VENUE & TIME: Eden Park, Auckland, Friday February 2, 19.35 NZT.
HEAD TO HEAD: Played 13: Blues 7, Crusaders 6.
LAST TIME: March 4, 2006 (Christchurch) - Crusaders 39-10 Blues.
WALKING WOUNDED: The Blues appear to have come through the pre-season without many injury worries and, apart from their four All Blacks who are out of the competition until week eight, have a full squad to pick from. The Crusaders are also in good shape and the best news out of their pre-season is that hooker Corey Flynn seems to have recovered from his ankle problem suffered in the 2006 Air New Zealand Cup.
FORM: This time of year form means nothing, but for the record the Blues smacked the Reds 38-9 and lost to the Chiefs 21-24 in pre-season, while the Crusaders beat the Force 28-12 and lost to the Waratahs 12-17.
WHO'S HOT: Hard to say at the moment, but there will be a few players worth watching. Troy Flavell made a good job of leading North Harbour in 2000 and may prove the dominant individual the Blues need at the helm, while Luke McAlister's pending move to second-five should benefit both team and player; his omission from the starting fifteen is the one major surprise in the Blues team. Angus Macdonald will be raring to go after his 2006 was a write-off and Isaia Toeava needs a big season to remain in the World Cup frame. The Crusaders need the older forwards, particularly Campbell Johnstone, Mose Tuiali'i and Johnny Leo'o, to stand up. Keep an eye on young blindside Kieran Read, while Stephen Brett will be under pressure at first-five in Dan Carter's absence. Andrew Ellis, after his All Black tour, will be asked to make the first-five's transition to the big time as smooth as possible. The three-quarters and fullbacks on both sides have plenty of speed and class, so both will be demanding quality ball from their forwards.
WE THINK: This is a match the Blues need to win if they are serious about making the playoffs. Catching the Crusaders with seven leading All Blacks on the sideline is a huge bonus, even if four Blues are also missing. If anything the Crusaders look the more untried outfit, but something happens to the wearers of the red and black when they're under the bat and, for that reason, we'll tip the Crusaders but with the Blues picking up a consolation point.
Blues: 1 � Saimone Taumoepeau, 2 � Derren Witcombe, 3 � John Afoa, 4 � Greg Rawlinson, 5 � Troy Flavell (captain), 6 � Angus Macdonald, 7 � Daniel Braid, 8 � Jerome Kaino, 9 � David Gibson, 10 � Isa Nacewa, 11 � Anthony Tuitavake, 12 � Sam Tuitupou, 13 � Isaia Toeava, 14 � Doug Howlett, 15 � George Pisi.
Reserves: 16 � Chris Heard, 17 � Nick White, 18 � Anthony Boric, 19 � Justin Collins, 20 � Steve Devine, 21 � Luke McAlister, 22 � Rudi Wulf.
Crusaders: 1 � Ben Franks, 2 � Corey Flynn (captain), 3 � Campbell Johnstone, 4 � Ross Filipo, 5 � Kevin O'Neill, 6 � Kieran Read, 7 � Johnny Leo'o, 8 � Mose Tuiali'i, 9 � Andy Ellis, 10 � Stephen Brett, 11 � Scott Hamilton, 12 � Casey Laulala, 13 � Caleb Ralph, 14 � Rico Gear, 15 � Brent Ward.
Reserves: 16 � Ti'i Paulo, 17 � Wyatt Crockett, 18 � Jake Paringatai, 19 � Peter Nixon, 20 � Kevin Senio, 21 � Tusi Pisi, 22 � Rua Tipoki.
REFEREE: Paul Honiss