The Hurricanes will put the Crusaders out of their misery in Nelson on Saturday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Defeat to the Waratahs in Sydney last weekend left the Crusaders languishing in ninth position on the combined log, seven points behind the sixth-placed Brumbies. While Todd Blackadder's men still have a mathematical chance of getting into that top six, a loss on Saturday would ensure they don't reach the play-offs for the first time since 2001.
In contrast, the Hurricanes are riding high at the top of the log, with 12 wins from 13 matches, and have won all six of their away games. They have also won two of their last three matches in Christchurch, edging the Crusaders 23-22 in 2012 and 29-26 in 2014.
The only thing that could hinder the Hurricanes on Saturday is the fact they have already wrapped up top spot and won't, in theory, have as much to play for as the Crusaders. However, captain Conrad Smith has insisted that his side 'want to keep winning', are 'enjoying the ride we're on' and 'don't want to just stagger into the play-offs'.
The Canes' chances of extending their winning run to six matches increased when Blackadder was forced to select a weakened Saders team, with prop Joe Moody, lock Sam Whitelock, No 8 Kieran Read, flyhalf Colin Slade, midfielder Ryan Crotty and fullback Israel Dagg all ruled out.
All Blacks veterans Richie McCaw and Dan Carter (who will start just his third match at flyhalf this season) need to step up if the hosts are to have any chance of winning, but neither of them has been in the best of form in 2015.
The Canes, meanwhile, have been strengthened by the return of Smith, who was rested last weekend and will resume his successful midfield partnership with Ma'a Nonu. Prop Ben Franks and No 8 Victor Vito will take a bit of a break on the bench, but prop Reggie Goodes and lock James Broadhurst are back in the starting pack.
While stranger things have happened in rugby, it's hard to see how the Hurricanes can lose this one.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Crusaders 16, Hurricanes 9, Draws 3
In Christchurch: Crusaders 10, Hurricanes 4, Draw 1
STATS AND FACTS
– The Hurricanes have won five of their last six games against the Crusaders; however all of these victories have come by a margin of seven or fewer points.
– The Canes remain unbeaten on the road this season, winning all six games and not conceding more than 19 points in any of these matches.
– The Crusaders have averaged more clean breaks per game (11.3) than any other side this season, while the Hurricanes lead the way for defenders beaten (23).
– The Canes (96%) and Saders (92%) rank first and second respectively for scrum success this season.
– The Hurricanes have gained more metres per game than any other side this season (533), while the Crusaders rank second (520).
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Crusaders||Colin Slade (100)||Nemani Nadolo (5)||Nemani Nadolo (729)||Matt Todd (116)|
|Hurricanes||Beauden Barrett (110)||TJ Perenara (8)||Julian Savea (896)||Brad Shields (134)|
Crusaders – 15 Tom Taylor, 14 Nafi Tuitavake, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 David Havili, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Matt Todd, 5 Luke Romano, 4 Jimmy Tupou, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Subs: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Andy Ellis, 22 Kieron Fonotia, 23 Jone Macilai.
Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Otere Black, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Subs: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Ben May, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Victor Vito, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Rey Lee-Lo, 23 Matt Proctor.
Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Kane McBride (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Wratt (New Zealand)
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images