Preview: Crusaders v Hurricanes

Permutations aplenty await the Crusaders and Hurricanes going into an enthralling contest in Christchurch this Saturday.

As things stand on the overall table these two sides sit in fifth and seventh place respectively, yet they barely trail the Chiefs at the top of the New Zealand Conference – the Crusaders by a point, the Hurricanes by three.

The Chiefs travelling to the Highlanders gives both the Crusaders and Hurricanes a chance of topping the NZ Conference and booking a home quarter-final. Given how the fixtures pan out they will have to win, and then wait.

Still, even without the drama of quarter-final slots this is a fixture to savour in itself, with two of the most entertaining sides in the competition this year facing off.

Both too can lean on good home and away records respectively to give themselves a bit of extra confidence. The Crusaders have won six straight home games, their longest streak since a run of 11 between 2012 and 2013.

The Hurricanes meanwhile are on the cusp of a five-game winning streak for the second time this season, and they’ve won four of their last five fixtures away from home.

It's no surprise to see the Crusaders and Hurricanes knocking around the top of the attacking stats this season, be it tries, clean breaks, defenders beaten or metres made.

What is interesting however is that the Crusaders have the second best tackle percentage in the competition at 87.5, despite having now conceded in excess of 20 points in each of their last three Super Rugby games; the last time they went on a longer such streak was from 2010-11 when they conceded over 20 points in six straight games. Their line-out, flourishing at a 90.8 success percentage, may prove to be key.

Vaea Fifita put his name on the map with that two-try salvo back in Round 15 but he faces an almighty test at the set-piece up against new Super Rugby centurion Sam Whitelock, in just one of a series of mini battles which makes this worth tuning in for.

Julian Savea appears to have his confidence back as he looks to get the better of Nemani Nadolo in terms of damage done while Reg Goodes, improving all the time at loosehead prop, faces a measure of his progress battling Owen Franks.

Not forgetting a tussle between two All Blacks hookers in Codie Taylor and Dane Coles, plus two exciting young fly-halves going up against each other in Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett.

Plenty to feast on then. It's a contest you won't want to miss.

The last time the teams met: Last May it was the Crusaders who came out on top with a 35-18 victory in Christchurch, outscoring the Hurricanes by four tries to two. Dan Carter kicked 15 points as Mitchell Drummond, Nafi Tuitavake, Matt Todd and Nemani Nadolo all crossed the whitewash for the Crusaders. Dane Coles and Ardie Savea were the try scorers for the Hurricanes as they suffered just their second defeat of the season.

Players to watch: Keeping All Blacks lock Luke Romano out of the starting line-up is Scott Barrett, the Crusaders lock who showed plenty of speed for his try in the rout of the Rebels last week. Barrett will be going up against his brother Beauden but has shown in flashes this season that with more minutes under his belt he might too end up being an All Black one day. Paired up alongside the experienced Whitelock, Barrett will need to impose himself on the physical Hurricanes pairing of Vaea Fifita and Michael Fatialofa.

As for the Hurricanes, the absence of Matt Proctor in midfield means that Ngani Laumape is back in the starting line-up, bringing his power to the slot at inside centre. Laumape was a real wrecking ball for the Hurricanes earlier on in the season off the short ball around the side of the rucks but he also offers plenty as a decoy runner, allowing Beauden Barrett and James Marshall to then bring the rest of the Hurricanes backs into play. Up against a defensive master in Ryan Crotty, Laumape has a big role on Saturday.

Team news: Crusaders head coach Todd Blackadder has made three changes, including a positional switch. The big news is the return of captain and first-choice number eight Kieran Read, who was rested for last week's win over the Rebels. With Read returning, Jimmy Tupou shifts to the blindside flank where he takes over from Jordan Taufua, who is battling a hamstring injury. The final change is in the front-row where loosehead prop Wyatt Crockett moves back into the starting fifteen, shifting Alex Hodgman onto the replacements bench. 

Meanwhile, a midfield reshuffle is the only change to the Hurricanes starting XV. Ngani Laumape has been promoted from the bench to start at inside centre with Willis Halaholo wearing the number 13 jersey for the final round of Super Rugby's regular season. The Hurricanes rejig comes after regular centre Matt Proctor was ruled out with the hamstring strain that forced him off the field early in last weekend's win over the Waratahs in Sydney. Proctor's regular midfield partner Vince Aso remains sidelined with a calf strain. It will be Laumape's first start since running out against the Sharks five weeks ago, while Halaholo will make his twelfth appearance and fourth start of the campaign.

Form: Since their eight-game winning streak came to an end the Crusaders' form has been a little patchy, winning three of their last five, although that does include last week's 85-26 dismantling of the Melbourne Rebels. After a 35-18 win in their last game against the Hurricanes, the Crusaders will be hunting for back-to-back wins against them for the first time since 2012.

The Hurricanes meanwhile haven't lost a game since Round 11, winning four straight since then. They have also won five of their last seven games against the Crusaders, though none of their wins have come by more than the value of a converted try.

Prediction: Tough to call, but as with last year home advantage might just hold sway for the Crusaders as both sides face a nervous wait to find out where they'll be heading in the quarter-finals. Crusaders by six.

Previous results:

2015: Crusaders won 35-18 in Christchurch
2015: Hurricanes won 29-23 in Wellington
2014: Hurricanes won 16-9 in Wellington
2014: Hurricanes won 29-26 in Christchurch
2013: Crusaders won 25-17 in Christchurch
2013: Hurricanes won 29-28 in Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 23-22 in Christchurch
2012: Crusaders won 42-14 in Wellington

The teams:

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 David Havili, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitch Hunt,23 Kieron Fonotia

Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Willis Halaholo, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Chris Eves, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Reg Goodes 
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Ben May, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Wes Goosen, 23 Jason Woodward

Date: Saturday, July 16
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Wratt (New Zealand)