Preview: Crusaders v Blues
A whopping seventeen members of the recently named All Blacks training squad are involved in Saturday's clash between the Crusaders and Blues.
It has been a joy to watch the youngsters coming through the ranks in Auckland this year and it is a credit to the age grade levels and ITM Cup that players such as Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua and Francis Saili have arguably been the stand-outs from the New Zealand franchises in 2013.
In contrast, established men such as Crusaders full-back Israel Dagg finds himself on the bench for a second successive week while wing Zac Guildford, nine Andy Ellis, centre Robbie Fruean and hooker Corey Flynn look to prove they are not over the hill internationally. Flynn was arguably the most unlucky to miss the recent squad cut.
Dagg's jersey again goes to Tom Taylor, whose form and versatility saw him named by Steve Hansen, perhaps the most surprising inclusion.
International matters will be shunted to one side on Saturday though, as the Blues know that four points on the Crusaders would put welcome breathing space between the duo. Of course a loss for the Chiefs (still unknown at the time of writing) would help the Blues a lot.
Winning at AMI Stadium is no mean feat, however, and the way the Blues leaked points against the Rebels would have worried boss Sir John Kirwan. Leading 24-5 on 27 minutes they then conceded 27 points in the rest of the contest, the majority through flimsy defence.
The Crusaders are known for their physical yet fluid approach and they may follow the Rebels' lead, with Dan Carter pulling the strings. Kieran Read's return is a positive and it will be interesting to view if the aforementioned duo's restart relationship causes problems.
The Blues also have an experienced head back in their forward pack though as Keven Mealamu continues his cautious return from injury. They will need Mealamu at his best as form is not with the Aucklanders - it's been nine years since they last won in Christchurch.
"For me it's a Test match and that's how it should be. I can't wait, I'm really excited and the players are excited too," brimmed Kirwan before kick-off.
"We're underdogs, going down there with everything against us - it doesn't get any better than that."
Indeed it doesn't as this All Black trial, if you will, sees the older heads of the Crusaders face the next generation coming from Auckland in what should be a hugely-interesting clash.
Super head-to-head: Expect sparks to fly when Robbie Fruean and Rene Ranger collide at centre. Elsewhere and the battle between George Whitelock and Steven Luatua - while it won't be in the spotlight - will have a big say in where the result goes.
Prediction: As much as the Blues are a threat with ball in hand, home field advantage and their ability to be streetwise when it matters should see the Crusaders win this one by 5!
Crusaders: 15 Tom Taylor, 14 Tom Marshall, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Dominic Bird, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Adam Whitelock, 22 Israel Dagg.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (c), 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Francis Saili.
Date: Saturday, May 18
Kick-off: 19:35 local (09:35 BST, 08:35 GMT)
Venue: AMI Stadium. Christchurch
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
Television match official: Keith Brown (New Zealand)