MARC HINTON -Fairfax Media
It's Super Rugby's game of the year - make no bones about that.
It's fitting then that Richie McCaw returns to his familiar No 7 jersey for the first time this season for the Crusaders' visit to the high-flying Stormers in Cape Town in the early hours of Sunday (NZ time).
The All Blacks and Crusaders skipper made his first start of the year last round at No 8 against the Western Force in Perth, but this week as the stakes rise considerably coach Todd Blackadder has had no hesitation in restoring him to the position from where he does the most damage.
The return from his mid-season All Blacks-prescribed rest of powerful No 8 Kieran Read certainly helps in that decision, with outstanding young openside Matt Todd dropping to the bench for the first time this campaign.
McCaw, who missed the first part of the year with foot problems, will form a heavyweight loose trio alongside Read and in-form blindside George Whitelock.
But the Crusaders are going to need all their pieces operating efficiently to have any chance against a Stormers side which has won eight of its nine games thus far - a home defeat to the Reds in Cape Town the only blip on the graph.
Not only does it pit second (the Stormers) against fourth (Crusaders) on the overall standings, with just two points sepearating them, but it's also a clash between the two teams many believe could be fighting it out for the silverware come July 9.
And if the Crusaders have learned anything over the previous two seasons it's the importance of earning home advantage over the top South African sides. They've lost their last two semifinals to the Bulls in South Africa and Blackadder swore that this year they would move heaven and earth to avoid having to travel at the business end of the competition.
Which is where Sunday's (3.05am kickoff, NZ time) match comes into the equation.
The Stormers are the biggest threats out of South Africa this year and if the seven-time champions are to finish ahead of them on the overall standings, then the result of their head-to-head could have a major bearing on that.
It's why Blackadder has kept changes to a minimum, despite the taxing nature of last weekend's 42-30 victory over the Force.
As well as Read's return and McCaw's positional shift, the only other change sees All Black Owen Franks restored at tighthead prop in place of his crocked brother Ben who is out with a lower back injury.
Andrew Olorenshaw comes on to the bench as prop cover.
Blackadder is expecting a stern test against the South African conference leaders who walloped his men 42-14 in Cape Town last year.
"The Stormers will have a capacity crowd behind them and will want to build momentum against us. They have a very good defence and are smart on attack too so we'll have to be on top of our game," he said.
Blackadder felt discipline would be vital for the Crusaders this week as they faced their toughest test arguably since the opening week visit to the Blues.
"We probably won't get as many opportunities to counter-attack as we did against the Force so we will have to look after possession; plus we can't afford to give away as many penalties," he said.
"I'm confident we can make the adjustments."
The Crusaders are still missing some key men through injury. As well as Ben Franks, All Blacks
Andy Ellis (thumb), Brad Thorn (calf), Dan Carter (hamstring) and Sam Whitelock (ankle) are all on the missing list.
The Stormers warmed up for this contest by thumping the Sharks 32-12 at Newlands last weekend and the match pits the competition's best attack (the Crusaders) against its most rigid defence (the Stormers).
Something's got to give somewhere, and it could be worth the early wakeup call to catch it live on Sunday.
Team @ http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/rugby/super-rugby/4965681/Richie-McCaw-back-for-heavy-duty-clash