Preview: 'Canes v Crusaders
We did not expect both the Hurricanes and Crusaders to be winless heading into this Round 4 meeting at Westpac Stadium, but that is the case on Friday.
Mark Hammett's men are 0 from 2 after falling to the Blues and most recently the Reds, which has dampened the pre-season talk of title outsiders.
Losing All Blacks wing Cory Jane to long-term injury was obviously a blow to the cause but possibly more worrying is the form of last year's star man Andre Taylor. Taylor has been on the field for 160 minutes so far in 2013 and has looked off-colour from the full-back who cut opposition to pieces alongside Julian Savea. While the latter-mentioned finisher is playing strongly, Hammett will be desperate for Taylor to announce himself on the tournament this Friday.
They also need their half-back combination to click. Whether or not it is a case of second-season syndrome remains unclear but TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett have not fired as they would have liked in their first two games. Of course it is a long campaign ahead but there seems to be something lacking.
From one early-season struggler to another.
It will be intriguing to see how the Crusaders respond to that comprehensive defeat at the Blues as they rarely get taught lessons like they did last week. Battles were lost all over the park and Robbie Fruean will be one man licking his wounds after falling to Rene Ranger.
As expected, changes have been made and it was no surprise to see Israel Dagg return to 15 after being at 11. Those nit-pickers amongst us will have noted a defensive lapse for one of Frank Halai's tries but in truth more of the credit should go to the vision of Chris Noakes.
Dagg's return to the back coincides with Super Rugby starting debuts for two of the shining lights in 2012's ITM Cup competition, Johnny McNicholl and Dominic Bird. The former was the top try-scorer in that competition with ten crossings to his name while Bird is a quality lock forward rewarded for a strong replacement performance last week. He comes in for Tom Donnelly in what even he would explain to be a sooner than expected starting spot.
It is worth noting that Bird was touted by Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan as being an ideal arrival but he chose to stay in Canterbury, despite the presence of three All Blacks.
"Those guys [Whitelock, Romano and Donnelly] are going to help me become the best footy player I can be - that's why I'm sticking around," he told Fairfax NZ News about his decision.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that these two youngsters will make a difference to how the Crusaders perform. But will the old heads shine in a key fixture for both sides?
Super head-to-head: Match-ups all over the field excite in the backline with All Black regulars taking on those pushing for their spots. But we look at the battle at lock where Jason Eaton and Jeremy Thrush - two consistently strong performers - clash with Dominic Bird and Sam Whitelock. Should be good.
Prediction: While this is stronger Crusaders side, we feel the 'Canes will sneak it by 5!
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u/Ash Dixon, 17 Ben May, 18 James Broadhurst, 19 Faifili Levave, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 James Marshall, 22 Reynold Lee-Lo.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Tom Marshall, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Johnny McNicholl, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Dominic Bird, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Tom Donnelly, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tom Taylor, 22 Adam Whitelock.
Date: Friday, March 8
Kick-off: 19:35 (06:35 GMT)
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Television match official: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)