Tensions rising ahead of Chiefs-Crusaders clash
OPINION: Tension? You bet.
There have been no foul-mouthed rants or door panels kicked apart but there is a sense that a slight current of hostility separates the Crusaders and Chiefs forwards ahead of tonight's match at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton.
Hints have been dropped, eyebrows arched and retorts repeated.
The usually cautious Kieran Read presented an insight when he explained Crusaders props Ben and Owen Franks had burned this date into their hard drives some time ago – since the 24-19 loss to the Chiefs in Napier on March 9 to be exact.
Given the outcome and the way the Crusaders scrum was splintered you would think the brothers Franks would have wiped that event from their memories. Not so.
Not just their pride was pricked; they also had to listen to the Chiefs forwards hoot and holler each time they sent them careening back into the Napier mud.
During Wednesday's training the Crusaders embarked on an aggressive opposed session at Rugby Park. At this time of the season teams sometimes taper off to preserve their bodies and prevent unforseen training injuries.
With 14 Super rounds gone and 10 squad members involved in the All Blacks' three-test series against Ireland last month, Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder will have been wary of needlessly pummelling his men.
But how to give them an edge as they attempt to remain in title contention was another part of the puzzle.
So Blackadder urged his squad to get stuck-in during a full-on contact period at training, with the "live" scrums continuing well after the backs had peeled off to do their drills.
Meanwhile, up in Hamilton, it is obvious the Chiefs have had their radars tuned to the warblings from down south.
By naming Sona Taumalolo, Mahonri Schwalger and Ben Tameifuna, coach Dave Rennie has selected the same front row from the Napier triumph.
And he knows the Crusaders pack will be counting down the minutes until the first scrum.
"There have been a fair few comments made in the media, I guess, about [the scrum] and we are pretty comfortable with the group we have chosen," Rennie said.
No 8 Alex Bradley, who replaces the injured Kane Thompson, also chipped in: "They have put in a lot of talk in there about this game and in the media and that. And I am expecting a fast-paced game – physical. We are prepared for that and are going to give it back to them."
The Crusaders will also enter this match in unusual circumstances.
Rarely have they been ranked underdogs against the Chiefs. Even with Kieran Read, Dan Carter and Israel Dagg back from injury they go into this as the outsiders with the bookies.
The Chiefs have only lost once at home under new coach Rennie this season, against the Highlanders in the opening round, and have a 12-2 record compared to the Crusaders' 9-5.
No8 Read and first five-eighth Carter could be the difference between the Crusaders leaving Hamilton as a side that still controls their own destiny or leaving it in the hands of others.
Tonight's forecast is for clear but cool conditions. The temperature at Waikato Stadium could increase considerably when referee Steve Walsh calls game-on at 7.35pm.
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