Preview: Highlanders v Crusaders

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Friday, May 23, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday, May 23, 2014, 17:35pm (NZT)

Head to head: Played 24, Highlanders 8, Crusaders 16

Last match: Highlanders 12-40 Crusaders (June 29, 2013)

Squad update: This is the time of the season where a team needs a steady hand on the tiller, and the return of Lima Sopoaga is timely, even though he has been ably backed up by Hayden Parker. Blockbusting centre and likely All Blacks squad member Malakai Fekitoa will take his place in the side after he was spotted ‘limping’ around in a moonboot. Liam Coltman is the only notable absence up front for a pack doing their business in impressive fashion.

The Crusaders have reacted swiftly after a damaging loss to the Sharks, changing their entire front row, part of a total of six changes to the team. The seven-time champion’s first loss in six fixtures isn’t terminal, but back-to-back losses for the first time since the opening season won’t help their cause.

Form: The Highlanders fairy tale continues, second in the New Zealand Conference at the commencement of Round 15, with five wins in their last six games – including the heady scalps of the Sharks and Hurricanes in their own backyards. Victory against their great rivals will move them closer to their first final’s appearance since 2002.

The Crusaders head coach Todd Blackadder said that the defeat against Jake White’s men was likely an anomaly, and their recent record, including a win in Hamilton, a 20-point triumph over the Brumbies and two matches where the red and blacks cracked 50, suggest that the team has enough form and class to get back into the winner’s circle.

Key Players: The two Smiths in Ben and Aaron have been crucial to the Highlanders cause, but the Southerners pack is doing the jersey proud, with Chris King and Nasi Manu colossuses up front. The form of tyros like Malakai Fekitoa and Richard Buckman ensures that Jamie Joseph’s team is no one-dimensional outfit.

The Crusaders were not able to rely on their typical work from their All Blacks against the Sharks, and the likes of Richie McCaw – not to mention the new inclusions of Israel Dagg and Andy Ellis – will need to make sizable contributions if a 13th straight Super Ruby Finals Series is to be reached.

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.