The Crusaders will be brimming with confidence when they take on the Western Force in their Round Five Super Rugby clash in Christchurch on Friday.
After four rounds of action, the seven-time champions are one of three unbeaten sides – along with the Chiefs and Stormers – in the competition and with the Force winning just one out of three matches so far, the home side will fancy their chances of retaining their winning record.
Under the guidance of their new head coach, Scott Robertson, the Crusaders are fast gaining a reputation as the tournament’s comeback kings after winning their last three matches – against the Highlanders, Reds and Blues – thanks to impressive second half comebacks in which they were trailing by huge margins at half-time in each of those encounters.
After losing stalwarts like Nemani Nadolo and Andy Ellisat the end of the 2016, there were concerns in some quarters about the men from Christchurch’s prospects but Robertson has made some shrewd signings with the likes of Seta Tamanivalu and Bryn Hall fitting in seamlessly to the Crusaders enviroment while youngsters like George Bridge and Jack Goodhue have also impressed this season.
The Force head in to this fixture facing an uncertain future as it has been reported that they could be axed from Super Rugby if the competition is cut to 15 teams next year.
Robertson believes that will give the Perth-based side extra motivation to do well against his troops.
“They are fighting for a lot more than the points,” he told Stuff.
“There is all that stuff going on over in Aussie at the moment and they want to represent their family and their people. We are expecting everything from them.”
Despite an indifferent start to the season, the Force were competitive in all their matches this season. Their head coach, David Wessels, expects a tough assignment but expects his side to give a good account of themselves.
“Playing New Zealand teams in New Zealand is the ultimate test of our progress over the last few months. There’s great energy in the group and we’re looking forward to Friday night.”
The last time these teams met: The Crusaders were made to work hard for a win when they visited Perth in Round Seven last year and only a late Jordan Taufua try secured Todd Blackadder’s charges a narrow 20-19 victory. The visitors led 13-6 at half-time thanks to tries from Mitchell Drummond and Johnny McNicholl but the Force were leading 19-13 with 10 minutes left on the clock after Ryan Louwrens scored their only try and Peter Grant kicked three further penalties, after he also slotted one in the first half. Taufua clinched the win for the Crusaders when he barged over from close quarters shortly before full-time.
Team news: Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has made eight changes to his starting line-up which beat the Blues last weekend with the biggest surprise being the selection of All Blacks lock Scott Barrett on the blindside flank. Barrett’s move to the side of the scrum means Luke Romano starts the second row while Jordan Taufua, who wore the number six jersey against the Blues last weekend, takes over from Whetu Douglas at number eight. Other changes to the pack sees Wyatt Crockett taking over from fellow All Black Jo Moody at loosehead prop while anonther Test player, openside flank Matt Todd, has recovered from a calf injury and returns to the the run-on side in place of Jed Brown. In the back-line, Wallaby Digby Ioane replaces Manasa Mataele on the right wing while Tim Bateman takes over from Jack Goodhue at outside centre and Mitchell Drummond is preferred to Bryn Hall at scrum-half.
Western Force head coach Dave Wessels has rung the changes to his starting line-up. In the pack, Ben Daley comes back into the starting loosehead position, with Pek Cowan moving to the bench, Wallaby hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau earns his first start and Isireli Naisarani is set to make his run-on Super Rugby debut at blindside flanker. Tighthead prop Jermaine Ainsley also returns to the starting XV. Experienced utility back Marcel Brache makes his first appearance of the season at inside centre. Luke Morahan shifts to full-back with young outside back Alex Newsome named on the right wing for his maiden start. Fly-half Jono Lance has been named to captain the Force for the first time and becomes the 11th player to skipper the West Australian side. Club legend Matt Hodgson will make his return from a hamstring injury off the bench while 208cm lock Richie Arnold (twin brother of Wallabies lock Rory) is in line for his long awaited debut.
Form: The Crusaders made a nervy start to their campaign but eventually got over the line with a 17-13 victory against the Brumbies in Christchurch. In their next match, they were trailing 17-6 at half-time against the Highlanders before a second half resurgence helped them to a 30-27 win and in their next match, in Brisbane against the Reds, they fought back from a 20-5 defict at the break to claim a 22-20 victory. And last week, it was more of the same as the Crusaders came from 21-5 down at half-time against the Blues in Christchurch to clinch a 33-24 triumph.
The Force’s season has been less dramatic. After suffering a narrow 19-13 loss to the Waratahs in Round 1, they bounced back with a 26-19 home win against the Reds. In Round 3, they delivered a competitive performance against the Brumbies in Canberra but eventually lost 25-17. The Force had a bye last weekend.
2016: Crusaders won 20-19 in Perth
2014: Crusaders won 30-7 in Christchurch
2013: Force won 16-14 in Perth
2012: Crusaders won 38-24 in Christchurch
2011: Crusaders won 42-30 in Perth
2010: Force won 24-16 in Perth
2009: The teams drew 23-23 in Christchurch
2008: Crusaders won 29-24 in Perth
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Digby Ioane, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Scott Barrett, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Mitchell Dunshea, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Manasa Mataele
Western Force: 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Marcel Brache, 11 Chance Peni, 10 Jono Lance (c), 9 Ryan Louwrens, 8 Richard Hardwick, 7 Kane Koteka, 6 Isi Naisarani, 5 Matt Philip, 4 Ross Haylett-Petty, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Ben Daley
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Pek Cowan, 18 Tetera Faulkner, 19 Richie Arnold, 20 Matt Hodgson, 21 Michael Ruru, 22 Ian Prior, 23 Robbie Coleman
Date: Friday, March 24
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Richard Kelly (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)