The final edition of Super XV gets under way in Christchurch on Friday night with the seven-time champion Crusaders hosting Aussie battlers the Melbourne Rebels.
Punters on both sides of the Tasman have installed the hosts as red-hot favourites despite them losing all three of their pre-season matches and being without key players Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock (both granted mini-sabbaticals), Israel Dagg (currently on extended post-EOYT leave), Nemani Nadolo (only just back from Japan so not considered), and Andy Ellis (still in Japan).
The absence of Ellis compounds the season-ending injury sustained by Willi Heinz and leaves the halfback duties in the inexperienced hands of Mitchell Drummond (21 on Sunday) and Billy Guyton (24 but with just one off-the-bench Super Rugby appearance). They will surely be targeted by the canny Luke Burgess and the (sometimes overly) feisty Nic Stirzaker.
Nic Stirzacker – feisty scrumhalf .
The Rebels arrive on the back of two pre-season wins, albeit that both were narrow, with no major injury concerns, and in the knowledge that playing the Crusaders in Round 1 is preferable to playing them in, say, Round 17 (last year they lost three of their first five matches but just two of the remaining 11).
Looking at the Crusaders lineup (see below) one would expect them to have slightly the better of the scrums, mauls and possibly lineouts.
The Rebels will need their impressive back row to slow down and/ or otherwise spoil as much Crusaders’ ball as the ref will allow them to get away with, and their halfback(s) to make Drummond’s life—and that of Guyton should he be given some late minutes— as difficult as possible. Do that and they can at least give the Crusaders a fright, but if they cannot then one suspects the Rebels wearing double-digits on their backs could be in for a long night.
The Crusaders, of course, have a couple of pretty handy loosies of their own and I’m really looking forward to the resumption of hostilities between Richie McCaw and Scott Higginbotham – surely the most niggly and annoying Australian 6 or 8 since Owen Finegan – even if the contest between Matt Todd and (presumably) Scott Fuglistaller may prove more decisive.
Matt Todd – contest with Scott Fuglistaller may be decisive
The Game Plans
The Crusaders will want to dominate up front, utilise Carter and Slade to convert weight of possession into field position, and wait for the points to come, (and should they come in multiples of three, they’ll gladly accept them).
Expect plenty of crash ball, pick-and-go, and one-off hitups, with the ball only going wide once the defence has either been drawn in or cannot realign quickly enough.
The Rebels on the other hand would appear to be better served by keeping the ball in hand – even in Dagg’s absence a kicking duel with Messrs Carter and Slade is unlikely to end well for them – and attack through their midfield and outsides.
Expect plenty of crash ball and close-quarter carries from them as well, but to also go wide on a reasonably regular basis and attempt to get on the outside of what can at times be a very compressed Crusaders’ defensive line (especially if McNicholl forgets he’s playing wing not fullback).
It probably won’t be pretty and they may not bag a four-try bonus point but I think the Crusaders will take this by 10 – 15 points and that they will be satisfied with that.
Crusaders by 12
Johnny McNicholl – has to remember where he is playing .
Crusaders v Rebels
Joe Moody 1 Toby Smith
Ben Funnell 2 Pat Leafa
Owen Franks 3 Laurie Weeks
Luke Romano 4 Luke Jones
Dominic Bird 5 Lopeti Timani
Richie McCaw 6 Sean McMahon
Matt Todd (c) 7 Colby Faingaa
Luke Whitelock 8 Scott Higginbotham
Mitchell Drummond 9 Nic Stirzaker
Daniel Carter 10 Jack Debreczeni
Johnny McNicholl 11 Tom English
Tom Taylor 12 Mitch Inman
Kieron Fonotia 13 Tamati Ellison
Robbie Fruean 14 Dom Shipperley
Colin Slade 15 Mike Harris
Reserves Codie Taylor 16 Ben Whittaker
Alex Hodgman 17 Cruze Ah-Nau
Wyatt Crockett 18 Paul Alo-Emile
Scott Barrett 19 Sam Jeffries
Jordan Taufua 20 Scott Fuglistaller
Billy Guyton 21 Luke Burgess
Ryan Crotty 22 Bryce Hegarty
Nathaniel Apa 23 Sefanaia Naivalu
Location: AMI Stadium, Christchurch Kickoff: Fri 13 Feb 19:35 Referee: Nick Briant Assistant Ref 1: Shane McDermott Assistant Ref 2: Brendon Pickerill TMO : Aaron Paterson