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Preview: Hurricanes v Crusaders

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Sportal.co.nz     19 Apr 2012     Getty Images

VENUE & TIME: Westpac Stadium, Wellington, Saturday April 21 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 20; Hurricanes 4, Crusaders 14, drawn 2. One match in 2011 was abandoned due to the Christchurch earthquake and is not counted in the record.

LAST TIME: June 18, 2011 (Wellington) - Crusaders 16-9 Hurricanes (this was a home match for the Crusaders, despite being played in Wellington).

WALKING WOUNDED: The Hurricanes were fine on the injury front until halfback TJ Perenara twisted an ankle playing basketball during the week. He's bracketed with Chris Eaton for this game, with a decision on his fitness left to the last minute. Victor Vito is a welcome returnee, although Brad Shields (shoulder) is not available. The Crusaders got through a rugged clash with the Stormers with only one player suffering anything more than numerous bruises; that was Sean Maitland, who has not recovered from an ankle sprain. The big injury news out of Christchurch is that Richie McCaw may only be a couple of weeks away from making his return to the side.

FORM:
Hurricanes:
Round 4: lost to Highlanders 17-19 (h)
Round 5: beat Blues 26-25 (a)
Round 6: lost to Cheetahs 38-47 (h)
Round 7: beat Sharks 42-18 (h)
Round 8: bye

Crusaders:
Round 4: bye
Round 5: beat Cheetahs 28-21 (h)
Round 6: beat Lions 23-13 (a)
Round 7: lost to Bulls 30-32 (a)
Round 8: beat Stormers 31-24 (h)

The Hurricanes may have surprised a few with the start they've made in 2012, but their on-field work has justified the results. They may battle from time to time against the better set-piece packs but, given a sniff in broken play, are among the most dangerous teams going round. The Sharks found that out to their cost at New Plymouth, where the Hurricanes were miles behind in territory and possession stats at halftime but 25-3 ahead where it mattered. The Hurricanes seem to be enjoying their rugby at present and not scared to have a go; they are proving a most watchable side as well as one that is winning more than it is losing.

The Crusaders may not be flowing, but they have shown in the last month that they are quite capable of winning ugly and will do so if that is what is required. They may not have tried a great deal against the Stormers but made sure to play the game at the right end so that chances could be created and accepted regularly. Tom Taylor may have got the headlines afterwards - 31 points will normally do that - but the hard work done by his forwards had a lot to do with the number of penalty opportunities that came his way. That was a business-like, efficient win - something the Crusaders have inflicted on just about everyone in the competition over the years.

WHO'S HOT: The Hurricanes pack may be under pressure at scrum time occasionally, but it's a different story in the loose. The side was already going well before Karl Lowe made his return from a long layoff and the Hawke's Bay flanker's first game back was marked by several steals, plenty of tackles and some good work going forward. He adds strength in an area that was already a strength. Jason Eaton is playing some of his best rugby in a long time, proving effective in the lineout and contributing a lot around the park. There are few locks who are playing better in New Zealand at the moment. Cory Jane may not have the big try bags yet, but his general play has been top-class and his influence on the younger players in the back three is quite noticeable. Without grabbing many headlines, he has become one of the most influential Hurricanes.

Daniel Carter is set to play his 100th match for the Crusaders this weekend, putting a milestone in a Super rugby career already full of records. A couple of weeks into his return from injury Carter has not been setting the world afire, but he has certainly made sure the team goes forward relentlessly and gives little away in return. The guy who was making waves last week was Tom Taylor, who had a fine game at first-five and a dream day off the kicking tee. His scoring record was just reward for a perfect night's kicking (9 from 9) and plenty of good play. The hard work was done up front, with the starting pack laying a strong foundation and bench players making an impact when introduced. One of the latter was Luke Romano, who had a storming game after coming on just after halftime. He did everything well and his work-rate would have impressed the coaching staff.

WE THINK: One question looms larger over this match than any other - can the Hurricanes do enough up front escape the chokehold the Crusaders have been applying in recent weeks? If they can, they are a very good chance in this game. The Crusaders forwards have been very impressive lately, and may just prove too strong in this one, but it will still be a close match and the margin in the visitors' favour will not be more than six points or so.

TEAMS:

Hurricanes: 1. Ben May, 2. Dane Coles, 3. Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 4. Jeremy Thrush, 5. Jason Eaton, 6. Faifili Levave, 7. Karl Lowe, 8. Victor Vito, 9. TJ Perenara or Chris Eaton, 10. Beauden Barrett, 11. Julian Savea, 12. Tim Bateman, 13. Conrad Smith (capt), 14. Cory Jane, 15. Andre Taylor.

Replacements: 16. Motu Matu'u, 17. Michael Bent, 18. James Broadhurst, 19. Jack Lam or Mark Reddish, 20. Chris Eaton or Frae Wilson, 21. Tusi Pisi, 22. Alipate Leiua.

Crusaders: 1. Wyatt Crockett, 2. Corey Flynn, 3. Ben Franks, 4. Tom Donnelly, 5. Sam Whitelock, 6. George Whitelock, 7. Matt Todd, 8. Kieran Read (capt), 9. Andy Ellis, 10. Tom Taylor, 11. Zac Guildford, 12. Daniel Carter, 13. Robbie Fruean, 14. Adam Whitelock, 15. Israel Dagg.

Replacements: 16. Quentin MacDonald, 17. Owen Franks, 18. Luke Romano, 19. Luke Whitelock, 20. Willi Heinz, 21. Ryan Crotty, 22. Tom Marshall.

REFEREE: Craig Joubert (SA)