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Preview: Crusaders v Chiefs

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Thursday, March 22, 2012    Sportal.co.nz    Getty Images

It's a match-up that favours the Crusaders, especially at home, and yet the result is far from a foregone conclusion this season.

VENUE & TIME: Christchurch Stadium, Saturday March 24 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 7; Crusaders 5, Cheetahs 2.

LAST TIME: May 15, 2011 (Bloemfontein) - Cheetahs 33-20 Crusaders.

WALKING WOUNDED: The big news coming out of Christchurch this week has been about Daniel Carter's likely return for this match, even if that return will be via the bench. Almost ignored in all the hoopla surrounding Carter is the return to full fitness of Ryan Crotty, who has missed a couple of weeks with a leg strain. The Cheetahs team differs in three forward selections from the side that started at Melbourne. Both props, Coenie Oosthuizen and WP Nel, have somewhat surprisingly been left out, while Justin Downey gets his first start on the blindside flank.

FORM:
Crusaders:
Round 1: beat Blues 19-18 (a)
Round 2: lost to Highlanders 24-27 (a)
Round 3: lost to Chiefs 19-24 (h)
Round 4: bye

Cheetahs:
Round 1: lost to Lions 25-27 (a)
Round 2: lost to Bulls 19-51 (h)
Round 3: lost to Brumbies 23-24 (a)
Round 4: beat Rebels 33-26 (a)

The Crusaders got away to a solid, if unspectacular, start at Auckland before narrowly dropping their next two matches, which leaves them with an unexpected 1-2 record so far. While both the lost games featured passages when it looked as if the Crusaders may get up, it was hard to argue that the right team won each time. What has been a bit of a shock is the pressure the Crusaders are coming under at set piece – this is normally a rock-solid area of their game – and the backs have not been ripping defences apart, which has made try-scoring difficult. There's always the feeling they could click at any time, but at the moment the machine is misfiring a little.

The Cheetahs could be 3-1 going into this match – they've lost twice to post-siren penalty goals – and the win at Melbourne was a fair result for a team that never stopped trying to score points. Some of the attacking play was sharp, and there are a number of players capable of cutting unwary defences open; several of the big men are also athletic ball-carriers and quality handlers. But one major worry will be the number of first-up tackles that were missed, especially on kick returns; this is an area where the Crusaders can really take advantage of laxity, so a straighter chase line and surer tackling will be at the top of Naka Drotske's must-have list.

WHO'S HOT: Crusaders flanker Matt Todd has been doing the same things he did a year ago, when he had an extended run in the No 7 shirt and the team hardly skipped a beat despite Richie McCaw's absence. A high tackle count and big work-rate are the main features of Todd's play so far this year, and he'll be called upon to do a lot more this week. Robbie Fruean could play a big role in midfield, especially if he can get past the first tackle. A large and powerful man, he is maturing into a quality centre and he could do some real damage on Saturday night. Israel Dagg, back at fullback, would love some decent ball and a bit of room to move, since little has been seen of his considerable attacking talent thus far, but he remains an ever-present danger for sides to combat.

Cheetahs skipper Adriaan Strauss has been a standout so far, doing his tight work well and making any number of damaging runs down the flanks in every game. No player does more for his team on a weekly basis, and his never-say-die attitude is also infectious. Johan Goosen has been a major gain for the Cheetahs, as he possesses a booming boot in general play, a deadly one off the tee and an all-round game that is improving rapidly with exposure to the higher level of rugby. He will need careful watching all night. Willie le Roux, another newcomer to this level, has impressed in his first month of Super rugby and has displayed good finishing ability, real speed and a willingness to have a go, although that has been tempered by sound option-taking.

WE THINK: Normally the Crusaders are tipped to win this match handsomely, especially in New Zealand. They should take it out on Saturday, although it may well be a lot closer than in some previous encounters. But the Crusaders have it all to play for; it is their first match at their new home ground and there is the sting of last year's loss to remind them that the Cheetahs are nobody's bunnies. A home win by 15 points or so appeals as the likely outcome in Christchurch.

TEAMS:

Crusaders: 1. Ben Franks, 2. Corey Flynn, 3. Owen Franks, 4. Luke Romano, 5. Sam Whitelock, 6. Luke Whitelock, 7. Matt Todd, 8. Kieran Read (capt), 9. Andy Ellis, 10. Tom Taylor, 11. Zac Guildford, 12.Ryan Crotty, 13. Robbie Fruean, 14. Sean Maitland, 15. Israel Dagg

Replacements: 16. Quentin MacDonald, 17. Wyatt Crockett, 18. Ross Kennedy, 19.Brendon O'Connor, 20. Willi Heinz, 21. Dan Carter, 22. Tom Marshall.

Cheetahs: 1. Trevor Nyakane, 2. Adriaan Strauss (capt), 3. Lourens Adriaanse, 4. George Earle, 5. Isaak van der Westhuyzen, 6. Heinrich Brussow, 7. Justin Downey, 8. Philip van der Walt, 9. Tewis de Bruyn, 10. Johan Goosen, 11. Willie le Roux, 12. Andries Strauss, 13. Robert Ebersohn, 14. Cameron Jacobs, 15. Hennie Daniller.

Replacements: 16. Hercu Liebenberg, 17. Coenie Oosthuizen, 18. Andries Ferreira, 19. Ashley Johnson, 20. Piet van Zyl, 21. Sias Ebersohn, 22. Rayno Benjamin.



REFEREE: Keith Brown (NZ)