PREVIEW: Crusaders v Blues

Getty Images     03 Mar 2016     Getty Images

Crusaders v Blues, 7.35pm, Friday 4 March, AMI Stadium

Recent history is against the Blues with the Crusaders winning the last three encounters between the two sides. To further enhance the Crusaders dominance, the Blues were held to 15 points or less in each of those three losses. The Blues will be boosted by their opening round victory over the Highlanders – their first home round one victory since 2011.

A feature of the Blues this year is their high-performing youngsters. On the wings, Melani Nanai is just 22 while the blockbusting Tevita Li is two years his junior at 20. The Ioane brothers, Akira and Rieko, are aged 20 and 18 respectively while tearaway flanker Blake Gibson is just 20. The Crusaders have a smattering of youth throughout their squad too. Fullback David Havili and first-five Richie Mo’unga are aged 21 while centre Sean Wainui is the baby of the backline at just 20. 

One of the biggest battles in this match will be between two-time Rugby World Cup winners Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino in the loose. Blues captain Kaino returns from a one match suspension to form an exciting loose forward trio with Steven Luatua and Blake Gibson. Read is joined by veteran Tim Boys and the explosive Jordan Taufua. As inspirational leaders within their teams, both Kaino and Read will have a big influence on the outcome of this encounter.

While Aaron Cruden, Lima Sopoaga and Beauden Barrett are regarded as the top three first fives in New Zealand, the Blues Matt McGahan and Crusaders Richie Mo’unga have a chance to impress this season. Both are playmaking first-fives who think attack before defence. Mo’unga was impressive for the Crusaders with a 16-point haul in their close loss to the Chiefs. McGahan was on the bench for the Blues opening match, but is tipped as a future star after completing a stint in Rugby League with the Melbourne Storm.

Charlie Faumuina’s long road back from injury continues with another spot on the bench this week. After a commanding cameo in the Blues opening match, expect the All Blacks powerhouse to get more minutes against the Crusaders. With the Crusaders boasting an all-All Black front row, Charlie Faumuina will have a vital role to play in combating the Crusaders strength up front.

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CRUSADERS: 1: Joe Moody 2: Codie Taylor 3: Owen Franks 4: Scott Barrett 5: Sam Whitelock (C) 6: Jordan Taufua 7: Tim Boys 8: Kieran Read 9: Andy Ellis 10: Richie Mo’unga 11: Nemani Nadolo 12: Kieron Fonotia 13: Sean Wainui 14: Jone Macilai 15: David Havili

Reserves: Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett, Mike Alaalatoa, Jimmy Tupou, Pete Samu, Leon Fukofuka, Ben Volavola, Johnny McNicholl

BLUES: 1: Ofa Tu’ungafasi 2: Quentin MacDonald 3: Sione Mafileo 4: Patrick Tuipulotu 5: Josh Bekhuis, 6: Jerome Kaino (C) 7: Blake Gibson 8: Steven Luatua 9: Billy Guyton 10: Matt McGahan 11: Tevita Li, 12: George Moala 13: Rene Ranger 14: Melani Nanai 15: Matt Duffie

Reserves: James Parsons, Sam Prattley, Charlie Faumuina, Akira Ioane, Kara Pryor, Bryn Hall, Ihaia West, Male Sa’u.