Preview: Blues v Crusaders
One of New Zealand rugby's greatest rivalries is set to ignite on Friday, even more so now that the Blues have found the grit and determination that would have prevented them from being an object of derision during last year's competition.
HEAD TO HEAD: Played 21; Crusaders 12, Blues 9
LAST TIME: May 19, 2012 at AMI Stadium – Blues 12 - 59 Crusaders
WALKING WOUNDED: The Blues have no-one in the sick bay heading into this clash, while lock Anthony Boric is easing his way back into rugby with a second game for the development side this week.
If the Crusaders are to persist with their wide attacking plays they will have to do so without a number of outside strike weapons. Kurt Baker (hamstring), Johnny McNicholl (lower back) and Zac Guildford (suspension) comprise a list of unavailable wing options while the departure of Sean Maitland to play in Scotland is another blow.
As Crusaders star Israel Dagg put it, 'the Blues look like a completely new team' and showed during their hard-fought win over the Hurricanes that they are pushovers no more. Spearheaded by rising flanker Steven Luatua, John Kirwan's pack won the trench war up front, allowing Rene Ranger, Charles Piutau, Frank Halai and Francis Saili to wreak havoc off good, clean ball.
The Crusaders went down in their opening two pre-season games before holding off the Israel Folau-boosted Waratahs on their home turf. No conclusions can be made from trial matches, still the tough win in Sydney, an extra week of preparation, and knowing they've had an edge over the Blues for a while should have them in good spirits.
Week 1: v Hurricanes, won 34-20 (a)
Week 1: Bye
The five Blues players mentioned were very much the talk of the week, and rightly so. Ranger, rumoured to be heading to France at the end of the season, could not be contained by even the best Hurricanes defenders. He had no trouble brushing aside All Blacks Conrad Smith, Victor Vito and Julian Savea en-route to his first try of the season. Saili was another who displayed his ability to create something out of nothing with a two clean line breaks while Piutau and Halai needed no invitation to finish over the line.
WE THINK: While the Blues have lost the last three encounters, and have celebrated victory just once in the last six, they are set to make this one and interesting contest.
The reason the Crusaders have made the playoffs 17 times and won seven titles is because they understand the concept of the game so well. Look for them to use their vastly experienced forwards, that are all capped All Blacks except Matt Todd, to disrupt the Blues' roll and effectively kill, or at least stun, the beast that is the Blues backline at the head.
Without the backs to match the Blues, it would be wise for the Crusaders to keep this one in tight and by the book. With the tremendous rugby IQ of Dan Carter driving the attack, the Crusaders will still look to exploit the width of the field when the opportunity arises.
Kirwan has demanded that his troops take their chances when a window, which is usually a very minute one against the Crusaders, does open. They won't be gifted copious amounts of possession like they were against a sloppy Hurricanes outfit so that one shot may be all they get.
It's going to come down to who stays composed the longest, the Blues scored twice after building for more than 10 phases and should have enough to crack the Crusaders if they do it again. Blues by seven.
Blues: 1.Tom McCartney, 2.James Parsons, 3.Charlie Faumuina, 4.Cullum Retallick, 5.Ali Williams (c), 6.Steven Luatua, 7.Luke Braid, 8.Peter Saili, 9.Piri Weepu, 10.Chris Noakes, 11.George Moala, 12. Francis Saili, 13.Rene Ranger, 14.Frank Halai, 15. Charles Piutau.
Reserves:16.Quentin MacDonald, 17.Angus Ta'avao, 18.Liaki Moli, 19.Brendan O'Conner, 20.Bryn Hall, 21.Baden Kerr, 22. Jackson Willison.
Crusaders 1.Wyatt Crockett, 2.Corey Flynn, 3.Owen Franks, 4.Luke Romano, 5.Sam Whitelock, 6.George Whitelock, 7.Matt Todd, 8.Kieran Read (c), 9.Andy Ellis, 10. Dan Carter, 11.Israel Dagg, 12.Ryan Crotty, 13.Robbie Fruean, 14.Adam Whitelock, 15.Tom Taylor.
Reserves: 16.Ben Funnell, 17.Joe Moody, 18.Dominic Bird, 19.Luke Whitelock, 20.Willi Heinz, 21.Tyler Bleyendaal, 22.Tom Marshall.
REFEREE: Chris Pollock