The Crusaders will expect to add to the Sunwolves’ pain when they host the Japanese side at AMI Stadium on Saturday.
Jamie Joseph’s men have suffered seven defeats in a row, leaving them well adrift in the Super Rugby standards. They are already 10 points behind the 14th placed Blues after succumbing to the New Zealanders in Round Nine of the competition and, as a result, appear destined to end the year rooted to the foot of the table.
To make matters worse, they are heading to the home of the defending champions this weekend, a place where the Tokyo-based team shipped 50 points in 2017.
Although the visitors do have threats, with Michael Little impressing over the previous two weeks and Hosea Saumaki a constant menace on the wing, the New Zealanders are strong in all facets.
While the absence of Richie Mo’unga is a hindrance and may ultimately be a deciding factor as to whether they are able to retain their title, it will not cause them consternation on Saturday.
Their outside backs are among the best in the competition, with George Bridge, Manasa Mataele and the returning Israel Dagg forming a potent back three. Centres Tim Bateman and Ryan Crotty are reliable, and Mike Delany and Mitchell Drummond have plenty of experience at half-back.
The Crusaders’ pack does have a few players missing, whether through injury or individuals being rested, but it is still a formidable-looking forward eight, particularly with Owen Franks back in the fold.
Having not played since last year, it may take a while for the prop to get back up to speed but it shouldn’t be long before he is wreaking havoc at the set-piece.
After seeing his front-five enjoy some success against the Blues, Sunwolves’ boss Joseph may seek to target that area but, even accounting for Franks’ lack of match fitness, it is difficult to see them gaining ascendency in the scrum.
In fact, it is improbable that the visitors will get much joy in any facet, with the New Zealanders likely to come away with a comfortable victory.
The last time the teams met: Their only game came last year with the Crusaders producing a dominant 50-3 triumph over the Sunwolves. Manasa Mataele scored a nine-minute hat-trick in the first half, while Kieran Read and Ben Funnell touched down before the interval. Yu Tamara responded for the Japanese outfit with a penalty but they were unable to build on that in the second period as Pete Samu, George Bridge and Whetu Douglas crossed the whitewash for the hosts.
Team news: New Zealand internationals Israel Dagg and Owen Franks return to the Crusaders’ team after several months out. Franks makes his return from an Achilles injury and joins Ben Funnell and Tim Perry as the starting front-row. Dagg slots in on the right wing, having recovered from his knee injury, and George Bridge will move to the full-back position.
Regular captain Sam Whitelock will be rested this week, meaning flanker Matt Todd will take over the captaincy for this match. In the back-row, Tom Sanders shifts from the blindside to number eight, making way for 23 year-old Ethan Blackadder to make his Super Rugby debut in the number six jersey on Saturday.
Mitchell Drummond will start at scrum-half and Mike Delany at pivot, with Mitch Hunt to provide cover for Delany on the bench.
For the Sunwolves, there are five changes in the backline and one in the pack when they face the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Behind the scrum, William Tupou has come in for Kotaro Matsushima at full-back. Semisi Masirewa has dropped to the bench with Hosea Saumaki replacing him on the right wing, while Kenki Fukuoka takes the place of Lomano Lemeki on the left wing.
There is a new half-back combination as Hayden Parker is preferred over Yu Tamura at fly-half while Fumiaki Tanaka gets the nod ahead of Yutaka Nagare. The only change in the forwards sees Shota Horie replaced by Georgia international Jaba Bregvadze at hooker.
2017: Crusaders won 50-03 in Christchurch.
Crusaders: 15 George Bridge, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Manasa Mataele, 10 Mike Delany, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Ethan Blackadder, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Tim Perry
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Chris King, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Jack Stratton, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Seta Tamanivalu
Sunwolves: 15 William Tupou, 14 Hosea Saumaki, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Michael Little, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Lappies Labuschagne (c), 6 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 James Moore, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Jaba Bregvadze, 1 Craig Millar
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Shintaro Ishihara, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Sam Wykes, 20 Edward Quirk, 21 Yutaka Nagare, 22 Ryoto Nakamura, 23 Semisi Masirewa
Date: Saturday, April 21
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand), Cam Stone (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)