Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Crusaders seek ruthless edge against Rebels

Israel Dagg of the Crusaders runs after the ball during the round 13 Super Rugby match between the Crusaders and the Waratahs. Photo / Getty Images.
Israel Dagg of the Crusaders runs after the ball during the round 13 Super Rugby match between the Crusaders and the Waratahs. Photo / Getty Images.

The Crusaders were still hurting three days after their defeat to the Chiefs in Fiji, so with every competition point crucial as they eye a playoff spot, the under-strength Rebels should prepare for a hot reception at AMI Stadium tomorrow night despite the forecasted sub-zero temperatures.

Rebels coach Tony McGahan said after his team's big defeat to the Stormers in Melbourne last weekend that he might not have been able to select 23 fit players such was the injury toll. In the end, he has managed to do so, but only three players have retained their starting positions.

He has been able to welcome back veterans Laurie Weeks, Adam Thomson and Colby Fainga'a, plus called in former Blues lock Culum Retallick, but, Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder was in no mood to give any credence to McGahan's tale of injury woe.

"We're going to come out firing regardless of where they're at," Blackadder said.

"I don't buy into any of that. The psychology games won't work with us this week."

The Crusaders' 23-13 defeat in Suva allowed their fierce rivals to overtake them into first place in the New Zealand conference, and maximum points against the Rebels, who began the season well but are now in freefall, will be crucial with only a potentially tough home round-robin match against the Hurricanes remaining for Blackadder's team.

And he didn't deny a bonus point was being openly talked about. His team were loose in the wet conditions in Suva last weekend, and the very cold weather and damp conditions are unlikely to be conducive to the Crusaders' offloading game tomorrow, but, led by lock Sam Whitelock, the skipper in Kieran Read's absence and celebrating his 100th match for the franchise, Blackadder's team will look to put the Rebels in the set-piece vice and squeeze the resistance out of them.

"As we team we're totally focused on what we need to do this week and that's certainly one of our objectives, there's no doubt about that," Blackadder said of a winning bonus point. "We've got to go out there and play and give it everything we've got.

"The next two weeks for everyone are going to be huge, you've got to be on top of your game. It's not about holding back and seeing what happens."

A minor concern for the Crusaders - and All Blacks - is loosehead prop Joe Moody, unavailable for this match and potentially the next couple, due to a shoulder injury which is creating pain in his neck and down an arm. Blackadder said it was likely a "stinger" type injury relating to a compressed nerve.

Blackadder has elected to start Alex Hodgeman at loosehead, keeping All Black Wyatt Crockett on the reserves bench, and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is likely to be keen on frequent updates on Moody ahead of the Rugby Championship given he has become the best performing loosehead in the country.

Centre Ryan Crotty returns from a calf injury suffered in the final test against Wales, and, fresh from his three recent internationals, Crotty will be relied upon to steady a backline which played with too much impatience last time out.

Blackadder said: "We've had three losses this season and that was probably our most disappointing loss of the year. We've lost other games but we've really fronted. We didn't execute at the weekend."

The Rebels, who beat the Crusaders in round one in Christchurch last season, have been warned.

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