Preview: Highlanders v Crusaders

28th Jun 2013, 08:10

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Ton up: Hosea Gear

Ton up: Hosea Gear

Saturday's global action begins with the suffering Highlanders hosting wildcard contenders the Crusaders in Dunedin.

Saturday's global action begins with the suffering Highlanders hosting wildcard contenders the Crusaders in Dunedin.

Enduring a season even worse than Super Rugby newcomers the Kings, 2013 will be quickly forgotten about by the Highlanders franchise moving forward.

Two victories out of 13 matches see them rooted to the bottom of the Super Rugby table, although their six losing bonus points have to some extent softened the blow.

So where has it all gone wrong? The Highlanders' attack after all is surprisingly impressive, with their total of 6640 metres made the second highest in the league and nobody has beaten more defenders - 341. The problem has certainly not been their scrum either, which boasts the best success rate in Super Rugby at 96 per cent.

A run of not winning a single match until May - eight games before their 25-22 victory over the Sharks - left the Highlanders firmly in the mire. Narrow losses, 33-34 against the Reds and 18-19 against the Force, have not helped their chances either.

Add into the depressing run of defeats eight yellow cards, two more than any other side, and the Highlanders at times have been their own worst enemy.

Two players though have shone through the dross - Ben Smith and Hosea Gear.

Enjoying a stellar season, Smith was impressive for the All Blacks in their Test series against France and only Charles Piutau has made more metres than Smith's 1189 this year.

Gear on the other hand will play his 100th Super Rugby game against the Crusaders.

Gear made his debut for the Highlanders in 2012 and has had a remarkable run, after making his league debut for the Hurricanes against the Chiefs in 2004. With 36 tries in Super Rugby and 42 tries at provincial level, he has proven himself as one of the best finishers in the game.

"I have seen Hosea develop into one of the best players in the world in his position," said Highlanders' Head Coach Jamie Joseph.

"He is one of the hardest workers both on and off the field. He always brings a professional approach to the Highlanders team environment and is highly respected by all the guys. Our team would like to congratulate him for reaching this remarkable milestone".

The Crusaders on the other hand are in the midst of an indifferent season of their own.

Second in the New Zealand Conference and still in contention for a Wildcard spot, their record of eight wins and five losses is not quite at the standard we expect from the seven-time champions.

Their opening day 34-15 loss to the Blues knocked them firmly on their backs and from then on they have often looked dazed.

Big wins have come over the Bulls, Blues and away from home against the Brumbies, but losses to the Hurricanes, Sharks and Force have been irregular.

Perhaps it is been down to the absence of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, or the misplaced form of Israel Dagg.

Their attack has been respectable, coming up right in the middle of the pack for all key statistics apart from defenders beaten, where their total of 222 is someway off the Highlanders' 341.

In terms of the set-piece, the Crusaders remain a top-five team statistically and their proficiency at the breakdown is shared at the top at 96 per cent.

For whatever reason, the spark and cutting edge that has served them so well has been misplaced. Being so off the boil going forward leaves them open to an upset, as has been the case this season.

Despite his stint leading the All Blacks, the biggest surprise of Todd Blackadder's selection to face the Highlanders is the omission of first-choice number eight Kieran Read.

Read has been named amongst the replacements alongside fellow internationals Wyatt Crockett, Luke Romano and Corey Flynn while there's no place in the matchday squad for All Blacks tighthead prop Owen Franks.

Locks Tom Donnelly and Sam Whitelock make up the second row while the backs have a more familiar look with Tom Taylor moving to inside centre and Ryan Crotty wearing the number 13 jersey while Robbie Fruean is also included on the bench.

Prediction: Eager to secure their wildcard spot, a Crusaders victory appears on the cards in Dunedin. Crusaders by 6.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Fumaki Tanaka, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 Elliot Dixon, 6 Jarrad Hoeata, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Jake Paringatai, 19 TJ Ioane, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Liam Sopoaga, 22 Ma'a Nonu.

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Tom Marshall, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Tom Taylor, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock (c), 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Tom Donnelly, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Luke Romano, 19 Kieran Read, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Robbie Fruean, 22 Adam Whitelock.

Date: Saturday, June 29
Kick-off: 19:35 local (08:35 BST, 07:35 GMT)
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Kane McBride (New Zealand). Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri (New Zealand)
Television match official: Keith Brown (New Zealand)