The Crusaders and Stormers will meet remarkably for the first time in three years this Saturday at AMI Stadium in Christchurch.
A one-point win for the Crusaders at the same venue three years ago proved to be a nervous contest, with both sides much-changed today since 2014, an example of the ever-changing playing personnel in Super Rugby.
Both sides have also started 2017 full of purpose, with the Crusaders yet to be defeated and the Stormers only tasting defeat for the first time back at Newlands last weekend when they fell to the Lions.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of that unbeaten run for the Crusaders is that they pulled off the wins without the influence of Richie Mo’unga at fly-half and Kieran Read at number eight.
In their places, Marty McKenzie and Whetu Douglas were both outstanding, highlighting the depth that first-year head coach Scott Robertson has at his disposal.
Israel Dagg is still absent and Nemani Nadolo gone, yet young guns like Jack Goodhue and George Bridge have shone in the backs, with Seta Tamanivalu being an inspired bit of business from the Chiefs.
The Stormers know a thing or two about injuries, especially in midfield with no Juan de Jongh, Damian de Allende or Huw Jones, which is why the performances of the young centre pairing of Daniel du Plessis and EW Viljoen will have pleased Robbie Fleck so much.
Suggestions that the Stormers’ wide game-plan would be reeled in for the big matches were proven to be false with that magnificent win over the Kings – which is why falling to the Lions will have irritated the Stormers squad plenty in the build-up to Saturday.
Firing in the second row and back row especially, with Dewaldt Duvenage or Jano Vermaak directing traffic well at scrum-half, this is a squad with a fine pedigree. How a win in Christchurch would inspire confidence again.
Last time the teams met: A late penalty from Tom Taylor clinched victory for the Crusaders over the Stormers, with the fly-half’s third penalty of the match proving to be the difference in a 14-13 victory. Despite the Crusaders dominating possession and territory the score was 3-3 at half-time, before the Stormers took charge through a second Demetri Catrakilis penalty and a converted Damian de Allende try. Kieran Fonotia hit back for the hosts on 69 minutes after a second Taylor strike, before the number ten won the match five minutes from time.
Players to watch: Swapped into the second row this week for Luke Romano is the energetic Scott Barrett, brother of Beauden and Jordie, who was tried successfully at blindside earlier in the season but has returned to his natural position to take on a heavyweight lock duo in Eben Etzebeth and Chris van Zyl. A new All Black last year, Barrett will need to be aware of the physical threat the Springbok poses, and avoid getting sucked into any off-the-ball scraps.
For the Stormers one of the stars of their season has been SP Marais at full-back. He misses out this week through injury which opens the door for Dillyn Leyds to get a run in the 15 shirt, following a string of sensational outings on the left wing for the Stormers so far in 2017. Leyds looks a far more consistent and settled operator this season, and the 24-year-old’s stats back that up with Leyds in the top ten for metres made.
Team news: Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has made seven changes to his starting line-up. Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks make up the front row this week, with Wyatt Crockett, Ben Funnell and Michael Alaalatoa providing cover. Lock Scott Barrett and loose forward Jordan Taufua come back into the starting fifteen, with Luke Romano and Pete Samu moving to the bench. In the backs, George Bridge comes back onto the left wing, while Ryan Crotty steps in at inside centre.
Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth will captain the Stormers, with regular captain Siya Kolisi not available for selection due to the Springbok management plan. Pieter-Steph du Toit moves from lock to blindside flank to take Kolisi’s place on the side of the scrum, with Chris van Zyl coming in to partner Etzebeth in the second row and Cobus Wiese back from injury to provide loose forward cover on the replacements bench. The only other change in the pack is a rotational switch at tighthead prop with Wilco Louw back in the starting line-up and Frans Malherbe on the replacements bench. In the back-line Dillyn Leyds moves from wing to full-back in place of the injured SP Marais with Bjorn Basson lining up on the left wing. Dewaldt Duvenage is back at scrum-half after being rested last week with Jano Vermaak moving to the replacements bench.
Form: The Crusaders are the only unbeaten team in Super Rugby this season after the Stormers’ 100 percent winning run ended against the Lions in the last round. The Crusaders have won 13 of the last 15 meetings between these sides (L2), including the last five in a row. The Stormers have never won away to the Crusaders; they drew their first such meeting in 1996 and have lost all nine since.
The Crusaders’ last three home games against the Stormers have all been won by seven points or fewer. The Christchurch-based side have won 37 of their last 38 home games against South African opposition, with the Sharks’ five-point victory in May 2014 being the only negative result during that run.
Prediction: The game of the weekend in Super Rugby and even though the Crusaders have been excellent so far this year, this feels like their biggest test to date. Crusaders by seven.
2014: Crusaders won 14-13 in Christchurch
2013: Crusaders won 19-14 in Cape Town
2012: Crusaders won 31-24 in Christchurch
2011: Crusaders won 29-10 in Cape Town (semi-final)
2011: Crusaders won 20-14 in Cape Town
2010: Stormers won 42-14 in Cape Town
2009: Crusaders won 11-7 in Christchurch
2008: Crusaders won 22-0 in Cape Town
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 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 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele
Stormers: 15 Dillyn Leyds, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Dan du Plessis, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Chris van Zyl, 4 Eben Etzebeth (c), 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg
Replacements: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Jan de Klerk, 20 Cobus Wiese, 21 Jano Vermaak, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Dan Kriel
Date: Saturday, April 22
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)