Preview: Blues v Crusaders

Date published: June 5 2015

It's win or bust for the Crusaders as they try to sneak into the Super Rugby play-offs when they face the Blues on Saturday.

For Todd Blackadder's side it might be too little too late despite their excellent victory over the table-topping Hurricanes last weekend.

Dan Carter's return to fly-half and the added power of Robbie Fruean in midfield gave the Crusaders a renewed sense of purpose in attack, inflicting only a second defeat of the year on the 'Canes to give their fans a glimmer of hope.

Going into Round 17 the seven-time champions are six points off 6th place in the table, meaning their odds of making it into the knockout stages in time are slim.

However last week's performance will have given them plenty of confidence. Tries shouldn't be a problem either, given that the Crusaders have scored the most in the competition this year with 48.

Another strong point will be the lineout given the Crusaders have registered the most lineout steals with 27, including seven for Luke Romano, while only the Highlanders have won more turnovers this season.

Surprisingly given their difficult campaign the Blues are actually targeting three straight home wins against the Crusaders for the first time since 2003.

John Kirwan's team endured a miserable start to the year but there have been hopeful signs as the year has progressed, although two of their best players in Akira Ioane and Tevita Li are currently away in Italy at the U20 World Championship.

Saturday might prove to be another tricky fixture with the Crusaders having won six of the last eight games between these two sides.

Tries have been an issue for the Blues, having registered the second-lowest total this season with 27, but the talent is there to make that statistic irrelevant.

The Blues will be fresh off their bye week at Eden Park and no doubt hungry to end the year on a high in front of their own fans, with many young players in the XV out to impress.

The last time these teams met: Tom Taylor scored two tries as the Crusaders racked up bonus-point win over the Blues in Christchurch back in April, with a final score of 29-15.

Players to watch: The Blues have picked a whole host of youngsters for this clash and former New Zealand Sevens flyer Ben Lam is one man out on the wing to keep an eye on. Lam was a star for New Zealand during last season's Sevens World Series triumph, a big powerful runner with unsurprisingly lots of speed. The Blues like to get the ball wide so he should see plenty of action. Matt Vaega, Airi Hunt, Joe Edwards and Will Lloyd will all be new faces to keep an eye on.

As for the Crusaders, Jordan Taufua gets the start at number eight in the absence of Kieran Read and the strong back-rower never seems to let his side down. Versatile enough to play six or eight, Taufua has had to bide his time during parts of this year but now gets a crack to make an impression and maybe send a message to Blackadder about his abilities. Keep an eye on big Robbie Fruean at outside centre as well.

Team news: Kirwan has named a young team to face the Crusaders. The Blues have 12 players unavailable for selection with injury. There are six changes to the starting XV, including a Super Rugby debut for 20-year-old number Airi Hunt, while lock Will Lloyd, flanker Joe Edwards and full-back Matt Vaega get their first starts. Manawatu's Hamish Northcott starts at outside centre.

Blackadder has made three changes for the Crusaders. Wyatt Crockett returns to loosehead, while Alex Hodgman drops to the bench. Hookers Ben Funnell and Codie Taylor have rotated again so that Taylor takes the starting spot. The final change to the starting XV is at lock, with Dominic Bird coming into the team alongside Luke Romano as Jimmy Tupou drops out of the squad.

Form: The Blues have only won three games all year and started their season with a seven-game losing streak, before winning three of their last seven matches. They have accumulated a tournament-high six losing bonus points this season and are currently five points clear of the bottom-placed Force. As for the Crusaders, they haven't strung together back-to-back wins since Round 6 but have won three of their last five matches. No side has scored more points in Super Rugby this year.

Predictions: With the Blues fielding such a youthful side and the Crusaders desperate to win, we can only see this going one way. Crusaders by 15!

Previous results: 
2015: Crusaders won 29-15 in Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 21-13 in Christchurch

2014: Blues won 35-24 in Auckland

2013: Crusaders won 23-3 in Christchurch

The teams:

Blues: 15 Matt Vaega, 14 Ben Lam, 13 Hamish Northcott, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Airi Hunt, 7 Brendon O’Connor, 6 Joe Edwards, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Will Lloyd, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley. 
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Hayden Triggs , 20 Chris Vui, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Matt McGahan.

Crusaders: 15 Tom Taylor, 14 Nafi Tuitavake, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 David Havili, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Matt Todd, 5 Dominic Bird, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Andy Ellis, 22 Ryan Crotty, 23 Kieron Fonotia.

Date: Saturday, June 6
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (17:35 AEST, 09:35 SAST, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant Referees: Ben O'Keeffe, Jamie Nutbrown
TMO: Ben Skeen