All Blacks stars must shine for Saders

The impact of the Crusaders’ returning All Blacks will be a key factor in Friday’s encounter against the Chiefs in Suva, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has wasted no time in drafting seven of his national stars back into the match 23 for this historic clash in Fiji. Captain Kieran Read, Israel Dagg, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor and Wyatt Crockett have all been included in the run-on XV, while Joe Moody will play off the bench.

Although injuries have ruled Luke Romano and Ryan Crotty out of action, Blackadder has clearly identified the need for the Saders to be at full-strength for this top-of-the-conference Kiwi clash.

Read, who has carried a considerable workload for the Crusaders this season and played every minute of the three-Test series against Wales, will particularly need to dig deep for one more big effort.

The Saders hold just a three-point lead over the Chiefs at the top of the New Zealand conference, but another winning result on Friday would quite literally put them in pole position to earn progression to a home quarter-final.

This season the Crusaders have emerged as the side with one of the most well-rounded games, as illustrated by the fact that they’re top of the charts for clean breaks (185), while still remaining as the team that has kicked the second most out of hand (309).

And although the high-flying Chiefs started the season with a flurry, they did lose some momentum prior to the June break, which saw them suffer two defeats in their last three games.

Interestingly, the Chiefs have opted to start veteran flyhalf Stephen Donald at flyhalf for this clash, with Aaron Cruden set to feature off the bench even though he has been declared 100% fit after recovering from a neck injury.

Donald will be asked to execute a more tactical game against the Crusaders, while Cruden will then look to lift the intensity when he comes off the bench for what could be an extended run in the second half.

Although Cruden has been named among the substitutes, coach Dave Rennie has included fellow All Blacks Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick in the starting lineup, and their impact against a powerful Saders pack will also be of utmost importance.

Overall: Crusaders 16, Chiefs 10
This will be the teams' first meeting in Suva

– The Chiefs have won seven of their last nine games against the Crusaders, including each of their last three meetings.
– The Chiefs’ current run of three victories against the Crusaders represents their longest ever winning streak against the Christchurch-based side in Super Rugby.
– Two of the last four clashes between these teams have been won by the team trailing at half-time, including a Chiefs comeback when these teams last met in the opening round of the 2016 season.
– The Crusaders have won only two of their last five games away from home against New Zealand opposition, with both of those victories coming against the Blues.
– The Crusaders have won 10 games so far this season, an 11th win would equal their most ever wins in a regular season of Super Rugby (seven times previously).
Source: Opta
Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Chiefs Damian McKenzie (127) Damian McKenzie (7) Damian McKenzie (966) Sam Cane (144)
Crusaders Richie Mo'unga (142) Jone Macilai-Tori (5), Nemani Nadolo (5), Richie Mo’unga (5) Johnny McNicholl (695) Matt Todd (112)

Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Mitchell Brown, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Sam McNicol.

Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Jone Macilai, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 David Havili, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Sean Wainui.

Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Assistant referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Will Houston (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)

Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

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Craig Lewis