Preview: Crusaders v Highlanders

Date published: April 10 2015

The Crusaders will be looking for their seventh successive victory over the Highlanders when the pair face off in Christchurch on Saturday.

In fact, the last time the Dunedin side won at this venue was back in 2008, with their recent visits seeing them lose 34-8, 24-8 and 51-18. And in only their second away game of the 2015 season, it will be interesting to see how the Highlanders perform away from their home patch.

Both teams were in great form in their most recent fixtures, with attacking brilliance proving too much for their respective South African opponents. But, with the so-called 'eight-pointers' of derby fixtures now on the agenda, one wonders whether they may tighten up slightly.

The Highlanders are currently one point ahead of the Crusaders in the standings and have a game in hand as the pace-setting Hurricanes and Chiefs have a week off. Therefore, both know this game is key and one feels a loss for the hosts would seriously hit their play-off chances.

Should Todd Blackadder's side need any further motivation to close the gap on the aforementioned duo whilst overtaking the Highlanders, the Crusaders will be led out by tighthead prop Owen Franks in what will be his 100th appearance for the franchise at the still young age of 27.

The last time these team met: The Crusaders continued their impressive run of form against the Highlanders, winning 26-20 in Dunedin. A try from Aaron Smith put the home side in front but the Crusaders then took a stranglehold on the game thanks to Scott Barrett and Johnny McNicholl's first-half scores. Malakai Fekitoa's effort and the boot of Lima Sopoaga meant the Highlanders at least got a losing bonus point.

Players to watch: The battle for New Zealand's full-back jersey continues this Saturday as an in-form Israel Dagg takes on Ben Smith. Dagg seems to have kicked on in his recent showings and made his scoot around Sharks lock Mouritz Botha for a try look easy. Smith meanwhile rarely has an average game so it should be another fascinating battle between these two All Blacks. One player who could be wearing that coveted jersey sooner rather than later is Jordan Taufua, with this another huge chance to push himself into the squad.

Team news: Dan Carter and Richie McCaw are on bench duty for the Crusaders, who name an unchanged backline for this home game. Colin Slade continues at fly-half while in the pack there's three changes as props Joe Moody and Owen Franks replace Alex Hodgman and Nepo Laulala and Jimmy Tupou starts in the second-row alongside Sam Whitelock. Luke Romano gets the week off so Scott Barrett comes into the matchday 23.

It's no surprise that Highlanders coach Joseph has named an unchanged line-up after their demolition job on the Stormers. Therefore, hooker Ash Dixon keeps his place ahead of Liam Coltman while one of the finds of the season so far, Waisake Naholo, looks to add to his try tally.

Form: The Crusaders enter on the back of a three triumphs from four against South African opponents, their most recent victory coming against the Sharks in Durban where they ran away with the result. They appear to be hitting gear after a slow start and that is ideal timing for a run of derbies against the Highlanders, Chiefs, Blues and Hurricanes, which could well decide who will top the New Zealand conference.

The Highlanders might not have wanted that bye week when it came as they were excellent against the Stormers in Round 7, dictating the pace of the game very well indeed. That result was much-needed after a home defeat to the Hurricanes so like the Crusaders, they enter confident.

Prediction: Could the hosts be weary post tour against a fresh Highlanders XV? Maybe, but not enough to lose. Crusaders by 3!

Previous results:

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

The teams:

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 David Havili, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Jimmy Tupou, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Richie McCaw, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Dan Carter, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Pingi Tala’apitaga, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.

Date: Saturday, April 11
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT, 17:35 AEDT, 09:35 SAST)
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant referees: Kane McBride, Shane McDermott
Television match official: Glenn Newman