It's the battle of the titans at Eden Park
Round Three of this year’s Super Rugby tournament will kick-off with one of the most anticipated clashes of the season when the Blues host the Crusaders in Auckland on Friday.
This battle of the titans is the greatest New Zealand derby period and one of the most storied rivalries in Super Rugby history.
The aura surrounding the clash is legendary; a showdown of epic proportions, which intensity is eclipsed only by that of Test rugby.
It’s the match Blues and Crusaders players and coaches look forward to the more than any other and on Friday, this rich rivalry between two of the three most successful Super Rugby franchises in history will be renewed at Eden Park.
Based on the legendary battles these teams have had in the past, their encounter will be a tough act to follow. That task has fallen on the Waratahs and Melbourne Rebels, with the Australian rivals set to lock horns in Sydney.
The final fixture on Friday will see the Hurricanes travel to Brisbane to face the Reds in an intriguing cross-Conference contest.
Quintin van Jaarsveld looks at Friday’s matches!
Blues v Crusaders
(Eden Park, Auckland - kick-off; 19.30; 06.30 GMT)
The Crusaders could not have drawn a tougher opening assignment to their 2013 crusade.
Rather unique circumstances will see them make their way to Auckland as the only team yet to take to the paddock after two rounds of competition following the all-Australian opening round and last week’s bye.
The Blues blew the Hurricanes out of the water in Wellington last week, and you have to believe circumstances (possible rustiness on the part of the visitors and playing at home) favour them going into this heavyweight New Zealand Conference clash.
The 30-24 win would have instilled a great deal of confidence in the Blues, who were expected to be also-rans this season following the axing of Pat Lam and exodus of key players last year.
Pragmatic new coach John Kirwan has ensured his charges keep their feet firmly on the ground in the wake of their impressive away triumph and a fully fit squad gives the Blues the added luxury of continuity, with Kirwan naming an unchanged side.
Piri Weepu was superb in his 100th Super Rugby match and Blues debut last week and will once again be a key player behind a pack that could struggle for consistent front foot ball against an all-All Black Crusaders front five.
The visitors will be without Richie McCaw, but they will have Dan Carter to call on to pull the strings at flyhalf. The All Black pivot’s game management, coupled with a direct, power-driven gameplan could be a recipe for success at Eden Park.
Prediction: However tempting it may be to go with the pedigree of the seven-time champion Crusaders, the Blues should seize the moment and edge a Crusaders side making their first appearance of the season - on the road to boot - by two points.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (captain), 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tom McCartney.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Angus Ta'avao, 18 Liaki Moli, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Bryn Hall, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Jackson Willison.
Crusaders: 15 Tom Taylor, 14 Adam Whitelock, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Israel Dagg, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 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 Tyler Bleyendaal, 22 Tom Marshall.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jonathon White (New Zealand), Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Waratahs v Melbourne Rebels
(Allianz Stadium, Sydney - kick-off; 19.25; 08.25 GMT)
A hint of desperation will linger in the air at Allianz Stadium as the Waratahs aim to register their first win of the season and the Rebels look to bounce back from last week's loss.
The Waratahs succumbed 17-25 away to arch rivals the Reds in their season opener last week, while the Rebels suffered a defeat at the hands of the Brumbies, after beating the Western Force in the opening round.
A second loss on Friday will seriously damage the Rebels’ Australian Conference hopes just three rounds into the tournament, and the loss of captain Gareth Delve to injury only compounds their early season woes.
The Waratahs are on a nine-match losing skid and for the Dave Dennis-led, Michael Cheika-coached side, this is a perfect opportunity to break the shackles and usher in a new era.
They have the pack as well as a backline with a renewed appetite for playing a positive, attacking brand of rugby to not only end their losing run but do so in spectacular fashion.
Having conceded seven tries, the most by any team at this early juncture, the Rebels will have their work cut out for them if they offer space to the likes of Israel Folau, Drew Mitchell and Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Prediction: The Weary Dunlop Shield will stay in Sydney as the Waratahs will have too much firepower across the park and could pull away in the final quarter. We’re backing the Waratahs by 15 points.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Tom Kingston, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Tom Carter, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Brendan McKibbin, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis (captain), 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Mitchell Chapman, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Sitaleki Timani, 20 Lopeti Timani, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Ben Volavola.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 James O'Connor (captain), 14 Lachlan Mitchell, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Richard Kingi, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Luke Jones, 5 Cadeyrn Neville, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Jordy Reid, 19 Jarrod Saffy, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 Angus Roberts, 22 Tom English.
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
Assistant referees: James Leckie (Australia), Ed Martin (Australia)
TMO: Matt Goddard (Australia)
Reds v Hurricanes
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - kick-off; 20.20 10.20 GMT)
The Reds were knocked off their perch last season after their 2011 title-winning campaign and while their reputation suffered and several holes in their game were exposed, one constant has remained.
For all their unpredictability, the Reds remain a tough nut to crack at Suncorp Stadium. Their two matches this season highlighted this fact, as a first-round away loss to the Brumbies was followed by a home win over the ‘Tahs at the weekend.
Their remarkable home record stands at 22 wins from their past 25 games, and after the events of last weekend (the aforementioned victory over the Waratahs and the Hurricanes’ home loss to the Blues), the Reds hold a significant edge over their visitors in terms of momentum and belief.
The Hurricanes, in turn, will draw inspiration from their stellar recent record against the Reds, having won nine of their past 10 meetings, with the Reds’ last victory dating back to 2007.
With all-action Aidan Toua selected at fullback ahead of Mike Harris, Quade Cooper will have the added responsibility of kicking at goal, and his head-to-head battle with Hurricanes Beauden Barrett will be vital.
Prediction: The Hurricanes’ recent record against the Reds shows they can’t be written off, but the Reds are at their best at home and should make it two-from-two with a six-point win.
Reds: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Ben Lucas, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Eddie Quirk, 5 Ed O'Donoghue, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper (captain), 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Greg Holmes.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Albert Anae, 18 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 19 Radike Samo, 20 Nick Frisby, 21 Mike Harris, 22 Luke Morahan.
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Conrad Smith (captain), 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Brad Shields, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Victor Vito, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu’u, 17 Reggie Goodes, 18 James Broadhurst, 19 Faifili Levave, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 James Marshall, 22 Reynold Lee-Lo.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Andrew Lees (Australia), Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
TMO: Steve Leszczynski (Australia)