Preview: Crusaders v Blues

The Crusaders will look to return to their winning ways when they host a confident Blues side in Christchurch on Friday.

The seven-time champions have gained a reputation as slow starters in recent years and they stayed true to form by suffering a 27-21 defeat at home in their season opener against the Chiefs last weekend.

Senior players like Kieran Read, Nemani Nadolo, Andy Ellis and captain Sam Whitelock had quiet games against the Chiefs and must return to their best form if the Crusaders want to win this one against a hungry Blues side, who hit the ground running with a superb display in their 33-31 victory over the Highlanders.

The Crusaders are going through a transitional phase – after losing the services of legendary All Blacks duo Richie McCaw and Dan Carter – but such are the demands from their fanatical supporters that they are expected to challenge for honours this year just like every other year. A win over the high-riding Blues will be just the right tonic for the Christchurch faithful.

Although it's still early days, the Aucklanders showed in their opener against the champions that their pre-season form was no fluke – they beat the Hurricanes, Rebels and Chiefs in their three warm-up matches – and if they can replicate that performance this weekend the Crusaders are in for a torrid time.

Blues head coach Tana Umaga appears to have worked wonders since taking over the reins from Sir John Kirwan.

The side has underperformed in the tournament in recent years and victories over the defending champions and the competition's most successful team in the first two rounds will make other sides sit up and take notice of their title ambitions.

The last time these teams met: The Crusaders were chasing a play-off place when they faced a struggling Blues side in Auckland. The men from Christchurch were made to work hard and eventually secured a 34-11 victory thanks to a penalty try and further five-pointers from Nemani Nadolo, Luke Romano and Matt Todd.

Players to watch: Big Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo seldom has two quiet games in a row and he will be determined to make up for his below par effort against the Chiefs by reaching his regular high standards in this clash. His devastating runs on attack are well known so the Blues are sure to mark him tightly but if he finds the ball in space, he should wreak havoc.

After missing most of Auckland's ITM Cup season with a knee injury, Blues tearaway Blake Gibson was determined to make an impact when he started against the Highlanders last weekend. And he did just that, scoring a memorable try, in which he ran over All Blacks full-back Ben Smith in the process, and playing a blinder on attack and defence. He will be keen to cement his place in the run-on side with a similar effort in this encounter.

Team news: Crusaders boss Todd Blackadder has made just one change to his matchday 23 that played the Chiefs last weekend. Pete Samu comes onto the replacements bench in place of Reed Prinsep, who is recovering from a head knock suffered in that opening loss.

The Blues have made six changes to their starting line-up after their win over the Highlanders. There are two changes in the forwards with captain Jerome Kaino returning from suspension and Quentin MacDonald yaking over from James Parsons at hooker. Billy Guyton and Matt McGahan are the halfbacks with Rene Ranger earning a start, swapping with Male Sa’u. Former Melbourne Storm player Matt Duffie makes his debut at full-back. Number eight Steven Luatua will make his 50th appearance for the Blues.

Form: The Crusaders impressed in their 31-3 victory over the Reds in their first pre-season match but were on the wrong end of a 74-7 thrashing against the Hurricanes in their final warm-up match before suffering that 27-21 loss to the Chiefs last weekend.

The Blues meanwhile finished their three-match pre-season programme with a solid 24-12 win over the Chiefs before kicking off their campaign with a 33-31 victory over Highlanders in Auckland last week.

Prediction: This should be a high-scoring affair but although the Crusaders are at home, the Blues are a team brimming with confidence and should snatch this one on the road. Blues to win by five.

Previous results:

2015: Crusaders won 34-11 in Auckland
2015: Crusaders won 29-15 in Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 21-13 in Christchurch
2014: Blues won 35-24 in Auckland
2013: Crusaders won 23-3 in Christchurch
2013: Blues won 34-15 in Auckland 
2012: Crusaders won 59-12 in Christchurch
2012: Crusaders won 19-18 in Auckland

The teams:

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Jone Macilai, 13 Sean Wainui, 12 Kieron Fonotia, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Tim Boys, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Samuel Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Leon Fukofuka, 22 Ben Volavola, 23 Johnny McNicholl

Blues: 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 George Moala, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Matt McGahan, 9 Billy Guyton, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino (c), 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 Quentin MacDonald, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Male Sa'u

Date: Friday, 4 March
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Paul Williams
Assistant Referees: Chris Pollock, Brendon Pickerill
TMO: Ben Skeen