The Crusaders host the Hurricanes at AMI Stadium in Christchurch in what should be a titanic all-New Zealand Super Rugby semi-final.
This is a final before a final in that it arguably features the two best sides in the competition – both having accumulated the most points – but they are to meet in the last four due to the inequitable Conference system.
The Hurricanes may have won six of the last nine games against the Crusaders, but they haven’t won a finals fixture against the men from Christchurch in four attempts.
The Crusaders, meanwhile, remain undefeated in 20 successive finals fixtures on home soil and the fact that each of the previous 11 all-New Zealand semi-finals in Super Rugby have been won by the hosts on the day bodes well.
The ‘Saders showed last weekend how merciless they can be from turnover ball but, in the Hurricanes, they are facing the competition’s best defence, apart from their own. With an efficient line speed and impressive tackle success rate, the ‘Canes may just be able to thwart a confident and clinical Crusaders’ outfit.
Besides a solid defence and Ben Lam, there is not much else counting in the Hurricanes’ favour. And worryingly for them, the Crusaders’ pack is back to full strength, with Kieran Read having shone last week, while the final piece has been added to the jigsaw this Saturday with the return of Joe Moody.
The visitors will be well aware of the Crusaders’ tendency to score in the periods before and after half-time. The head-to-head stats, in terms of average points per game, etc, shows how close the sides are and it should be a tight game. For example, the Crusaders have let in 39 tries, to the ‘Canes 43.
But remarkably, the defending champions have not conceded more than 13 points in any of their last eight home play-off fixtures and considering they haven’t failed to score less than 13 points in the past two seasons, one would not bet against them.
There are key individual battles all over the park, but the most mouth-watering one has to be between Ryan Crotty and Ngani Laumape in the midfield. Both are in top form ahead of the clash and keen to lay down a marker for the 2019 Rugby World Cup as two virtual All Black sides go head-to-head in a do-or-die encounter.
The last time the teams met: The Crusaders prevailed 24-13 and by three tries to one in a forward-based slugfest at AMI Stadium in a match played in atrocious conditions. Tries from Scott Barrett, Michael Alaalatoa and Heiden Bedwell-Curtis proved too much for the Hurricanes, who scored through Reed Prinsep late on.
Team news: The Crusaders welcome the return of All Blacks prop Joe Moody, who has recovered from injury to start at loosehead prop. Fellow All Blacks front-rower Tim Perry will provide cover on the bench.
Head coach Scott Robertson said there is no shortage of excitement in camp in the build up to this match: “This game is going to be huge, it doesn’t get any bigger than a New Zealand derby match in the knockout stages of Super Rugby.
“Everyone who has worn the jersey for us this season has performed so this was the hardest team to name because of the great depth we have in our squad. Joe has worked extremely hard to get back in time for Finals footy, and he joins a powerful forward pack, who are ready for the challenge on Saturday night.
“It’s always a privilege to play at home, but to host a semi-final in front of our fans adds another level of anticipation and pride to the mix. Our fans have been right behind us all season and we’re excited to once again play for them in this week’s semi-final.”
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have named an unchanged starting XV. After defeating the Chiefs 32-31 in last week’s quarter-final, head coach Chris Boyd has resisted the temptation to change a winning combination as they prepare to take on the defending champions.
The bench is also settled, although there is potential for one change with Ardie Savea bracketed with Reed Prinsep.
Savea has not played since he suffered a high ankle sprain in the All Blacks’ third Test against France on June 23.
Boyd said Savea had worked extremely hard to return to the Hurricanes campaign and a decision on whether he would take his place in the matchday squad would be made later in the week.
2018: Crusaders won 24-13 in Christchurch
2018: Hurricanes won 29-19 in Wellington
2017: Hurricanes won 31-22 in Wellington
2017: Crusaders won 20-12 in Christchurch
2016: Hurricanes won 35-10 in Christchurch
2015: Crusaders won 35-18 in Christchurch
2015: Hurricanes won 29-23 in Wellington
2014: Hurricanes won 16-09 in Wellington
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor
Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Jordie Barrett, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Gareth Evans, 6 Brad Shields (c), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Michael Fatialofa, 3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 James O’Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Ardie Savea/Reed Prinsep, 21 Jamie Booth, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Wes Goosen
Date: Saturday, July 28
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local (08:35 BST, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Mike Fraser, Ben O’Keeffe
TMO: Shane McDermott