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Matt Todd key to Crusaders off the bench
Richard Kelly
February 20, 2014
Matt Todd seems likely to make a big impact off the bench ©

The Chiefs and the Crusaders, New Zealand's two semi-finalists from the 2013 Super Rugby campaign, clash in the country's season-opening blockbuster. The sides were hard to separate in their three individual encounters, and the Crusaders held the edge in a number of key facets even though the Chiefs won the semi-final by one point. We showcase the stats from their three tight meetings last year to illustrate the trends that catch the eye.

The Crusaders have a significant edge over the Chiefs given their 2013 head-to-head stats © Getty Images

The Crusaders seemingly showed a much greater respect for possession than did their Hamilton rivals, as shown in the table to the right. They spent much longer in possession over the course of the three games, and this allowed them to pierce the Chiefs' line to score points. Despite averaging more than three minutes longer in possession per game, they turned the ball over less often - and by a significant margin.

Their control of the ball at the lineout was also much better; although they were outperformed at the scrum, they still managed to protect their possession better overall. A superior goal-kicking rate was also in the favour of Kieran Read's men, but the Chiefs nevertheless have the better lasting memories of their clashes in 2013.

The Crusaders were the best side in the competition last year when it came to the number of turnovers conceded, and the Chiefs will be aiming to match their southern rivals' composure with ball in hand to compete in this game. The Chiefs averaged the least time in possession of any side last season (14m 1s) and the Crusaders the most (17m 25s); both those stats are marginally down on their head-to-head numbers, but still they show this clash could again be a matter of measured pressure versus dangerous counter-attacking play.

Despite a tendency to surrender control of the ball, the Chiefs have plenty of firepower and expect their average gain per carry to be healthy. They averaged more tries and points per game than any other side last season, proving the lion's share of possession is not imperative so long as quick ball is supplied - something the All Blacks have also proven in recent seasons.

We have also take a look at the performances of the two sets of back-row forwards over the entire 2013 campaign, as this will be a key area of the fixture in Christchurch. The Chiefs are missing Sam Cane and Tanerau Latimer through injury, giving Tevita Koloamatangi his debut in the No.7 jumper; the rookie loose forward's performance against the star-studded Crusaders side, particularly his head-to-head with Richie McCaw will be key in the fixture.

The back-row will be a key battleground in Canterbury © Opta Stats

Greg Growden and Russell Barwick preview the weekend's Super Rugby action

In Liam Messam, the Chiefs have one of the best ball-carrying forwards in world rugby (fifth-most defenders beaten by a forward in 2013) ans also a hard-working defender (third-most tackles in 2013). But the stats table above shows what the Chiefs are missing in Latimer and Cane. Latimer is a disciplined and effective player who hardly puts a foot wrong, conceding just three turnovers in 965 minutes of rugby last year, and his absence could be key.

The Crusaders are blessed with players who know their way across the line, particularly in the back-row., but their squad is also full of strength and power in defence. Last season, Matt Todd was the second-top tackling player in Super Rugby overall, and we expect him to contest loose balls and force turnovers with his aggressive defence as a replacement. Certainly his introduction off the bench, when it happens, is likely to offset the metres and influence lost in the absence of Kieran Read.

This early-season clash of New Zealand's super-heavyweights is sure to kick-start the tournament, and it may set the tone for the fortunes of both clubs as they look to stamp their authority on the 2014 edition of the competition. As ESPN columnist Greg Growden suggests, this is "an early guide to who will be New Zealand king-dog".

Follow @OptaJonny, the official Twitter page for Opta's coverage of rugby union and rugby league, and @OptaJason, the official Twitter page for Opta Sports' coverage of sport in Australia and New Zealand.

The top ESPNfootytips Super Rugby tipster at the end of the home and away season wins $A2000, with the runner-up claiming $A1000. We also have a pair of Gold Class movie tickets for each weekly winner.

Best of all you and a mate could be heading off to Game II of the Bledisloe Cup series between the Wallabies and the All Blacks in Auckland. The prize includes flight, accommodation, transfers and match tickets. Simply enter your tips WEEKLY to make another entry in the competition.

© Opta Stats for ESPNscrum

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