The Crusaders will be looking for a 10th straight win in Super Rugby this season when they head to Hamilton to face the Chiefs on Saturday.
Currently sitting atop the overall standings and after beating the Hurricanes last week, Scott Robertson’s side appear the real deal again.
That win over the ‘Canes put them five points clear in the New Zealand Conference but the men from Wellington do still have a game in hand. Meanwhile the Chiefs are 13 points off the Crusaders and know that staying in the play-off spots will be their primary aim from here on in.
Despite the two teams’ contrasting situations, it is the Chiefs who have held the upper hand over the Crusaders in recent seasons at this Waikato venue, winning four of their last five games at FMG Stadium, including a 24-point win when they last faced off there (Rd 3, 2015).
Indeed, the Chiefs’ form at FMG Stadium has been hugely impressive of late, having won their last 11 games in a row since Round 11, 2016.
But this is a Crusaders side clearly capable of claiming back-to-back Super Rugby titles as to beat the ‘Canes so convincingly last week, despite missing several players, once again showed what a streetwise side they have become. Put simply they’re the team to catch in 2018.
That is what the Chiefs, buoyed by flanker Sam Cane’s return to the XV, will be determined to do on Saturday. But head coach Colin Cooper knows overcoming the in-form Crusaders won’t be an easy task, saying: “They’re really strong in the set-piece so it’ll be a big contest at the scrums and line-outs. Discipline is the key going into this game, but we’re excited to be on our home ground, which is an advantage.”
He continued that he wants his team to express itself and impose its game on the Crusaders, adding: “The Waratahs game has given us a lot of confidence to play the attacking game we want to play against the Crusaders. It’s about knowing your role and having that confidence.”
Team news: Chiefs head coach Colin Cooper has named an unchanged starting side from the one which beat the Waratahs last Saturday, with key figure Sam Cane returning from injury to the matchday 23.
Angus Ta’avao and Karl Tu’inukuafe continue in the front-row with Nathan Harris. Brodie Retallick and Michael Allardice start in the number four and five jerseys, and Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Karpik and Liam Messam make up the loose forward trio.
Notably in the backs, Charlie Ngatai will start in the midfield again with Anton Lienert-Brown, after a fantastic performance last weekend.
Meanwhile, Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has welcomed back All Blacks Joe Moody, Israel Dagg and Jordan Taufua in to his starting XV.
Prop Moody returns, joining Codie Taylor and Michael Alaalatoa in the front-row. Wyatt Crockett, in his 200th Crusaders game, will provide cover on the bench.
Scott Barrett is set to play his 50th Crusaders game on Saturday, and will line up alongside Quinten Strange at lock. Matt Todd will again resume the captaincy this week.
Taufua – who was a late withdrawal last week due to a tight calf – will line up at number eight, which means Heiden Bedwell-Curtis moves to blindside flanker. Ethan Blackadder will provide cover on the bench, in place of Pete Samu.
Tim Bateman has been replaced in the midfield this week due to a hamstring injury, with Jack Goodhue to start at inside centre and Seta Tamanivalu moving in-field to outside centre. Following his successful return to club rugby last weekend, Dagg takes a spot on the right wing.
This week the Crusaders will also welcome back winger Jone Macilai, to the matchday 23. Macilai makes a successful return from injury and will wear the number 23 jersey.
2018: Crusaders won 45-23 in Christchurch
2017: Crusaders won 27-13 in Christchurch (semi-final)
2017: Crusaders won 31-24 in Suva
2016: Chiefs won 23-13 in Suva
2016: Chiefs won 27-21 in Christchurch
2015: Chiefs won 26-09 in Christchurch
2015: Chiefs won 40-16 in Hamilton
2014: Crusaders won 18-17 in Hamilton
Chiefs: 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Charlie Ngatai (c), 11 Sean Wainui, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Mitchell Karpik, 6 Luke Jacobson, 5 Michael Allardice, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe
Replacements: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Jesse Parete, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Shaun Stevenson
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Donald Brighouse, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Ethan Blackadder, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Jone Macilai
Date: Saturday, June 2
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Assistant referees: Richard Kelly (New Zealand), Cam Stone (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)