Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Battle lines drawn for epic encounter

Kirwan steels his team to intensity of the contest as Crusaders are ready to deliver payback on home turf, and in their weather

The Crusaders lost some of their pride after being beaten by the Blues in round 3.  Photo / Getty Images
The Crusaders lost some of their pride after being beaten by the Blues in round 3. Photo / Getty Images

Flight time Auckland to Christchurch: about 1 hour 20 minutes.

Difference in recent rugby pedigree: light years.

It's been nine years since the Blues travelled south and beat the Crusaders in their backyard. In that time the Crusaders have claimed three Super rugby titles, finished runners-up twice and lost four semifinals.

The Blues' blotchy record has been two semifinal defeats in 2007 and 2011.

The north-south rivalry built on provincial lines, and now franchise selection, remains, but the superiority has tilted regularly towards blokes in the red and black jerseys.

It's been 30 years since a teenage John Kirwan felt that sting and grasped what it all meant. His first lesson was harsh but defining, and now as the Blues coach he is trying to recreate that burn with his 2013 class.

Back in his debut season, Kirwan turned out in Auckland's 31-9 defeat at Lancaster Park.

He put a foot into touch when he thought he had scored and received a great sledge from one of his buddies and later best man, Craig Green.

"He said 'nice try loser' and continued to call me that for a couple of years until we got the Shield two years later," Kirwan recalled. "It was my first sort of test match experience.

"This year the Blues are learning about the intensity of this rugby and the rivalry we have with Canterbury and the Crusaders. Most of them get it and have been competing better.

"It's our responsibility to recreate the rivalry for this to be an epic encounter so the result should be in the balance."

Talk to rival coach Todd Blackadder about the match and you can picture him smiling down the phone.

He has a pack of test forwards, he has a weather forecast which is closing in to favour that crew and he knows where the Blues' problems have been this campaign.

"We'll be ready," is his pithy reply.

The Crusaders lost the opening duel and some of their pride when the Blues smacked them 34-15 at Eden Park. They've been relishing this chance for revenge.

All Black selection is also looming; this is time for the rugby credentials to be evaluated properly.

Similar thoughts have flooded the Blues this week.

If they are going to make the playoffs and be recognised as a strong team as the weather works its way through winter, they have to adapt to different styles of rugby.

All the top sides have a choice of game plans.

The Blues' preference, clearly, is to punch gaps in the game where their lively strike runners can be most effective. They have a stack of them and Blackadder's warm acknowledgment settles on Rene Ranger's work.

He wonders if there is any centre who contributes as much on defence, at the breakdown and with his strikepower, as Ranger.

How the Blues would love the weather to alter as drastically as it did for the New Zealand cricket team on the opening day of the Lord's test.

That is unlikely, so the Blues have been working on balancing that wish with more pragmatic ideas about wet-weather rugby.

They will need to, because this match will be decided by the most switched-on combination.

Duelling duos

Tim Perry v Owen Franks

The former Rakaia farmer making his way into big-time rugby against the Raging Bull who looks like he's about to snort into form and plenty of scrum work tonight.

Chris Noakes v Dan Carter

Noakes has been a great director for the Blues, troubled on defence but an organisational force they have been missing. Carter has been lurking, showing glimpses of his class, steeling himself for a rails run.

Rene Ranger v Robbie Fruean

Two massive men in midfield and a nightmare for defenders. When it comes to that side of the game and work rate, Ranger is a rung above and developing while Fruean has a few technical gremlins.

Crusaders v Blues

Christchurch, 7.35 tonight, AMI Stadium

Crusaders: Tom Taylor, Tom Marshall, Robbie Fruean, Ryan Crotty, Zac Guildford, Dan Carter, Andy Ellis, Kieran Read (c), Matt Todd, George Whitelock, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett
Reserves: Ben Funnell, Joe Moody, Dominic Bird, Willi Heinz, Adam Whitelock, Israel Dagg.

Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Rene Ranger, Jackson Willison, George Moala, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (c), Culum Retallick, Angus Ta'avao, Keven Mealamu, Tim Perry
Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Sam Prattley, Anthony Boric, Brendon O'Connor, Jamison Gibson-Park, Baden Kerr, Francis Saili.

- NZ Herald

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