Preview: Crusaders v Highlanders

Date published: July 11 2014

The Highlanders still have an outside chance to top the New Zealand Conference. But they have to beat the Crusaders.

If results go to plan, the Highlanders have an outside chance to top the New Zealand Conference. But they have to beat the Crusaders.

Let's get the mathematics out of the way to start.

The Crusaders are currently second in a home semi-final spot along with being the best team in New Zealand. They are level however on 46 points with the Sharks, with a points difference of +97 to +89.

Should they defeat the Highlanders with a win or win with a try bonus point, the Sharks will have to match that later on Saturday and beat the Crusaders' points difference to take that second spot. If the Crusaders lose, then they face a nervous wait to see what happens with the Sharks in Cape Town.

The Highlanders can take second spot, but they have to go for broke and hope the Sharks result goes their way.

If the Highlanders on 42 points can defeat the Crusaders with a try bonus point, and deny their hosts a losing bonus point, then will finish on 47 points and move into second.

Should the Sharks then fail to pick up any points at Newlands, then the Highlanders will have the home semi-final and bye week. Not bad a position to be in for a team who most predicted to struggle in 2014, regardless of what happens on Saturday.

If the Highlanders are to pull off what would be the most historical of late raids, it's going to have to happen without Ben Smith.

The talismanic All Black misses his first Super Rugby game since 2012. In the period of time since that absence, he was risen to the top of the global game and become one of the premier full-backs.

Smith is a thrill to watch, gliding around defenders with Messi-esque simplicity while maximising every skill in the sport through dedicated graft.

But he won't be in Christchurch, as he recovers from a leg infection that handed him a stay in a Sydney hospital following last Sunday's defeat to the Waratahs.

Asking the Highlanders therefore to pull off the seemingly impossible without their best player appears a leap too far, even with Aaron Smith dictating the tempo behind a pack that has won respect for it's unforgiving assault on the competition.

Certain elements though are essential though to win in Christchurch. The Highlanders lineout must be a lot stronger, with only an 81 percent success rate compared to the Crusaders' 89.5.

Young lock Tom Franklin has caught the eye over recent weeks in the second row but Saturday will be an acid test for the 23-year-old, coming up against Dominic Bird and Sam Whitelock. Shane Christie has also been excellent on the flank.

Others must reproduce the creativity that normally comes from Ben Smith, putting the onus on namesake Aaron along with Hayden Parker and Shaun Treeby. Malakai Fekitoa has flourished this season but he can't create special moments without enough quality ball and space.

Losing out in the May classic between these two in Dunedin will still sting, particularly considering the controversy regarding Patrick Osborne's non-TMO try. That's inspiration enough with so much at stake.

Topping such a congested New Zealand Conference is some achievement for the Crusaders going into the final round.

By welcoming Dan Carter back into the fold after his sabbatical too, they have a world class operator directing play outside Colin Slade. Over the course of key matches during the next few weeks, the Crusaders will undoubtedly turn to Carter to steer them home. He's a gamechanger.

That said, they've done pretty well without Carter. After two losses to open the season the vibe was that the Crusaders would not be anywhere near challenging for the title come the season's end.

Ten wins have followed in 13 matches, including Round 18's essential if not entirely convincing success over the Blues.

The huge advantage for the Crusaders is that their destiny is in their own hands. Also, forgetting Israel Folau, they have the tournament's deadliest finisher out wide in Nemani Nadolo.

Every week we seem to eulogise about his exploits and with good reason, because the Fijian back is on track to become a major star at next year's Rugby World Cup. His nine tries this season have propelled the Crusaders up the log.

There were times against the Blues when the Crusaders' scrum creaked and that will have been working on the area ahead of the Highlanders arrival, as the back-row continues to operate without Richie McCaw.

Kieran Read's health is of huge importance and he underlined his class with an all-round show of excellence against the Blues last week.

If the set-piece can dominate the Highlanders with Read and Whitelock ruling the skies, then that home semi-final should be delivered.

Form: Victory over the Blues last week saw the Crusaders reach ten wins in 2014, with seven wins coming in their last ten matches. Their points difference of +97 could prove essential. A 28-point defeat for the Highlanders in Sydney last Sunday was a blow but they remain in the wildcard spots. They have won only three of their last seven games.

Previous Results:
2014: Crusaders won 32-30 in Dunedin
2013: Crusaders won 40-12 in Dunedin
2013: Crusaders won 24-8 in Christchurch
2012: Crusaders won 51-18 in Christchurch
2012: Highlanders won 27-24 in Dunedin

Prediction: Even with Ben Smith this would have been a monumental ask of the Highlanders. The Crusaders should win and wrap up the conference, but a bonus point is in doubt. Have you calculator ready. Crusaders by eight.

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl.

Highlanders: 15 Trent Renata, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 JP Koen, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Phil Burleigh.

Date: Saturday, July 12
Venue: AMI Stadium (Addington, Christchurch)
Kickoff: 19:35 (local, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Craig Joubert