The high-flying Western Force meet the seven-time Super Rugby champions, the Crusaders, at AMI Stadium this Friday night, in what shapes up to be a ding-dong encounter.
Last week, the Crusaders held on at the death to clinch a valuable bonus-point win over the Highlanders 32-30 in Dunedin. The win moved them to the top of the Kiwi conference, and third overall on the table.
At the same time, the Force took the full eighty minutes to overcome the Lions 29-19 in Perth, who nearly pinched the win with a late charge in the final five minutes. Consequently, the Force secured five valuable competition points and now sit fourth on the log, after transplanting the former Australian conference leaders, the Brumbies.
Head to head, the Force are 2-1-4 against the Crusaders. The last time the teams played in Christchurch, the Crusaders won 38-24 in 2012.
The Force has made four changes to their starting XV. In the forwards: blinside flanker Angus Cottrell moves to number 8 following Ben McCalman’s injury (groin), and Brynard Stander makes his first start in the backrow. South African prop Francois van Wyk and promising Perth product openside flanker Ryan Hodson start on the bench.
In the backs: Kyle Godwin’s injury (ankle) and Luke Burton’s departure for the Under-20s tournament means a reshuffle in the centres. Chris Tuatara-Morrison switches from outside to inside centre, and Pat Dellit comes into the lineup into 13. Prodigious South African flyhalf/utility back Dillyn ‘Quade’ Leyds is the only change to the back reserves.
The Crusaders have made one change to their starting XV. Kieran Read returns after recovering from concussion and a cold, prompting Luke Whitelock’s relegation to the bench.
Key Match Ups
Triple Threat: Back Three
The Crusaders back three of Israel Dagg, Nemani Nadolo and Johnny McNicholl is a daunting prospect for any team. While Dagg has not scored a handful of tries like Nadolo (7), his decision-making, his tactical kicking and ability under the high ball is imperious as ever. The 125kg Fijian winger Nadolo provides go-forward in the Crusaders backline, and has a knack for popping up at the right place, at the right time. McNicholl is a nice contrast to Nadolo; he is more fleet-footed than physical.
The Force back three of Jayden Hayward, Dane Haylett-Petty and Nick Cummins are no minnows by any means. Last week was arguably DHP’s best game; spurred on by the Honey Badger, he made plenty of carries, metres and clean line breaks. Same for Cummins; he did not score a hattrick like he did against the Tahs, but he came off his wing frequently, and was far more busy and impactful. The reliable Hayward is the custodian at the back. His decision-making and positional play is ever-present.
Set Piece Battle: Scrum & Lineout
The Crusaders scrum is one of the competition’s strongest – the fourth in fact. How lucky coach Todd Blackadder is, that he can retain the front row of Tim Perry, Ben Funnell, and Nepo Laulala, and rest his experienced All Blacks trio on the bench without missing a beat. The strength of the bench will likely decide the outcome of the match.
Their other set piece – the lineout – is just as strong. The experienced Sam Whitelock’s lineout work is crucial to the functional Crusaders lineout. Surprisingly, Whitelock is not in the top five for lineout takes, so he is spreading the jumping duties around when calling. There are question marks still floating around Ben Funnell’s lineout throwing, considering his omission from the All Blacks squad.
Likewise, the Force set piece is performing well. Despite Pek Cowan garnering the ire of the ref in the first half, the Force scrum performed admirably against the top scrum in the competion last week – winning all nine of their own scrums. In addition, they were disruptive on the Lions feed, who conceded one scrum from seven. There is likely to be some concern at the back of the scrum with a new number 8 in Angus Cottrell, and his link play with scrumhalf Prior.
The Force lineout is consistently improving. Steenkamp’s presence in the starting XV is akin to Whitelock in the Crusaders; in the Lions game, the Force won twelve lineouts and lost one. Additionally, any weakness to the rolling maul exposed by the Cheetahs and Stormers seems to have waned.
Center of Attention: Midfield
The Force has had to trot out their fifth centre pairing this year, with Chris Tuatara-Morrison and Pat Dellit. With second-choice inside centre Luke Burton departing for the Under-20s, Tuatara-Morrison moves into his natural position of inside centre, while utility Dellit comes in at 13. These two are large men compared with the Crusaders midfield, and are exceeding 100kg. While Tuatara-Morrison has been playing well, Dellit will look to atone for his ordinary form after some forgettable performances this season (against the Stormers for one).
All Blacks capped Ryan Crotty and Tom Taylor are the Crusaders centres. Ryan Crotty’s form in the last few games has been down (coinciding with the added responsibilities of captain), but he remains a threat in the backline. It is the second game this season at 13 for Taylor, who has been moved around the backline more times than one can count. More a 10/12, he is learning the nuances of outside centre as he goes.
The Force has a six day turnaround, and will have played in three countries in three weeks. But while the Force will be fatigued, they will throw everything they have at this game, and leave the recuperating to the three-week test window.
The last time they met, the Crusaders went down to the Force 14-16, so they will be looking for a bit of payback. As the Force has never won in Christchurch, it is very hard to imagine the Crusaders relinquishing that unbeaten record against an injury-depleted and weary Force.
Crusaders by 8.
|Tim Perry||1||Pek Cowan|
|Ben Funnell||2||Nathan Charles|
|Nepo Laulala||3||Kieran Longbottom|
|Dominic Bird||4||Sam Wykes|
|Sam Whitelock||5||Wilhelm Steenkamp|
|Jordan Taufua||6||Brynard Stander|
|Richie McCaw||7||Matt Hodgson (c)|
|Kieran Read (capt)||8||Angus Cottrell|
|Andy Ellis||9||Ian Prior|
|Colin Slade||10||Sias Ebersohn|
|Nemani Nadolo||11||Nick Cummins|
|Ryan Crotty||12||Chris Tuatara-Morrison|
|Tom Taylor||13||Patrick Dellit|
|Johnny McNicholl||14||Dane Haylett-Petty|
|Israel Dagg||15||Jayden Hayward|
|Corey Flynn||16||Heath Tessmann|
|Wyatt Crockett||17||Francois van Wyk|
|Owen Franks||18||Ollie Hoskins|
|Jimmy Tupou||19||Adam Coleman|
|Luke Whitelock||20||Ryan Hodson|
|Willi Heinz||21||Justin Turner|
|Adam Whitelock||22||Zack Holmes|
|Nafi Tuitavake||23||Dillyn Leyds|
|Kickoff:||Fri 30 May 17:35|
|Assistant Ref 1:||Mike Lash|
|Assistant Ref 2:||Richard Kelly|
|TMO :||Vinny Munro|