Preview: Highlanders v Crusaders

Date published: February 20 2015

The Highlanders kick-off their 2015 campaign with unfinished business against the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday.

A late TMO decision denied Jamie Joseph's side victory over their visitors last year as the Crusaders held on and then won in Christchurch.

But meeting so early in 2015 is a massive plus for the Highlanders as the Crusaders are synonymous with starting seasons slowly, with last week's home loss to the Rebels adding weight to that notion. One feels that if the hosts can put in a performance, they should be rewarded.

That is not to say the Crusaders will be pushovers – with any XV containing Richie McCaw, Israel Dagg, Matt Todd, Owen Franks, Ryan Crotty and Wyatt Crockett always a threat – but last week saw plenty of rust after a poor pre-season so the Highlanders might fancy their chances.

The last time these team met: These two collided twice last year and who can forget that game in Dunedin when the Highlanders were denied victory at the death courtesy of a TMO call which still divides opinion to this day. The Crusaders ultimately won that match 32-30 thanks to tries from forwards Jordan Taufua, Tim Perry, Nepo Laulala and wing Nemani Nadolo and backed that result up in the pair's final regular-season fixture, running out comfortable 34-8 winners as Matt Todd, Nadolo and Corey Flynn helped them to secure a home semi-final.

Players to watch: The likes of Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Nasi Manu are devastating strike runners when in top form and if they can shine on Saturday, front-foot ball will be with the hosts. It's hard not to get excited by this Highlanders XV as their back-row is well balanced while the half-backs and new man on the wing, Waisake Naholo, will keep the Crusaders' hands full all game.

Meanwhile, the Crusaders have Colin Slade leading the line from fly-half. He won't let them down and has been in great form in these past six months. Ryan Crotty's return at inside centre will help while the driving maul could see Ben Funnell possibly add to last week's try if the Highlanders do not get their set-piece defence spot on. His hooking battle with Liam Coltman will be a key showdown.

Team news: It is a freshened Highlanders line-up in 2015 as seven players are set to make their debuts. They are props Josh Hohneck and Ross Geldenhuys and right wing Waisake Naholo. The other potential debutants are Ash Dixon, Mark Reddish, Dan Pryor and Marty Banks who are on the replacements bench. Elliot Dixon, John Hardie and Manu form a strong back-row trio in the absence of the injured Shane Christie while Fekitoa and Shaun Treeby look to continue their impressive partnership in midfield this season, as will Lima Sopoaga and Aaron Smith.

The Crusaders are without Dan Carter due to an injury he picked up against the Rebels so Slade is fly-half while Crotty starts in place of Tom Taylor, who moves to the bench. Dagg starts at full-back in one of five changes as prop Crockett and lock Scott Barrett also come in.

Prediction: The drought to finally end for the men from Dunedin as they pounce on the slow starters. Highlanders to sneak this by 3!

Previous results:

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 51-28 in Christchurch
2012: Highlanders won 27-24 in Dunedin

The teams:

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 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Josh Hohneck.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Kane Hames, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Jason Emery, 23 Marty Banks.

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Robbie Fruean, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Johnny McNicholl, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Richie McCaw, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.

Date: Saturday, February 21
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
Television match official: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)