Preview: Crusaders v Rebels

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Thursday, February 12, 2015    Getty Images

Friday, February 13, 2015, 19:35 KO (NZDT)

H2H: Played 3, Crusaders 2, Rebels 1

Last time: Crusaders 25 Rebels 19, 14.03.14 in Melbourne

Squad update: The Rebels have picked a strong side with two Wallabies and new Melbourne based players in their midst, with Mike Harris and Dom Shipperley poised to earn their maiden caps for the club.

Further debutants and former Biarritz forward Ben Whittaker and Sefanaia Naivalu (the first Dewar Shield player to be promoted into the Rebels ranks) are on the bench.

Nic Stirzaker and Jack Debreczeniu, the halves pairing from the Melbourne Rising who won the minor premiership in the National Rugby Championship in Australia, continue their successful partnership.

Former All Black Tamati Ellison will reunite with Mitch Inman, with the duo impressing for the Rebels during the 2014 Investec Super Rugby season.

The Crusaders meanwhile have decided to roll out the heavy artillery for this one, naming All Blacks Captain Richie McCaw at blindside flanker, with the captaincy and number seven jersey remaining in the hands of Matt Todd.

Joe Moody and Ben Funnell are the only other changes in the team.

The back division will see Tom Taylor and Kieron Fonotia maintain their growing relationship in the midfield, with Daniel Carter set to play his second straight match of the year. Robbie Fruean and Colin Slade remain at 14 and 15 respectively.

Form: The Rebels come into this fixture brimming with confidence after a 25-24 come from behind victory against the Highlanders, their first preseason match at a Victorian club rugby ground.

This ensured that the Melbourne based side enters the regular season two-from-two, having defeated the Reds 28-13 in Cairns.

The seven-time champions will be quick to point out that preseason form counts for little, after all, they are still to win a match in 2015 after three warmups; beaten by the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Reds.

This is nothing new to a team that traditionally seems to take a while to get warmed up, but coach Todd Blackadder has pinpointed this as an area the Crusaders need to amend – mid to late season catch ups are a lot of work.

Key players: The Rebels have just three players with over 40 Investec Super Rugby matches worth of experience, but so far this season this youthful and green outfit has looked vibrant and alert – clearly coach Tony McGahan has primed his charges to be frothing at the mouth.

With just Tom Kingston unavailable, the Melbourne based outfit had a full squad to choose from, and the makeup of their back row will be critical.

Rising flanker Sean McMahon, Colby Fainga’a and Wallabies enforcer Scott Higginbotham will rate their abilities against a back row containing one of rugby’s benchmarks.

McCaw, according to his coach, has never been fitter so it will be interesting to see how the national skipper approaches his first major outing of a big year.

Yet the presence of Todd and Luke Whitelock alongside the mercurial seven might not be key, but how a strong tight five that hasn’t imposed themselves so far in 2015.

Moody, Funnell, Owen Franks, Dominic Bird and Luke Romano will want to catch the attention of the Crusaders selectors considering the additional firepower up front the side will call upon later in the season.