Preview: Crusaders v Highlanders

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Saturday, July 12, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday, July 12, 2014, 19:35pm (NZT)

H2H: Played 25, Crusaders 17, Highlanders 8

Last time: Crusaders 32-30 Highlanders (May 24, 2014)

Squad update: The Crusaders have a settled squad and welcome the return of arguably Investec Super Rugby’s premier lock in Sam Whitelock, which gives the red and blacks 12 past or present internationals in the starting XV.

Dan Carter and Kieran Read continue to make their full return, given another chance at starting after the two senior All Blacks completed their periods of extended leave and concussion recovery respectively of late. Carter especially has been pinpointed as a major threat, indeed many media outlets this week proclaimed he is the only man standing between the Waratahs and NSW’s maiden crown.

The Highlanders were stunned with the news that Ben Smith, who is in the top three for minutes played this season, was ruled out with the mercurial fullback missing his first game since April 2012 for the Southerners. Purists are denied a delicious head-to-head between the inform custodian and his Crusaders counterpart Israel Dagg.

Form: The Crusaders confirmed their position in the top six with a 21-13 shutout of the Blues, the seventh time in history that the red and blacks have registered double figure wins for the regular season (a Super Rugby record). A bonus point victory would go a long way to confirm the seven-time title holders a precious top two position - it would be the first time in six years they have finished in this rare air.

The Highlanders suffered their third loss in four matches losing 44-16 to the impressive Waratahs, but eight wins and ten bonus points (compared to the Crusaders six) has kept Jamie Joseph’s troops in touching distance of the top six. However history isn’t on the visitor’s side, they have lost four straight against Todd Blackadder’s teams and haven’t won in Christchurch since 2008.

Key players: The Crusaders pack will want a big match here, they were able to stop the Blues physical game last week, while many rate their pack, especially with the inclusion of the likes of Whitelock and Read, as perhaps the best in the competition.

In the backline the meeting of Malakai Fekitoa and Nemani Nadolo will be enthralling as both players are by the numbers among the most dangerous attacking players in the competition. The two dreadnoughts are responsible for much of the rear divisions go forward so they will need to make their performances count.

The Highlanders forwards were caught out by the menacing Waratahs pack in Sydney and will want to right some wrongs against their decorated rivals tonight, the second time in a row they have encountered a forward’s unit littered with international players.

Key head to head: Aaron Smith will have plenty of responsibility with a new halves partner in Hayden Parker and the absence of his namesake at fullback. The All Blacks incumbent number nine will meet New Zealand’s most experienced operating halfback in Andy Ellis, and the tempo the two maintain at the ruck could decide this contest.

But Liam Coltman will be need to be a big figure against a pack dripping with Test experience and a Crusaders lineout that has a penchant for disrupting their opposition. With the next tier of All Blacks hooker still to be confirmed, the bearded rake needs a big match in enemy territory to grab the eyes of the national selectors.

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.

Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl.

Highlanders: 15 Trent Renata, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.