The Crusaders will be aiming to finish the league phase of the competition on a high when they host the Blues in Christchurch on Saturday.
The defending champions have, once again, been the pace-setters in the tournament and head into this match in a rich vein of form as they are currently on an 11-match winning streak.
The Crusaders have dominated this fixture in recent years as they have won their last seven games on the bounce against the Blues – a streak more than twice as long as any other by either team in the history of this fixture.
The Blues have not won an away match against the Crusaders since 2004 – losing 10 such fixtures in succession since that game – so it’s unsurprising the Crusaders head into this fixture as overwhelming favourites as they have won their last 16 home games in succession.
Although the Crusaders have rested several of their first-choice players, they still have game-breakers of the calibre of Richie Mo’unga, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg in their ranks while the Blues’ charge will be led by the likes of Rieko and Akira Ioane, their captain, Augustine Pulu and Jerome Kaino, who is playing in his final match for the Auckland-based outfit.
With this being their last match of the season, Blues head coach Tana Umaga wants his charges to focus on a quality performance against the best team in the competition.
“This game means a lot,” he said.
“We want to send Jerome off in the best possible fashion.
“We are going into a cauldron in Christchurch, but we have to go with eyes wide open and also take confidence from the game last week.
“We’ve worked on the areas that were pretty obvious in terms of our defence but there will be no lack of motivation to play against the Crusaders.
“Our forward effort was good last week but we know it needs to go another notch and I think some of the play by our backs, that in tough times they started to find their confidence.
“For us we have to do well on both sides of the ball. We had some individual lapses in defence and that’s something we’ve worked on.
“We need to stick to what we train. We need to be consistent in the execution of our plans and finish off opportunities when we create them. They are a quality side and have been for a long time but we are excited to get out there and do our best for us and for Jerome.”
The last time the teams met: The Crusaders claimed a hard-fought 32-24 win in a Round 14 encounter in Auckland during May. George Bridge, Quinten Strange, Matt Todd and Bryn Hall scored tries for the champions and Richie Mo’unga slotted three penalties and two conversions. For the Blues, Rieko Ioane scored a brace of tries and Matt Duffie and Michael Collins also dotted down. Their other points came via two conversions from Stephen Perofeta.
Players to watch:
For Crusaders: If the Crusaders forwards can provide good front-foot ball to their backs, expect Richie Mo’unga to dominate in the playmaking department. After making his Test debut for the All Blacks against France last month, Mo’unga hit the ground running when he returned to action for the Crusaders in last weekend’s win over the Highlanders and finished with a 25-point haul, courtesy of a try, four conversions and four penalties in that match. A similar performance this weekend is just what the Crusaders need ahead of the play-offs.
For Blues: This will be the last time that All Blacks enforcer Jerome Kaino runs out for the men from Auckland before he departs for France where he will further his career with Top 14 heavyweights Toulouse. Although he is in the twilight of his career, Kaino is renowned for his physicality and will want to make an impact in that facet of play. If he succeeds in doing that, it should help the Blues build some momentum.
Team news: Crusaders boss Scott Robertson has made six changes to his starting XV for this derby. Of the four changes in the forwards, the champions welcome the return of prop Tim Perry from the hamstring injury he sustained prior to the June international break.
At tighthead, Michael Alaalatoa moves from the bench to the starting side for this game. Quinten Strange will partner captain Sam Whitelock at lock, with Scott Barrett rested this week. In the loose forwards, Jordan Taufua will start in the number six jersey, and Pete Samu comes in to the reserves.
The only changes in the backs will see Mitchell Drummond wear the number nine jersey this week and Bryn Hall take a spot on the replacements bench. David Havili will also sit out this game, and has been replaced at full-back by Israel Dagg.
On the reserves bench, Otago hooker Sam Anderson-Heather joins the squad and could earn his first Crusaders cap this week. Anderson-Heather will provide cover for Andrew Makalio in the absence of Codie Taylor, who is another All Black rested for this match.
Meanwhile, Blues head coach Tana Umaga has made just one alteration to his starting line-up.
The only change from the pack which lost to the Hurricanes in Wellington last week is a start for Ben Nee-Nee after an injury to Matiaha Martin ruled him out, while the backline remains the same.
The Blues will aim to give long-serving star Jerome Kaino a fitting send-off in his final game for the Auckland-based club. Kaino, who heads to France after the season, will play his 139th game for the Blues, to sit second on the all-time Blues list behind Keven Mealamu.
Form: The Crusaders are the tournament’s form team at the moment as they have won 11 matches on the trot, with their last defeat registered on March 17 when they suffered a 25-17 loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin. Last weekend, the champions returned to action – after the June Test break – and gained revenge against the Highlanders as they beat them 45-22 in Christchurch. They have won 13 out of 15 matches so far this season.
The Blues have won four and lost 11 of their matches this season and are in second last position in the overall standings and bringing up the rear in the New Zealand Conference. They have battled to build momentum this year and won just once from their last five matches – a 39-16 triumph against the Reds in Auckland in Round 17.
Prediction: The champions will have little trouble in taking this one. Crusaders to win by 10 points.
2018: Crusaders won 32-24 in Auckland
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
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Quinten Strange, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Tim Perry
Replacements: 16 Sam Anderson-Heather, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Donald Brighouse, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele
Blues: 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Rieko Ioane, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu (c), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ben Nee-Nee, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 Matt Moulds, 1 Alex Hodgman
Replacements: 16 Ross Wright, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Jacob Pierce, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Tamati Tua
Date: Saturday, July 14
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local (08:35 BST, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Federico Anselmi
Assistant Referees: Jamie Nutbrown, Mike Fraser
TMO: Shane McDermott