An Eden Park epic looms as pressure mounts

RICHARD KNOWLER
Last updated 05:00 28/02/2014
Kieran Read
Fairfax NZ
FIRST START: Kieran Read will be making his first appearance of the season for the Crusaders tonight.

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Kieran Read is one man who could deliver the sledgehammer blow that fractures the Blues' resolve tonight.

Missing from the Crusaders last week because he was still being "integrated" back into the squad, captain and No 8 Read, the IRB player of the year, is undoubtedly snorting for action ahead of this Super Rugby cracker at Eden Park.

Read won't just be wanting to prove the summer months haven't doused his competitive fire.

He, too, was just as frustrated as the 17,000 fans who saw the Chiefs upset the Crusaders 18-10 last weekend and knows nothing reduces a team's anxiety levels more than their first win.

"There's a bit of pressure going untested into the game but you have just got to live with that and go for it," Read said in reference to not playing any pre-season games.

"We did a lot of things really well and hopefully there are a couple of key areas we can fix. I'm confident I can go 80 [minutes], I feel really good. I'm happy to do that."

The mood around the Crusaders camp this week has been reasonably upbeat because the framework of their game against the Chiefs was sound after they dominated the set pieces, possession and territory.

But Eden Park could prove a tinderbox. The Blues are also feeling the heat from disgruntled supporters following the unexpected 29-21 defeat to the Highlanders and coach John Kirwan's dithering around selections.

It's unfair, and probably impractical, to expect Read to be primed so early but the Crusaders need him to display the form that saw him crowned the world's top player.

The 28-year-old's ability to unleash bone-creaking defensive collisions or splinter the line as a ball runner was sorely missed last weekend; clean breaks were too rare and dreadful execution too common as a mountain of possession was recklessly squandered.

If the Crusaders spew up such turnovers again they face being exploited by Charles Piutau, Frank Halai and George Moala. Substitute Benji Marshall is another capable of carving up.

"They have got some big ball carriers and obviously their backs are pretty outstanding, so that's probably going to be the key from our point of view," Read added.

The Blues haven't won a match since downing the Rebels on May 11 last year - that's seven consecutive defeats - and will draw on the Crusaders' recent scratchy record at Eden Park to boost their morale.

Last year the Crusaders were walloped 34-15 as the Blues exposed their contracting defence and lack of numbers around the ball in the wide rucks.

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The previous year the Crusaders scraped home 19-18 when a Israel Dagg finger tip connected with a late Piri Weepu drop goal. In 2011 the Blues won 24-22.

It's difficult to understand John Kirwan's rationale when selecting his first five-eighths, especially when he ran Marshall there in the pre-season games and has since traded Chris Noakes for the newcomer Simon Hickey.

The Crusaders, however, would do well not to smirk at any frailties, perceived or otherwise.

- The Press

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