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Prepare for niggle as Crusaders and Hurricanes battle for final spot - 'Something is bound to boil over'


There is always an extra edge when the Crusaders and Hurricanes lock horns. With so much at stake, something is bound to boil over.

Ardie Savea of the Hurricanes makes a break against the Crusaders. Source: Photosport

Prepare for niggle. Saturday night's Crusaders versus Hurricanes semi-final match-up offers something for everyone.

In the yellow corner, we have the 2016 champs, off their game for about half the competition but rediscovering their mojo in the nick of time. In the red corner, we have the defending champs, primed and seemingly in top form on the hunt for a ninth title.

The Hurricanes' 32-31 win over the Chiefs in the quarter-final was, frankly, a flattering scoreline to the vanquished.

But it did get niggly, though typically punch-less in the packs, and Liam Messam, in particular, was hot under the collar on more than one occasion. We don't know exactly what went on in the rucks, but we do know the Hurricanes were far more direct, aggressive and accurate than on recent form.

Men such as Michael Fatialofa, Ricky Riccitelli and the unheralded Gareth Evans were especially effective. Evans, in particular, with several breakdown pilfers, has stepped into Ardie Savea's shoes with admirable vigour.

The Hurricanes have not always been the most disciplined team, but they can hardly be classified as dirty. However, expect them to stand their ground against the All Blacks-laden Crusaders pack, which can call on three All Blacks looseheads, three All Blacks locks, and three All Blacks loosies, if you count Jordan Taufua.

That collision battle will be decisive, and the Hurricanes will be into it boots and all, anxious not make the farewell for Brad Shields, Julian Savea and Fatialofa this weekend.

Historically, of course, there is just something about Canterbury-Wellington or Crusaders-Hurricanes clashes. In my lifetime, think of the 1982 Shield challenge when Wayne Smith just kept running for glory on that blindside try, or the 2000 NPC final when Jonah Lomu reminded Marika Vunibaka who was boss, or the 2001 Shield epic when Steve Walsh did not endear himself to capital fans.

In Super Rugby guise, the Crusaders have tended to bring out fire and brimstone from the Canes. Or maybe that was just Richie McCaw, so infuriating a pest at the ruck that Neemia Tialata, a mild-mannered man, trued to garrotte the openside. Jerry Collins just threw the ball at his All Blacks mate's head on another occasion.

The Hurricanes pack has always fought for credit and recognition, when most of the plaudits are freely sprinkled among the backs. Despite the absence of Dane Coles all season and latterly Ardie Savea, they have stayed strong, if not always dominant. Jeff Toomaga-Allen will be champing at the bit to make the case that he is the No 3 tighthead in the country.

Joe Moody, if he plays, will seek to prove that he is not.

So watch the set-piece and the forward exchanges closely. Much of the talk will be all about Richie Mo'unga versus Beauden Barrett but, ultimately, this semifinal will be swayed by the winners of the lower numbers battle.