PREVIEW: Crusaders v Blues

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Thursday, March 16, 2017    Lynn McConnell    Getty Images

The Crusaders have three wins from three outings, albeit with two of them achieved in the last moment of games. They have made something of an art form of the slow start and fast recovery. The Blues made a fast start to the season, although the Rebels who they beat 56-18 have been shown to be weak, even by Australian standards, but have struggled to achieve continuity in their game in the two losses to the Chiefs (26-41) and the Highlanders (12-16).

After a poor showing against the Highlanders in Auckland, the Blues need a much more constructive lineout, hence the inclusion of Jerome Kaino at No8, Jimmy Tupou moving to the blindside flank and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti coming in to partner Patrick Tuipulotu at lock. That suggests firepower at least. But they will need it against one of the world's top performers in Sam Whitelock and one of the world's up and comers in Scott Barrett. Chuck in the immensely impressive Whetu Douglas and this looks like to be a fascinating area of conflict.

The pressure in defence that has been the result of the Blues' problems, especially against the Chiefs and Highlanders has meant the immense potential seen from flanker Blake Gibson last season before injury restricted his time is yet to blossom. He hasn't shirked his defensive requirements by an stretch, but he hasn't had the opportunities to run with ball in hand, something that makes him a potent weapon. It's not only the Blues backs who can be dangerous on the break, Gibson offers power in the pack, if his side can just secure enough ball, and to hold onto it, to build pressure on opponents.

Central to both sides will be the performances of their halfbacks. Former Blues half Bryn Hall has been given the start for his new side the Crusaders, this after scoring two tries against the Reds last week. Warming the position in his old side is Augustine Pulu, who was explosive against the Rebels but who hasn't had the same chances since. His reputation has been seized upon by opposition sides and the gaps haven't appeared. Both players are vital for their sides and this contest shapes as another important area in the game.

Crusaders: 1.Joe Moody, 2.Codie Taylor, 3.Owen Franks, 4.Scott Barrett, 5.Sam Whitelock (captain), 6.Jordan Taufua, 7.Jed Brown, 8.Whetu Douglas, 9.Bryn Hall, 10.Mitchell Hunt, 11.George Bridge, 12.Ryan Crotty, 13.Jack Goodhue, 14.Manasa Mataele, 15.David Havili.

Substitutes: 16.Ben Funnell, 17.Wyatt Crockett, 18.Michael Alaalatoa, 19.Luke Romano, 20.Pete Samu, 21.Mitchell Drummond, 22.Marty McKenzie, 23.Sean Wainui.

Blues: 1.Pauliasi Manu, 2.James Parsons (captain), 3.Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 4.Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 5.Patrick Tuipulotu, 6.Jimmy Tupou, 7.Blake Gibson, 8.Jerome Kaino, 9.Augustine Pulu, 10.Piers Francis, 11.Melani Nanai, 12.George Moala, 13.Rieko Ioane, 14.Matt Duffie, 15.Michael Collins.

Substitutes: 16.Matt Moulds, 17.Sam Prattley, 18.Sione Mafileo, 19.Akira Ioane, 20.Murphy Taramai, 21.Billy Guyton, 22.Ihaia West, 23.TJ Faiane.