Matt Hodgson – returns to play his first game of the season
It’s do or die time for the Western Force in season 2017 with the club under a cloud of uncertainty surrounding their future.
Having shown improvement in in 2017 they would be bitterly disappointed with only one win from three starts. They’ve created opportunities but haven’t finished them off.
The Force have been starting well, and were in with a chance late into their losses against the Waratahs and the Brumbies before fading. They will be up against it in Christchurch because the Crusaders are the opposite – they are the form finishers of Super Rugby this year.
Luke Morahan – switches to fullback against Crusaders
Club legend and past skipper Matt Hodgson will make his long awaited return from injury via the bench after going down with a hamstring injury in the Brisbane Tens. Present captain Ben McCalman (thumb) will miss at least the next two matches and therefore hasn’t travelled to New Zealand.
Coach David Wessels has replaced his entire front row; so props Ben Daley and Jermaine Ainsley will run-on this week and hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau will start his first game for the Force.
Star full back Dane Haylett-Petty has been rested due to a niggling groin complaint and Luke Morahan will replace him at fullback, while Alex Newsome moves to the wing for his first starting game. Billy Meakes (ankle) is also excluded and is replaced by Marcel Brache.
Matt Todd – available this week for the Crusaders
The seven-time Champions, the Crusaders, are enjoying a strong start to 2017 and their fans are saying it’s about time to win it again. The poor lambs haven’t won it since 2008.
They are undefeated going into Round 5 and would be full of confidence following come-from-behind wins against the Highlanders, Reds and Blues.
They haven’t had it all their own way this season however following injuries to Israel Dagg and Seta Tamanivalua against the Reds, and they are still without All Black skipper Kieran Read following his wrist surgery.
On the other hand they will welcome back flanker Matt Todd (calf strain) and winger Digby Ioane (finger) to the starting team.
The Crusaders have rested loosehead Joe Moody, and Wyatt Crockett will start the game instead. Lock Luke Romano replaces the athletic Scott Barrett who moves to the blindside flank as an interesting venture in his development. Midfielder Tim Bateman also returns to the side.
Ryan Louwrens – sets up new Force back line this year with Jono Lance
The halves – Surprisingly the Force may feel they have the edge in this department with Ryan Louwrens and Jono Lance leading their new-look backline around, up against the relatively inexperienced duo of Mitchell Drummond and Mitchell Hunt. However the young Crusaders have proven to be well up to standard in the first four rounds.
The Second Row – All Black stars Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano have 110 tests between them and are a formidable partnership. In particular Whitleock, the stand-in skipper, is in great form and is one of the main reasons the Crusaders find themselves 4 and 0.
By contrast, because of the injury to Wallaby Adam Coleman, the Force is starting Ross Haylett-Petty and Matt Philip who are inexperienced with only 24 Super Rugby caps for the pair of them. There is no doubt that Whitelock and his men will apply pressure in the set pieces to expose the youngsters.
The Front row – Will the replacement of the whole Force front row work? It may – Polota-Nau is a noted scrummager and young Kiwi import Jermaine Ainsley scrummages beyond his years. The Force loosehead side won’t find it easy against tighthead Owen Franks but Crusader loosehead Wyatt Crockett could be a penalty magnet if the referee notices where his backside is pointing at scrum time (usually towards touch).
Jermaine Ainsley – scrummages beyond his years
The Force have showed they are a different beast this year with a new coach and playing roster. They are primed to prove the doubters wrong and show they belong in Super Rugby beyond this season.
But it doesn’t bode well for them: they’ve struggled in the Land of the Long White Cloud in recent times, losing their past six matches there—and also their last four away games against the Crusaders.
Moreover, missing star fullback Dane Haylett-Petty, and using an inexperienced second row against an experienced All Black pairing, will prove a tough ask against a red-hot Crusaders team looking to move up to the top of the New Zealand Conference.
Crusaders by 17
Dane Haylett-Petty – not available this week
1. Wyatt Crockett
2. Codie Taylor
3. Owen Franks
4. Luke Romano
5. Sam Whitelock (c)
6. Scott Barrett
7. Matt Todd
8. Jordan Taufua
9. Mitchell Drummond
10. Mitchell Hunt
11. George Bridge
12. Ryan Crotty
13. Tim Bateman
14. Digby Ioane
15. David Havili
16. Ben Funnell
17. Tim Perry
18. Mike Ala’alatoa
19. Mitchell Dunshee
20. Pete Samu
21. Bryn Hall
22. Marty McKenzie
23. Manasa Mataele
1. Ben Daley
2. Tatafu Polota-Nau
3. Jermaine Ainsley
4. Ross Haylett-Petty
5. Matt Philip
6. Isi Naisarani
7. Kane Koteka
8. Richard Hardwick
9. Ryan Louwrens
10. Jono Lance (c)
11. Chance Peni
12. Marcel Brache
13. Curtis Rona
14. Alex Newsome
15. Luke Morahan
16. Heath Tessman
17. Pek Cowan
18. Tetera Faulkner
19. Richie Arnold
20. Matt Hodgson
21. Michael Ruru
22. Ian Prior
23. Robbie Coleman
Date: Friday, 24 March 2017
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local, 17:35 AEST
Referee: Rohan Hoffman (Aus)
Assistant referees: Richard Kelly (NZ), Angus Mabey (NZ)
TMO: Shane McDermott (NZ)