Preview: Crusaders v Blues

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Saturday, July 5, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday, July 5, 2014, 19:35pm (NZT)

H2H: Played 24, Crusaders 13, Blues 11

Last time: Crusaders 24-35 Blues (February 28, 2014)

Squad update: After easing marquee players Kieran Read and Dan Carter into action last week, head coach Todd Blackadder has rolled out his most potent weapons for this crunch encounter, with Israel Dagg and Nemani Nadolo other internationals promoted to the Crusaders starting team.

The return of Nadolo could be the game changer, as minute to minute no other player in Investec Super Rugby boasts the same offensive numbers, and the ability of the red and black machine to bend the aggressive defensive line of the Blues could decide the match.

The tourists have resisted making wide changes for this contest, after Sir John Kirwan’s team put together one of their best displays of the season in Perth last week. Ihaia West is looking more comfortable with each passing week, but it was the all-action back row of Jerome Kaino, Luke Braid and Steven Luatua that caught the eye last week, and their clash against a Read led Crusaders loose trio is worth the price of admission.

Form: The Crusaders would have been immensely disappointed with their loss to the Hurricanes last week, indeed the seven-time winners seemed to be the most lethargic New Zealand team after the June break. That defeat, just their second since Round 8, hasn’t dethroned the side from the top of the conference, but a loss to the Blues at home for the first time in a decade will not help their chances.

The Blues set a high water mark with their demolition of the Force in Perth, and will be chasing three straight matches in a calendar year for the first time since 2011, a week after breaking their record losing streak away from home.

Key players: The return of Read and Carter will, hopefully for the home team, be immense with two players who have been rated as the best in the world. The control of Investec Super Rugby’s leading point’s scorer, coupled with the flashy roving game of the best player in the world, will be as necessary as the power up front.

The Blues will again rely on West to direct proceedings, and the ginger haired playmaker will do more of the same if his pack give him the possession he craves. Yet Ma’a Nonu, playing with ruthless authority of late, will be the man to back if the visiting team throw attack after attack at the red and black wall.

Key matchup: Sam Whitelock has once again confirmed his status as one of the game’s best second row forwards, and will need to be a central figure in the tight five if the Blues frenetic style is to be closed down.

Patrick Tuipulotu might be an All Black, but his experience and class isn’t at the level of his bearded opposite, and the lineout pilfering skills of the newest member of New Zealand’s Test locking fraternity will need to be on display throughout.

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett

Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock

Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Sam Prattley, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Francis Saili, 23 George Moala