Daniel Richardson is a Wellington-based sports journalist for NZME. News Service.

Rugby: Stakes high as top two do battle

Ben Tameifuna will start in the No. 3 jersey. Photo / Christine Cornege
Ben Tameifuna will start in the No. 3 jersey. Photo / Christine Cornege

If the Crusaders are serious about landing the top spot in Super Rugby's New Zealand conference then tonight's game against the Chiefs in Hamilton seems like the prime time to make their move.

The Chiefs lead the conference on 48 points but have played one more game than the Crusaders who are in second place on 42 points.

Todd Blackadder's Crusaders have suffered a mini front-row crisis this week and third-string hooker Codie Taylor will make his first start of the campaign while tighthead prop Owen Franks was scratched yesterday because of a hamstring complaint.

Franks' withdrawal has provided a rare opportunity for Nepo Laulala, brother of former All Black Casey Laulala, and the Samoan-born bookend has played at ITM Cup level for Canterbury for the past two years.

Tonight's pressure-cooker atmosphere will be a big leap in class for Laulala and Taylor but it will give Blackadder an idea of whether or not they have what it takes to foot it at this level.

The Crusaders warmed up for their clash with the Chiefs by beating the Blues 23-3 in Christchurch last weekend, while the Chiefs, who also had injury concerns this week, were made to work for a 17-12 win over the Hurricanes at a damp Cake Tin.

Chiefs tighthead prop Ben Afeaki was ruled out of tonight's game with a calf strain, which gives big Ben Tameifuna a chance to start in the No3 jumper.

Injuries in the backline have wreaked havoc with the Chiefs this year but coach Dave Rennie did have the luxury of being able to name the same midfield this week with Bundee Aki and Charlie Ngatai retaining their places after last Friday's performance.

Ngatai looked dangerous in limited opportunities against the Hurricanes and that attacking prowess may have forced Blackadder's hand who has benched erratic centre Robbie Fruean.

Tom Taylor shifts to second-five, Ryan Crotty to No13 and Israel Dagg returns at fullback.

Tanerau Latimer has held his spot ahead of the returning Sam Cane at openside flanker for the Chiefs after a dynamic performance against the Hurricanes and it was his try that separated the teams.

Last week the Chiefs ground out the type of victory that showed their championship credentials and they will move into the favourite's category if they can stop a determined Crusaders team tonight.

- NZ Herald

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