The Crusaders will be looking for their seventh successive victory over the Blues when the two sides meet at Eden Park on Saturday.
It is the longest winning streak in the history of the fixture. Indeed, the Crusaders have prevailed on their last two visits to Eden Park, having won there just once in their four visits prior.
The Crusaders showed all the mettle and character of champions with a record-breaking comeback last week against the Waratahs, becoming the first side to overturn a 29 point deficit in the history of Super Rugby.
With the Crusaders winning their last seven matches, it is an ominous challenge for the Blues, who even if they start well, will need to play for the full 80 minutes as their visitors are the best finishers in the competition. Few sides have been able to live with the Crusaders during the final quarter of matches, with the Christchurch-based side having scored a competition-high 16 tries during this period this season.
Meanwhile, this week Tana Umaga was reappointed as Blues boss for another year, despite the Auckland outfit’s problems this season, which has seen them win only three of their 11 games. The Blues’ players are likely to be fired-up with Umaga a popular figure in the dressing room.
Sonny Bill Williams, who was immense in a losing cause against the Hurricanes last weekend, epitomises that Blues’ fighting spirit and many of the younger players in the side will be looking to him for guidance. If the Blues are to get anything from the game, they will need their star man to step up.
In number eight Akira Ioane, the Blues have a player who has beaten the most defenders in the competition. But this is a Crusaders side that has missed the fewest tackles per game this season (19) and boasts the highest tackle success rate (86 percent).
The Blues have not beaten New Zealand opposition in their last 16 attempts and the tables are unlikely to turn in that regard come Saturday.
The last time the teams met: In a game of two halves, the Blues raced into a 21-3 lead courtesy of a George Moala brace and one from Augustine Pulu. However, Pete Samu, Ben Funnell and Mitch Hunt hit back to level the scores at 24-24. In the 80th minute, Mitchell Drummond worked his way over the try-line to seal a last-gasp 33-24 victory in dramatic fashion in Christchurch last season.
Players to watch:
For Blues: Akira Ioane has been a one-man wrecking ball for his side this season. The 24-year-old has beaten 55 defenders, more than any other player in the competition. Having started in every single one of the Blues’ games this season, Ioane has seven tries to his name, comfortably the most of any forward in Super Rugby.
For Crusaders: It is good news for the All Blacks as Ryan Crotty appears to be hitting top form as World Cup year approaches but not such good news for his opponents on Saturday. While we have become accustomed to Crotty being a rock-solid defender, it is his attacking qualities that have begun to shine through in the last couple of matches.
Team news: Matiaha Martin will make his Blues debut and comes in for injured All Black Patrick Tuipulotu to join Gerard Cowley-Tuioti in the second-row. Fellow locks Scott Scrafton and Jimmy Tupou are out with season-ending injuries.
Pauliasi Manu is reunited in the front-row with James Parsons and Ofa Tuungafasi, with the trio sporting 213 Super Rugby caps between them.
There is a potent loose forward trio with Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii (bracketed with Murphy Taramai) and Jerome Kaino, who plays his 135th game for the Blues, closing in on the 137 caps achieved by Tony Woodcock, who sits second on the all-time list behind Keven Mealamu.
Melani Nanai, who missed five games with injury, comes back into the starting line-up on the right wing allowing Rieko Ioane to play on his preferred left wing, with the in-form Orbyn Leger again pairing with Sonny Bill Williams in midfield. Captain Augustine Pulu starts at scrum-half again inside Stephen Perofeta.
Michael Collins returns after missing four games through injury, listed on a bench that includes Northland captain Matt Moulds, who will earn his 20th and blazer game should he get on.
Meanwhile, Crusaders coach Scott Robertson has made six alterations to his starting line-up.
In the front-row, Tim Perry makes his return from the hamstring injury he sustained against the Brumbies in Round 11, and will start at loosehead prop. Owen Franks also returns to the starting side this week, and Mike Alaalatoa moves to the reserves.
Quinten Strange steps into the starting team this week in place of regular captain Sam Whitelock, with Matt Todd to lead the side in his absence. The only other change in the pack sees Heiden Bedwell-Curtis take the starting spot in the number six jersey with Pete Samu providing cover on the bench.
In the backs, vice-captain Ryan Crotty returns and will line up in the midfield alongside Jack Goodhue. Outside back George Bridge will shift from full-back to the left wing for this game, and David Havili will wear the number 15 jersey. Manasa Mataele, having recovered from the head knock he suffered against the Waratahs, takes a spot on the bench.
Form: The Blues’ card is filled with a whole bunch of losses interspersed with the odd win, as if they are giving everyone a glimpse of their true potential before retreating back into their shells. Defeats to the Highlanders (twice), Chiefs (twice), Stormers, Sharks, Jaguares and Hurricanes are interrupted by victories over the Lions, Sunwolves and Waratahs.
The Crusaders got the defence of their title underway with wins over the Stormers and Chiefs before suffering back-to-back losses against New Zealand rivals the Hurricanes and Highlanders. However, since then, they have been in rock-solid form and are currently enjoying a seven-match winning streak, a record only bettered by the Hurricanes in this year’s competition.
Prediction: Not even Sonny Bill can stop this train. Crusaders by 12.
2017: Crusaders won 33-24 in Christchurch
2016: Crusaders won 26-21 in Auckland
2016: Crusaders won 28-13 in Christchurch
2015: Crusaders won 34-11 in Auckland
2015: Crusaders won 29-15 in Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 21-13 in Christchurch
2014: Blues won 24-35 in Auckland
2013: Crusaders won 23-3 in Christchurch
2013: Blues won 15-34 in Auckland
Blues: 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Orbyn Leger, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu (c), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Dalton Papalii/Murphy Taramai, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Matiaha Martin, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ross Wright, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Ben Nee-Nee, 20 Murphy Taramai/Antonio Kiri Kiri, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Dan Kirkpatrick, 23 Michael Collins
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Tim Perry
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Mitchell Dunshea, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele
Date: Saturday, May 19
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Cam Stone (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
Television match official: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)