The Force, who look to be on the improve, will host the buoyant Crusaders at NIB Stadium on Friday night. Their last meeting in Perth, back in 2013, resulted in an upset 16-14 win for the hosts; will history repeat, or can the Crusaders make a clean sweep of their three-match road trip?
It’s been a tough season so far for the men from the West, with just one win and five competition points on top of their well-canvassed off-field dramas. In the early rounds they were guilty of fading badly from around the three-quarter mark, but last week fought hard right to the end suggesting better times may be ahead.
The Crusaders meanwhile arrive on the back of two wins in South Africa for the first time since 2009 and needing to consolidate their Top-8 standing. They currently sit sixth on the Table with four wins and 18 points but have the Hurricanes, Rebels and potentially Waratahs in hot pursuit for an Australasian Group wildcard berth.
The Force will hoping to spring another upset like 2013.
KEY MATCH UPS
SET PIECE & BREAKDOWN
The Crusaders scrum has been a weapon for them this year with a 94% success rate (equal top in the competition) and props Joe Moody (rested again this week) and Owen Franks regularly dominating their opponents. Their lineout (92%, second only to the Chiefs) and ruck (95%, equal second) success rates are also imposing.
An All Blacks laden pack will heap immense pressure on the Force.
The Force have slightly less impressive numbers, their scrum (90%), lineout (87%) and ruck (92%) success rates all being mid-table, and on the basis of those stats you’d expect the Crusaders to have the edge in the set pieces. The breakdown scrap featuring the tireless Matt Hodgson and Ben McCalman against Matt Todd and Kieran Read could well prove pivotal.
DEFENCE, DISCIPLINE & ATTACK
The Crusaders (86%) are ranked fourth for tackle success, the Force (82%) 14th and, even allowing for the Force having played an extra match, the Crusaders have conceded significantly fewer points (115 compared to 188) and tries (14 to 26).
Discipline-wise the Crusaders have conceded 49 penalties (12 of them last week with Stu Berry whistling) and received one yellow card, the Force 56 penalties and three yellows.
The attack stats will be of great concern for the Force who have scored just seven tries from 42 clean breaks to the Crusaders’ 22 from 75, and conceded 100 turnovers to the Crusaders’ 70. Their average gain of just 3.4 metres per carry, compared to the Crusaders’ 5.1, doesn’t auger well either.
The Force welcome back lock Steve Mafi to the starting XV after four weeks out, and prop Francois van Wyk to the 23 for the first time this season following wrist surgery. Mafi comes in for Ross Haylett-Petty who took a heavy head knock last week. The 23 is otherwise unchanged with Angus Cottrell set to run out for his 50th Force cap despite being stretchered off last week.
The Crusaders meanwhile have made one forced change with former Waratah Ben Volovola starting at fullback for the injured David Havili. There are four other changes (Sam Whitelock and Jordan Taufua coming in for Scott Barrett and Jimmy Tupou up front, and Mitchell Drummond and Sean Wainui for Andy Ellis and Kieron Fonotia in the backs) that have “squad rotation” written all over them.
Punters either side of the Tasman clearly believe that the Crusaders will win comfortably, the Kiwi TAB currently offering $4.05 for a Force win (Crusaders $1.23) and SportsBet $3.90 ($1.25). I tend to agree: Crusaders by 11.
15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Junior Rasolea, 11 Semisi Masirewa, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Steve Mafi, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Heath Tessmann, 1 Pekahou Cowan. Replacements: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Rory Walton, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Ryan Louwrens, 22 Ian Prior, 23 Albert Nikoro
15 Ben Volavola, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Sean Wainui, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett. Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Jimmy Tupou, 21 Andy Ellis, 22 Kieron Fonotia, 23 Jone Macilai.
Referee: Ben O’Keefe; Assistant Referees: Mike Fraser & Graham Cooper; TMO: Ian Smith.