Sonny Bill Williams will be looking to land another damaging blow to his former side's play-off hopes in Christchurch on Friday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
The 29-year-old centre, who made his first strides as a rugby union player with the Crusaders in 2011, was the chief destroyer when the two sides met earlier this season. He grabbed an early try, before laying on another two for his teammates in a display that mixed devastating power with elegant finesse.
It has become a trademark of his and the Chiefs' play this season. However, without his presence in the midfield over the last few weeks, the Chiefs have failed to reach the heights of that early-season performance.
Coach Dave Rennie will welcome back a number of players for this crucial conference clash, all of them among the backs. Williams will return alongside Charlie Ngatai in a revamped midfield, while the elusive Tim Nanai-Williams has recovered from the finger injury he picked up against the Stormers and comes into the side on the right wing, with Tom Marshall switching to fullback.
The Crusaders have also made a number of changes for this one, with All Blacks veterans Richie McCaw and Dan Carter returning to the starting XV. Carter will line up opposite Williams at inside centre, while McCaw replaces Matt Todd at openside flank. Coach Todd Blackadder has also taken the opportunity to rotate his front row, with Wyatt Crockett and Nepo Laulala handed starts ahead of Joe Moody and Owen Franks.
The Chiefs have enjoyed a good recent run against the seven-time champions, winning six of the nine meetings since 2012. The Crusaders come into the match on the back of a disappointing home defeat to the Highlanders, and will be desperate for a result to stay in touch with those above them.
Key to their hopes will be their ability to shut down the space afforded to Williams, and the dangerous runners on his outside. They were unable to do so in Hamilton, as they fell to a 40-16 defeat.
That result was chalked up to the Crusaders' typically sluggish start, but a further setback on Friday will all but end their hopes of securing the conference title and a possible home semi-final.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Crusaders 16 Chiefs 10
In Christchurch: Crusaders 8, Chiefs 3
STATS AND FACTS
– Since the start of 2012, the Chiefs have maintained a 66% win rate against the Crusaders (won six, lost three).
– Eight of the last 10 encounters between the sides have been settled by margins fewer than 10 points.
– Indeed, a losing bonus point has been scored in four of the last six meetings between these sides hosted by the Crusaders.
– The Crusaders have failed to hit double figures in the first half of their last four encounters against the Chiefs and managed no more than 10 second-half points in each of those games too.
– These two sides are the worst disciplined in the competition so far. Only the Chiefs (12.4) have averaged more penalties than the Crusaders (12.3). Both sides have been shown six yellow cards apiece, more than any other team.
– The Crusaders and Chiefs rank last and second last for ruck success rate this season (both 93%).
– The Crusaders are the best side when in possession at scrum time, winning 96% of their feeds and more than any other side.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Crusaders||Dan Carter (60)||Andy Ellis, Jordan Taufua (2)||Israel Dagg (537)||Matt Todd (76)|
|Chiefs||Aaron Cruden (90)||James Lowe (4)||James Lowe (597)||Sam Cane (78)|
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 David Havili, 13 Keiron Fonotia, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Joe Moody 18 Owen Franks, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.
Chiefs – 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam (c), 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Mitchell Graham.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Pauliasi Manu, 19 Michael Fitzgerald, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Bryce Heem.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images