Whispers of a possibly dire campaign for the Crusaders are loudening after pre-season as they host the Chiefs in Christchurch on Saturday.
Following that heavy loss to the Hurricanes, all eyes are on how Todd Blackadder’s team respond in this fascinating derby at AMI Stadium.
The big question is whether the loss of such experienced heads will lead to their worst season in quite some time and it’s likely we will get an answer to that question when they face the Chiefs, with plenty of derby matches against high-class sides on the schedule this year.
On paper they look significantly weaker – losing Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Tom Taylor and Colin Slade will do that – and their absence of several senior players due to injury such as Israel Dagg, Ryan Crotty and Matt Todd is just another setback for the seven-time champions.
It therefore hands the Chiefs a huge opportunity to get their season off to the perfect start on the road, but they themselves are missing Hika Elliot, Nepo Laulala, Dominic Bird, Augustine Pulu and of course Sonny Bill Williams. They do still possess real attacking weapons in James Lowe, Damian McKenzie, Charlie Ngatai and Aaron Cruden and with decent ball one can’t help but think the Chiefs will create chances.
Factor in the Chiefs having won seven of their last ten fixtures against the Crusaders, including victories in three of their last four away games against them, and it could be a tough night for the Crusaders, despite Kieran Read’s sudden comeback for this season opener.
The last time these teams met: It was a bittersweet win for the Chiefs as their 26-9 victory coincided with Aaron Cruden hobbling off for what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury. They did very well in his absence as scores from Michael Leitch, James Lowe and Liam Squire saw them to the four points. The Crusaders’ only points of that game came via three Dan Carter penalties on an off night for him.
Players to watch: He’s got the nod at 10 ahead of Ben Volavola so it’s the first opportunity to nail down the fly-half spot for promising youngster Richie Mo’unga. The Christchurch-born pivot is unforunately without Ryan Crotty outside him but experienced heads come in the shape of Andy Ellis and Kieron Fonotia so he can lean on them should he need. Mo’unga goes up against Aaron Cruden, who was excellent in patches against the Blues last week. If he can continue his comeback in that kind of form then it is likely the All Black jersey is his.
Team news: Todd Blackadder has named a XV that includes three Crusader debutants – Tim Boys at loose forward, Richie Mo’unga at fly-half and Sean Wainui in midfield. An experienced front-row of Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks will take the field, with Sam Whitelock captaining the team alongside Scott Barrett at lock. David Havili starts at full-back, with Nemani Nadolo and Jone Macilai on the wings.
Form: A horrendous end to pre-season saw the Hurricanes demolish the Crusaders 74-7 so it would have been a tough week leading up to this clash in Christchurch. Has confidence been rocked or will they rally and put in a performance? Those are the two ways it could go for the Crusaders as they call in some of their All Blacks. The Chiefs also enter on the back of a defeat as they went down 24-12 to the Blues in Pukekohe. They have definitely looked a threat though in patches, especially through that combination of Aaron Cruden and Charlie Ngatai.
Prediction: Known for their sluggish starts to seasons, we fancy the Crusaders to get caught cold here by their visitors. Chiefs by eight.
2015: Chiefs won 26-9 in Christchurch
2015: Chiefs won 40-16 in Hamilton
2014: Crusaders won 18-17 in Hamilton
2014: Chiefs won 18-10 in Christchurch
2013: Chiefs won 20-19 in Hamilton
2013: Crusaders won 43-15 in Christchurch
2013: Chiefs won 28-19 in Hamilton
2012: Chiefs won 20-17 in Hamilton
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Jone Macilai, 13 Sean Wainui, 12 Kieron Fonotia, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Tim Boys, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Samuel Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Leon Fukofuka, 22 Ben Volavola, 23 Johnny McNicholl
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Shaun Stevenson, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Michael Allardice, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Mitchell Graham, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Maama Vaipulu, 20 Johan Bardoul, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 Latu Vaeno
Date: Saturday, February 27
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)