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Preview: Crusaders v Hurricanes

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Sportal.co.nz     11 Jul 2013     Getty Images

HEAD TO HEAD: Played: 23, Crusaders 15, Hurricanes 6, draws 2, abandoned 1
LAST TIME: Hurricanes 29 def Crusaders 28, Round 4, 2013 at Westpac Stadium

MISSING IN ACTION:
All Blacks lock Luke Romano continues to be unavailable through an ankle injury, but that news has been negated with reports suggesting Richie McCaw is keen to return for the Investec Super Rugby playoffs.

For the Hurricanes, Alapati Leiua's slight hip injury will be assessed ahead of the match. If he does miss the match he will be joining Jeff Toomaga-Allen (knee), Dane Coles (calf), Tim Bateman (knee), Motu Matu'u (arm), Tusi Pisi (hang) and Ardie Savea (ankle) in the Hurricanes' injury ward.

FORM:
The ladder says it all. The Crusaders are looking in ominous touch while the Hurricanes defence is looking ominously horrible.

Dan Carter's stunning return to form since the international window has him well ahead in the race for top spot in the No.10 jersey. Last week's match against the Chiefs was meant to be a battle of the two in-form first-fives, but instead it proved to be an anti-climatic 43-15 victory. If it was a boxing match, Carter emphatically won the first round.

There's also been a return to form for the Crusaders' All Blacks-laden forward pack. Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read have been workhorses for the hosts and have been decimating their opponents at scrum time throughout the competition.

The Crusaders haven't lost in Christchurch this year, a sign of their intent to make AMI Stadium a fortress. They've been aided by some stoic supporters still riding on the success of their side as a distraction to the Canterbury earthquake recovery process. Sport is a necessity in the region.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, can't buy a win post-June. Their disappointing 22-34 loss to the Chiefs in Round 18 was built on the back of some poor defending, with a number of players missing first-up tackles. Skipper Conrad Smith said they're looking to finish with pride, but that remains to be seen.

Injuries haven't helped the Wellington franchise, but they've been steered around the park nicely by first-five Beauden Barrett, who gets his chance to impress against Carter.

A number of Hurricanes players will also be desperate to put in a good showing as the Investec Rugby Championship looms. Julian Savea and Jeremy Thrush, in particular, will be looking for strong finishes to enhance their chances in two pretty competitive positions.

WE THINK:
Consecutive one-point Hurricanes victories against the Crusaders should come to an end tonight if the hosts are serious about challenging for their first title under coach Todd Blackadder.

Carter's kicking game has proven immensely successful, and his ability to find space will be crucial if the Crusaders are to dictate play. Misfire, and the likes of Savea will be returning the ball with the usual danger he possesses. Barrett, too, will need to be on fire if he is to keep the Hurricanes in the game.

The Hurricanes' defence should be better than in their 44-49 loss to the Highlanders in Round 19, but won't be good enough to outlast the favourites. Crusaders by 6.