Preview: Blues v Crusaders
What a difference a year makes. The Blues will enter this clash with the Crusaders full of confidence and looking to back up their win in Wellington.
Pre-season was clearly profitable at the Auckland outfit and the hurt of 2012 seems to have galvanised this young team that has bags full of potential. Case in point being how well Francis Saili, Steven Luatua, Frank Halai and Charles Piutau performed against the 'Canes. Ben Lam is also on their books.
It's fair to say the Hurricanes were shell-shocked by the Blues and now Sir Graham Henry and Sir John Kirwan crave a follow up effort in this big one.
"As games go, this is just under a Test match. Blues versus Crusaders is the game of the season so you've got to be ready for it because it should be. For us it's like a local derby," said head coach Kirwan at a Wednesday team announcement that unsurprisingly saw no changes made to his starting side.
Unlike last year, their senior players also seem to have taken responsibility as we saw a lean and hungry (excuse the pun) Piri Weepu in great form. Meanwhile, Rene Ranger was asked to lead the three-quarter line and while there were a couple of errors it was a solid effort in a youthful line-up.
But as one respected former player once said and the Blues are surely drilling into their mindset, "let's not fall in love with ourselves just yet".
The Crusaders will be their next assignment and unlike last year they have Dan Carter from the outset. He will meet the underrated Chris Noakes at 10.
Of course there is no Richie McCaw this season but in a growing list of high class opensides seemingly sprouting from trees down in Australasia, Matt Todd is a capable replacement to the great man. Todd will be looking to push Sam Cane all the way in the battle for McCaw's coveted All Black jersey.
The here and now though is all about Friday at Eden Park as youth takes on experience in what should be a cracking spectacle that could go either way.
Super head-to-head: The midfield battle promises much as Francis Saili and Rene Ranger go up against Ryan Crotty and Robbie Fruean. Saili was outstanding against the Hurricanes last week and meets the consistent Crotty in the 12 channel. Further out, Ranger gambled in defence on a couple of occasions and if he does that again, Fruean will make him pay. Match-ups all over the field excite, notably the Frank Halai versus Israel Dagg scrap.
Prediction: Will the Crusaders be underdone? Maybe a touch but we think the visitors to sneak it by 3!
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 (c), 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 (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Samuel 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.
Date: Friday, March 1
Venue: Eden Park
Kick-off: 19.30 (06:30 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jonathon White (New Zealand), Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri (New Zealand)
Television match official: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)