The Crusaders head to Dunedin in one of the best games of Round 2 on Saturday as the Highlanders look to bounce back.
The 2015 champions were far off their usually excellent pace in that home defeat to the Chiefs last weekend, putting them on the back foot right at the start of what is expected to be another tightly contested New Zealand Conference.
Finding their feet against the Crusaders is therefore imperative but the Highlanders will have to do that without their talisman, the All Blacks full-back Ben Smith who is sidelined with a concussion.
So often the player who has led the Highlanders from the front, Smith’s mantle now passes to the likes of new captain Elliot Dixon and the rest of the Highlanders senior players, especially the half-backs Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga.
Looking back on the number of chances wasted by the Highlanders against the Chiefs, that insufficent level of execution is unlikely to be repeated. New head coach Tony Brown will be hoping that early rust has been scrubbed off in training this week.
As for the Crusaders their new era under Scott Robertson started with a hard-fought win, as the Brumbies visited Christchurch and put up more of a fight than expected.
Kieran Read remains absent but the major casualty this week and for the next two months is Richie Mo’unga, the young fly-half who was one of the breakout stars of last season and who is now recovering from hand surgery.
Mitchell Hunt has been handed the chance to replace Mo’unga this week, with Marty McKenzie waiting in reserve, but Robertson is bound to be frustrated at having lost his number one fly-half after the first week, putting a pause on Mo’unga’s half-back partnership with Bryn Hall in the process.
Despite that setback, young guns in Jack Goodhue and Whetu Douglas caught the eye last weekend and Israel Dagg’s move out to the wing allows David Havili to return and consequently to add more experience to a dangerous backline.
Even without Read and Mo’unga, the Crusaders will fancy their chances against a Smith-less Highlanders. There is honestly very little to separate the two teams.
The last time these teams met: A high-scoring thriller ended with the Highlanders coming out on top, defeating the Crusaders 34-26 in Dunedin thanks to braces of tries from Waisake Naholo and Matt Faddes. Liam Squire was the Highlanders’ other scorer as Richie Mo’unga kept the Crusaders in the game with four penalties, but it wasn’t enough.
Players to watch: The unsung hero of the Highlanders’ backline is Rob Thompson but he took centre stage last weekend, producing arguably his best performance for the side as he carried with purpose and always posed a threat to the Chiefs’ defence. The more Thompson cracks the gain-line, the more space and time there is for the rest of the lethal finishers like Tevita Li and Waisake Naholo – the latter who beat 10 defenders in the opening round, more than any other player and his most ever in a Super Rugby fixture. Time to step up again.
For the Crusaders few back-rows work harder than Jordan Taufua, yet to be capped by the All Blacks but so often a constant presence around the breakdown, while contributing often in the lineout and carrying hard with ball in hand. With Read still absent, the onus will be on Taufua to set the tone. Mitchell Hunt’s progress at number ten will also be heavily monitored.
Team news: Richard Buckman will replace Smith at full-back for the Highlanders having returned from the Japan League a few weeks ago with Joe Wheeler. Wheeler will make his first appearance in 2017 from the bench. Siosuia Halanukonuka will start at tighthead with Siate Tokolahi moving to the bench and Patrick Osborne takes Matt Faddes’ place in the 23. Elliot Dixon captains the side.
Crusaders Head Coach Scott Robertson has made eight changes to his side to play the Highlanders in Dunedin. There are two changes in the forwards – the first is at hooker, with Codie Taylor and Ben Funnell rotating so that Taylor takes the starting spot this Saturday. The other change is in the loose forwards, with Matt Todd returning to wear the seven jersey and Jed Brown on the bench. In the backs, Seta Tamanivalu shifts to the left wing, allowing Israel Dagg to move from full-back to the right wing. David Havili steps in at full-back, and Mitchell Hunt will start at fly-half following Richie Mo’unga’s hand injury.
Form: The Highlanders have won their last two games against the Crusaders after losing the six games prior. Never before have the Highlanders won more than two consecutive games against the Crusaders. The Crusaders have won on three of their last four visits to face the Highlanders away from home, though they were handed a 34-26 defeat on their last expedition. The Highlanders have won six of their last seven games when hosting New Zealand teams, though they lost their most recent such fixture to open the 2017 season.
Prediction: Even without Smith, the Highlanders should rediscover their clinical edge and come out with the win in Dunedin. Highlanders by five.
2016: Highlanders won 34-26 in Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 20-25 in Christchurch
2015: Crusaders won 26-20 in Dunedin
2014: Crusaders won 34-8 in Christchurch
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
Highlanders: 15 Richard Buckman, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon (c), 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Adrian Smith, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Patrick Osborne
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 George Bridge
Date: Saturday, March 4
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)