match, they suffered a 24-8 defeat to the Stormers in the second match of their tour to South Africa. In the first one, they beat the Cheetahs 23-16 after beating the Bulls 15-9 in Round 11.
2013: Western Force won 16-14 in Perth
2012: Crusaders won 38-24 in Christchurch
2011: Crusaders won 42-30 in Perth
2010: Western Force won 24-16 in Perth
Prediction: Both sides are brimming with confidence but the Crusaders will be determined not to avoid what happened in their last home fixture and will take the spoils. Crusaders to win by seven points!
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Tom Taylor, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (capt), 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Owen Franks, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Adam Whitelock, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.
Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Patrick Dellit, 12 Chris Tuatara-Morrison, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Angus Cottrell, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Brynard Stander, 5 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Ollie Hoskins, 19 Adam Coleman, 20 Ryan Hodson, 21 Justin Turner, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Dillyn Leyds.
Date: Friday, May 30
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19.35 local (07.35 GMT, 08.35 BST)
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Lash (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
Television match official: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)