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Preview: Crusaders v Reds

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Sportal.co.nz     18 Jul 2013     Getty Images

HEAD TO HEAD: Played: 19, Crusaders 13, Reds 6

LAST TIME: Crusaders 15 def Reds 11, Round 11, 2012 at AMI Stadium

WALKING WOUNDED: Clearly the biggest gain for the Crusaders at such an important part of the season is the return from sabbatical of flanker Richie McCaw. He has been named on the bench for his first outing. The only other change from last week's side sees lock Luke Romano back from an ankle injury. The Reds are boosted by the return of lock James Horwill and halfback Will Genia

FORM: Having turned around a Round 14 19-28 loss to the Chiefs with a Round 17 win 43-15, the Crusaders looked to be peaking as usual at the business end of the season. A 23-22 win over the Waratahs in Round 15 was not so convincing while the Highlanders were well put away 43-15. But last week's 25-17 win over the Hurricanes was not so convincing and whether that proves a valuable preparation tool for coach Todd Blackadder will be evidenced on Saturday. The Reds had a mixed lead-in to the latter stages of the competition, something not helped by the break due to the Lions' tour and while claiming a typically, scrappy derby win over the Waratahs as the prelude to this weekend's sudden death game they had lost to the Cheetahs (13-27) and the Stormers (15-20) before going into the break with a 33-20 win over the Rebels. Lifting out of a lower gear will be the challenge for the side in Christchurch.

WE THINK: Powerful as the intent is to end Ewen McKenzie's association with the side with a win, it is a tough ask for a Reds side that has been an inconsistent unit compared to the competition-winning side of two seasons ago. There's no doubt that experience has made the Reds appreciate what is required to win, and that has been useful in claiming several close wins, but advancing to the semi-finals demands something extra and it's not clear the Reds have that capacity this year. But by the same token, the Crusaders can't sit back in anticipation of making another semi-final. Their last outing, against the Hurricanes was less than convincing and similar malaise could be costly against the Reds. However, rising to the occasion has been a long-time quality of the side and their sense of unfinished business in Hamilton should they make the semi-finals should proved a powerful incentive. Crusaders by 7.