Two of Super Rugby’s most successful sides go into battle against one another on Saturday when the Crusaders host the Brumbies.
These teams share nine Super Rugby titles between them – although seven are held by the Crusaders – and there is plenty of buzz already around the prospects of the Crusaders this season as they go in search of an eighth trophy.
Despite reaching two finals in 2011 and 2014 it is now eight years since the Crusaders last lifted the trophy, and now Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and the rest of the greats are long gone.
The optimism about their prospects in 2017 however is well deserved. Scott Robertson is the new man in charge as he takes over from Todd Blackadder, now in charge of Bath in England, and a combination of promising signs from last year and some interesting new additions are starting to get people excited.
Of course there is a cavernous hole out on the wing following the departure of Nemani Nadolo, who was consistently brilliant for the Crusaders during his time in Christchurch, but the Crusaders have turned to youth and the signing of Seta Tamanivalu from the Chiefs and emergence of George Bridge and Jack Goodhue are both major positives.
Truthfully there are class acts throughout this Crusaders group, from Israel Dagg and Ryan Crotty to the ever-improving Scott Barrett and Jordan Taufua in the pack. Richie Mo’unga comfortably won the fly-half battle with Ben Volavola last year and is now expected to kick on.
Are the Brumbies the team to burst the Crusaders’ pre-season bubble? Canberra’s finest feel in a state of transition after making the final in 2013 and not having missed the play-offs in the last four seasons.
After the high standard set by Matt Toomua and Christian Lealiifano in recent years new fly-half Wharenui Hawera is under pressure, as is his half-back partner Joe Powell following Tomás Cubelli’s long-term injury.
That lack of experience feels like a bear trap for the Brumbies before the season has even started but there are a number of top talents still in the heart of the Brumbies’ pack, namely Scott Fardy and Sam Carter along with new Wallabies Allan Alaalatoa and Rory Arnold.
If the Brumbies are to win tough fixtures such as Saturday’s however, then they need the best out of Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight on a consistent basis.
What doesn’t bode well is that the Brumbies have lost each of their last six games in New Zealand, last winning there in Round 4, 2014 against the Hurricanes.
The last time these teams met: There was always going to be one winner when these two teams met last season, with the Crusaders running six tries past the Brumbies in a 40-14 victory in Canberra. Nemani Nadolo, Jone Macilai, Israel Dagg, Codie Taylor (2) and Marty McKenzie all scored for the Kiwi franchise as the Crusaders took a commanding 26-7 lead into the half-time break and never looked back.
Players to watch: This Round 1 match-up will mark 100 Super Rugby appearances for Israel Dagg, who enjoyed on the finest comeback season for some time last year having missed out on the Rugby World Cup the year before. Dagg remains quick on his feet but it’s his speed of thought and ability to spot gaps in defences which makes him still such a threat. Kieran Read’s number eight shirt meanwhile is filled by Waikato co-captain Whetu Douglas, who packs plenty of power at 190cm and 107kg.
As for the Brumbies, any success for them this season will hinge around the impact of new signing Kyle Godwin. Long hailed as the natural successor to Matt Giteau for the Wallabies, Godwin has struggled to kick on while with the Force but is only 24 and featured for Australia on last year’s November tour to Europe. winning his first cap against France. With his playmaking skills and kicking ability, he can get the best out of the Brumbies’ dangerous backline.
Teams news: Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has named six debutants in his to take on the men from Canberra. Dagg will be joined in the backs by four Crusaders debutants – Bryn Hall at scrum-half, George Bridge and Seta Tamanivalu on the wings and Jack Goodhue at centre. Replacement number nine Ere Enari is also set to make his debut if he comes off the bench.
Seven players are in line to make their Brumbies debut with four named in the starting line-up. Prop Nic Mayhew, Flanker Chris Alcock, Fly-half Wharenui Hawera and Centre Kyle Godwin will all pull on the jersey for their maiden appearance with Lolo Fakaosilea, De Wet Roos and Isaac Thompson named amongst the replacements. Sam Carter will lead the team for the first time in a competitive match in a side that contains eight Wallabies in the run-on team.
Form: The Crusaders have won each of their last six games against the Brumbies, scoring an average of 40 points per game across that span. The Crusaders have won six of their last seven games on home soil, including an 85-26 demolition of the Rebels in their last home fixture against an Australian team.
Pre-season saw the Crusaders compete in the Brisbane 10s before losing out to the Hurricanes 33-27. The Brumbies meanwhile comfortably saw off an Australian Barbarians outfit 59-0, before a concerning 53-17 defeat to the Waratahs.
2016: Crusaders won 40-14 in Canberra
2015: Crusaders won 37-24 in Canberra
2014: Crusaders won 40-20 in Christchurch
2013: Crusaders won 30-23 in Canberra
2011: Crusaders won 52-10 in Nelson
2010: Crusaders won 40-22 in Christchurch
2009: Brumbies won 18-16 in Canberra
2008: Crusaders won 34-3 in Christchurch
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Ereatari Enari, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 David Havili
Brumbies: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 James Dargaville, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Jordan Smiler, 7 Chris Alcock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Nic Mayhew
Replacements: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Ben Alexander, 18 Leslie Leulua’Iali’I-Makin, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Lolo Fakaosilea, 21 Dewet Roos, 22 Andrew Smith, 23 Isaac Thompson
Date: Saturday, February 25
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Glen Newman (New Zealand)