The top two teams in Super Rugby Aotearoa clash in Round five as the Blues travel to Christchurch to take on the might Crusaders. The second game of the weekend sees the Hurricanes host the Highlanders after the Wellington franchise picked up their first win of the competition last time out against the Chiefs.
Crusaders vs. Blues
Saturday, July 11 – Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch
It is two teams with three wins from three here as the Blues and the Crusaders meet in a crunch clash. With no playoffs at the end of this season, whoever wins this one will be in pole position to claim the first-ever Super Rugby Aotearoa crown as their own.
The Blues have made some interesting changes to their team for the trip south. Halfback Sam Nock – one of the stars of their performances so far this campaign – is out of the 23 altogether. This means a start for the lively Finlay Christie and a bench spot for Jonathan Ruru. The other change is one that emphasizes tactical kicking with the Blues bringing in a third playmaker into the No. 12 shirt in the form of Harry Plummer – more known for his work at first-five – in place of the workhorse TJ Faiane.
The Crusaders have also made a surprise change with the electric Will Jordan – arguably the best back in the comp so far – dropping to the bench for this clash. That means that David Havili will keep his place at fullback, while All Blacks George Bridge and Sevu Reece come back into the team on the wing. Their only other change sees Bryn Hall start at halfback over Mitch Drummond.
I really wanted to take the Blues to win this one and that price of 2.70 with BetXChange certainly makes them worth a punt in a game likely to be decided by no more than a try in either direction. The omission of Nock is head-scratching, however, and if you do want to take the Crusaders then do so by a winning margin in the 1-5 (4.50) or 6-10 (4.00) range.
Hurricanes vs. Highlanders
Sunday, July 12 – Sky Stadium, Wellington
The battle for the third-best team in the competition so far – both of these squads have already beaten the hapless Chiefs – will show us which franchise will be best placed to make a run at the Blues and Crusaders over the second half of the season.
The Hurricanes were impressive last week in their win, playing with just 14 men for 25 minutes of the game after Scott Scrafton was sin-binned for a technical lineout offense and then red-carded for failing to get back to his try-line before trying to tackle the quick-thinking Damian McKenzie. It was the return of Jordie Barrett that really sparked the ‘Canes, with the All Blacks utility doing a little bit of everything – including kicking a penalty that would have been good from 70 meters out – in the win.
The Highlanders have played well over the last two weeks without anything to show from it against the Blues and a Crusaders squad that ran up the score late to give the Highlanders a heavier defeat than they really deserved. Losing lock Josh Dickson for the season is a massive blow as he was playing himself into All Blacks contention and earning a reputation as a lineout ace. Expect to see Pari Pari Parkinson pick up his play to cover the loss of the Otago product. The Highlanders are likely to still be without Josh Ioane and Nehe Milner-Skudder, both of whom have yet to make their Aotearoa bow.
This is a difficult game to pick but the Hurricanes have to be playing with more confidence than the Highlanders. The away team has failed to score a try in the final 20 minutes of any of their Aotearoa games, suggesting that their bench depth isn’t where it needs to be compared to the other franchises. I like the Hurricanes to score a couple late here and win by 11-15 (4.50) or 16-20 (6.50).