Another blockbuster Kiwi derby awaits as the Crusaders and Highlanders go head to head in Dunedin on Saturday.
Another blockbuster Kiwi derby awaits as the Crusaders and Highlanders go head to head in Dunedin on Saturday in the race for top spot in the New Zealand conference.
With just four points separating the top four teams in the New Zealand conference, and the pace-setting Chiefs facing a tough trip to the Hurricanes, the stakes are high in the South Island derby as the Crusaders look to get back on the horse after last week's shock loss to the 14-man Sharks.
Fans in Christchurch are still wondering how the Sharks played for over an hour with a man down and still managed to win 30-25. Indeed, the Crusaders' inability to tactically adapt to playing weakened opposition has damaged the credibility of their title challenge.
Coach Todd Blackadder said this week that his side had to prove against the Highlanders that the setback against the Sharks is not terminal. What is sure is that another loss will leave a serious dent in the confidence of a side that could do no wrong a fortnight ago.
They'll have to do it with Kieran Read – again – as the All Blacks backrower's return from three matches on the sidelines due to concussion has been delayed by a serious bout of 'flu. He is now expected to return next week against the Rebels in Melbourne. They'll also start without their All Black front row as Blackadder has taken the bold step of rotating his heavies. At least Israel Dagg returns at full-back.
Despite sitting fifth overall, and above the Crusaders in the New Zealand conference, it's hard to find anyone who thinks that the Highlanders will be in the mix at play-offs time. If a thumping win over the Sharks wasn't enough to convince the doubters, then victory over the seven-time champions should do the trick.
Last week's nail-biting win over the Hurricanes – their fifth win in six games – means they are now within reach of taking control of the conference if the Chiefs slip up in Wellington and the return of Lima Sopoaga will only fuel their confidence. Malakai Fekitoa has also recovered from his foot sprain, which is excellent news. No player has beaten more defenders (39) this season.
The Highlanders are doing it the hard way though. Their opponents have spend more time in possession per match (18m 01s) than against any other side. Subsequently Jamie Joseph's outfit have made the most tackles of any team in the competition.
Of course there will be an interesting subplot as Dagg and Ben Smith face off in their ongoing battle for the All Black number 15 jersey. Whatever the outcome, the spectators are likely to be the ultimate winners!
Form: The Highlanders have won their last two games, and five of their last six following their 18-16 win over the Hurricanes a week ago. Their only loss in six home games was to the Force in Round 5. The Crusaders' shock loss to the Sharks last week ended a five-game winning run. The men from Christchurch have been excellent on the road though, winning their last five away games.
2013: Crusaders won 40-12 12-40 in Dunedin
2013: Crusaders won 24-8 in Christchurch
2012: Crusaders won 51-18 in Christchurch
2012: Highlanders 27-24 in Dunedin
Prediction: A tough one to call because no one wants to bet against a Crusaders side smarting from an upset, but it's equally difficult to ignore the Highlanders' eye-catching run of results. It'll be close. Highlanders by three.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Sam Anderson-Heather, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Crusaders : 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Tom Taylor, 12 Ryan Crotty (c), 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Owen Franks, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 George Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Adam Whitelock, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.
Date: Saturday, 24 May
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 17.35 local (05.35 GMT, 06.35 BST)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)