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Preview: Crusaders v Blues

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Sportal.co.nz     09 Jun 2011     Getty Images

VENUE & TIME: Alpine Energy Stadium, Timaru, Saturday June 11 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 18; Crusaders 9 wins, Blues 9.

LAST TIME: February 19, 2010 (Auckland, round one) – Blues 24-22 Crusaders.

WALKING WOUNDED: The Crusaders have a two-win, one-loss medical report this week, with Sam Whitelock finally over his ankle injury sustained in round six and Andy Ellis back after breaking his thumb in round 10. The downside is the absence of Richie McCaw, who is still being bothered by his foot, although having Matt Todd (as flanker) and Kieran Read (as captain) available means the team loses the smallest possible amount. The Blues have retained the same 22 that played the Chiefs, although a number of unsurprising changes have been made. Keven Mealamu and Charlie Faumuina return to the front row while Stephen Brett takes over at first-five, Luke McAlister and Benson Stanley each move out one spot, Jared Payne goes to fullback and Lachie Munro goes to the bench.

FORM:
Crusaders:
Round 12: Beat Stormers 20-14 (a)
Round 13: Lost to Cheetahs 20-33 (a)
Round 14: Beat Chiefs 25-19 (h)
Round 15: Lost to Reds 16-17 (a)
Round 16: Bye

Blues:
Round 12: Beat Hurricanes 17-11 (a)
Round 13: Lost to Reds 31-37 (a)
Round 14: Lost to Stormers 26-28 (h)
Round 15: Bye
Round 16: Lost to Chiefs 11-16 (h)

A movie about these teams could be called 'Stumbling My Way to the Playoffs' as both sides are having their issues although both will be in action two weeks from now. The Crusaders played well to beat the Stormers and have battled since although they did play some savvy rugby in beating the Chiefs. While the final penalty against the Reds was hotly disputed, the fact remains the Reds were in position to win the game at the death and had created at least as many chances as the Crusaders. The Blues have more pressing problems - their season has come to an abrupt and unpleasant stop. They could, perhaps, have won each of their last three matches but a poor start against the Reds, a poor finish against the Stormers and general inefficiency against the Chiefs have cost them nine points and an assured position at the head of the table. They will make the playoffs, but the schedule that awaits them at that stage might well be a lot harder than anticipated a couple of weeks back.

WHO'S HOT: On the Crusaders side there will be more interest in the returning players, Sam Whitelock and Andy Ellis. Whitelock was having a huge season until he injured his ankle against the Sharks and he has been missed despite Luke Romano's best efforts. How much of his edge will be missing as a result of the long layoff remains to be seen, but at his best he's commanding. Ellis has also been missed and his distribution skills and experience will be very handy this week, as there is sure to be pressure on Daniel Carter all night. Matt Todd, who has been in fine form from the start of the year, just needs to carry on at the same level to create all kinds of problems for the Blues. Much will be asked of the Blues two best forwards, Keven Mealamu and Jerome Kaino. Mealamu is of immense value to the side, not only for his own ability in every facet of the game but also for his leadership and ability to drag the troops with him. Kaino doesn't need any dragging, and his power and toughness will be vital assets for the Blues against the rugged Crusaders eight. The returning Stephen Brett will be in the spotlight again as he fronts his old team; after taking a lot of criticism in recent weeks his stay on the bench was only one week before he was restored to the run-on side. How he copes with what will be a great deal of pressure has a lot to do with how the Blues fare.

WE THINK: It is always hard to call against the Crusaders anywhere, but especially at home in a game they must have, and we're not going to do it this week. The Blues have found things tough in recent weeks and have not played particulalry well, so we think the Crusaders might take this one by 5-10 points in what may well be a tense, low-scoring affair.

TEAMS:

Crusaders: 1. Ben Franks, 2. Corey Flynn, 3. Owen Franks, 4. Brad Thorn, 5. Sam Whitelock, 6. George Whitelock, 7. Matt Todd, 8. Kieran Read (capt), 9. Andy Ellis, 10. Daniel Carter, 11. Zac Guildford, 12. Sonny Bill Williams, 13. Robbie Fruean, 14. Brent Ward, 15. Tom Marshall.

Replacements: 16. Quentin MacDonald, 17. Wyatt Crockett, 18. Luke Romano, 19. Jonathan Poff, 20. Willi Heinz, 21. Matt Berquist, 22. Ryan Crotty.

Blues: 1. John Afoa, 2. Keven Mealamu (capt), 3. Charlie Faumuina, 4. Anthony Boric, 5. Ali Williams, 6. Jerome Kaino, 7. Luke Braid, 8. Peter Saili, 9. Alby Mathewson, 10. Stephen Brett, 11. Rene Ranger, 12. Luke McAlister, 13. Benson Stanley, 14. Joe Rokocoko, 15. Jared Payne.

Replacements: 16. Tom McCartney, 17. Tevita Mailau, 18. Chris Lowrey, 19. Sean Polwart, 20. Chris Smylie, 21. Lachie Munro, 22. Sherwin Stowers.

REFEREE: Craig Joubert