Preview: Chiefs v Crusaders

Date published: April 18 2014

The weekend's biggest Super Rugby clash sees the defending champions, the Chiefs, welcome rivals the Crusaders to Hamilton.

The weekend's biggest Super Rugby clash sees the defending champions, the Chiefs, welcome rivals the Crusaders to Hamilton.

The Chiefs are a curious beast this season. Sure, they've produced the now-customary brand of swashbuckling flair in spades, but the results have been a little underwhelming.

A six-point win over the Rebels at home is nothing to shout about when you're the two-time defending champions, and it took a pair of thrilling comebacks to snatch a share of spoils from the jaws of defeat on South African soil.

They have an awful lot more left in their locker, and you'd imagine it's only a matter of time before they find the key, crack it open and unleash the true extent of their attacking prowess. And for all that they've trundled along in third gear thus far, never looking like breaking down, but not slamming the accelerator the floor either, the Chiefs have still racked up the points and the victories.

Why? The simple answer is that they can strike from anywhere. No other side does counter-attacking better, with the running lines, support, handling and interplay so wonderfully Kiwi.

Unsurprisingly, they top the charts for average metres made (511) and offloads completed (14). But although the Chiefs have scored eight tries from their own 22, they've conceded the same number from the corresponding field position; the champs' defence can still go walkabout.

Interestingly, the Chiefs have the most penalised set-piece in the tournament thus far, infringing 21 times in the scrum and nine times at the lineout and that's 14 more than the visitors, and an advantage the Crusaders must press home to gain a crucial first-phase platform.

Yet having said that, the hosts' lineout is also the most reliable in Super Rugby, boasting a 92 percent success rate, while the Crusaders' sits dead-last on 74 percent.

As they always do, Todd Blackadder's men are scaling the great peak of form at the right time; you can always count on them being up there come the business end of the season.

This game marks the first in a crucial string of fixtures for the Crusaders and their playoff aspirations. After Saturday, they must face the Brumbies (h), the Reds (a) and the Sharks (h) in quick succession and a win over the Chiefs would set them up perfectly.

We can expect this one to have plenty of niggle and not only are there All Blacks across the park, but both teams have been found consistently guilty of the latest Southern Hemisphere fad: holding an opponent captive around the base of a ruck via his jersey, sparking an inevitably violent response.

Fortunately, rugby players are not known for their proficiency in hand-to-hand combat, but Stephen Moore's uppercut on Ed Quirk last weekend sounded a note of caution. Things are liable to get ugly round the fringes in Hamilton.

Fatigue is also likely to play a part for the visitors: the Crusaders have just returned from a successful but gruelling tour of South Africa and with just three changes made from last week's impressive 52-31 victory over the Cheetahs, Blackadder is likely to make liberal use of his substitutes and especially given the Chiefs' propensity for lung-busting late tries.

Speaking of tries, the man most likely to be scoring them for the Christchurch outfit is worth keeping an eye on. The hulking Nemai Nadolo is a Fijian similar in speed and bodily dimensions to Jonah Lomu and his battle with the feisty Tim Nanai-Williams out wide will be a corker.

The history books show that this is traditionally a tight contest, with two back-rows in particular keen to size each other up and slug it out for dominance at the breakdown. In this case, as well as Liam Messam and Kieran Read doing battle, heir apparent to Richie McCaw's openside throne Sam Cane and Matt Todd are likely to go head-to-head at some stage.

The combined scoreline has breached the 50-point barrier just twice since 2006. If there is to be a lot of kicks at goal, expect it to favour the Chiefs and the Crusaders' goal-kicking accuracy sits at a woefully low 65% this season, a frankly disgraceful figure for any professional team.

Form: The Chiefs have lost just one of their last five fixtures, with a shock 18-15 home defeat to the in-form Force their only defeat of the season so far. That reversal preceded a pair of last-gasp draws away to the Bulls and Cheetahs, before last weekís narrow win over the Rebels. The Crusaders have also lost only once in their past five games, after a stunning Alapati Leuia try saw them go down 29-26 to the Hurricanes. That defeat was bracketed by a brace of previous wins over the Stormers and Rebels, and followed subsequently by victory against the Lions and Cheetahs.

Previous results:
2014: Chiefs won 18-10 in Christchurch
2013: Chiefs won 20-19 in Hamilton
2013: Crusaders won 43-15 in Christchurch
2013: Chiefs won 28-19 in Hamilton

Prediction: The game of the weekend won't be high-scoring, but it will be entertaining! Chiefs to get there by six points.

The teams:

Chiefs: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Andrew Horrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam (c), 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Michael Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Jamie Mackintosh, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 Jordan Payne.

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Tom Taylor, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Willi Heinz, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Andy Ellis, 22 Tyler Bleyendaal, 23 Adam Whitelock

Date: Saturday 18th April
Venue: Waikato Stadium
Kick-off: 19:35 (local, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Garratt Williamson (NZ)
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson, Kane McBride (both NZ)
TMO: Glen Newman (NZ)