The Crusaders and Hurricanes will capture the full attention of All Blacks coach Steven Hansen after a plethora of All Blacks candidates were unveiled for their Super Rugby semi-final.
Both Kiwi powerhouse teams are bordering on full strength for Saturday’s match in Christchurch which doubles effectively as a Test trial, with Hansen poised to name his first squad of World Cup year next week.
While there are numerous All Black certainties scattered throughout both sides, several of the rivalries capture attention, not least so at five-eighth.
For the second straight season, there is a train of thought that brilliant Crusaders playmaker Richie Mo’unga is mounting a serious case to win the Test No.10 jersey from Hurricanes star Beauden Barrett, whose skills would be well suited to fullback.
While Hansen is unlikely to consider such a change three months out from a World Cup, the clash of the pivots will take centre stage.
Mo’unga has outplayed Barrett in their recent meetings, usually aided by a more dominant pack, as was the case in last year’s 30-12 semi-final win, a stepping stone to the Crusaders’ ninth title.
The red and black forwards have held sway this season too, winning by more than 15 points in both regular season meetings.
Hurricanes inside centre Ngani Laumape is another with plenty at stake, marking the seasoned Ryan Crotty, as the pair bid for a place in the All Blacks midfield logjam.
Test blindside flank contender Vaea Fifita has surprisingly only made the Hurricanes bench in his return from suspension, with coach John Plumtree preferring Reed Prinsep and Gareth Evans to again partner dynamic loose forward Ardie Savea.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson labelled Savea as the most dangerous player in the opposition ranks.
“Clearly the best player in Super Rugby, he’s a power athlete with his ability to dig deep and you see how many games he’s won for them this year,” Robertson said.
The only Hurricanes starting change from last week’s 35-28 quarter-final win over the Bulls is injured winger Wes Goosen making way for Salesi Rayasi.
Halfback TJ Perenara will make his 127th appearance, moving him ahead of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu as the most capped Hurricanes player.
The Crusaders have ominously made no changes to the 23 who powered to a 38-14 win over the Highlanders, with 12 All Blacks laced through the starting side.
CRUSADERS: David Havili, Sevu Reece, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo’unga, Bryn Hall, Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Sam Whitelock (capt), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Res: Andrew Makalio, George Bower, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Jordan Taufua, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Braydon Ennor.
HURRICANES: Jordie Barrett, Salesi Rayasi, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Ngani Laumape, Ben Lam, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Gareth Evans, Ardie Savea, Reed Prinsep, Isaia Walker-Leawere, James Blackwell, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Dane Coles (capt), Toby Smith. Res: Asafo Aumua, Xavier Numia, Ben May, Kane Leaupepe, Vaea Fifita, Richard Judd, James Marshall, Jonah Lowe.
With fans around the world having risen as one to demand the excommunication of ‘Sweet Caroline’ from the match-day experience, the eclectic music selection at Leichhardt Oval on Friday night featured gems such as the theme from the US quiz show, Jeopardy.