Preview: Highlanders v Crusaders

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Saturday, February 21, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday, February 21, 19:35 (NZDT)

H2H: Played 26, Highlanders 8, Crusaders 18

Last time: Crusaders 34 Highlanders 8, 12.07.14 in Christchurch

Squad update: Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph has named seven new Highlanders in his match day squad, with Waisake Naholo and Ross Geldenhuys among the players who will earn their maiden caps for the franchise.

There are a few players unavailable, with forward Shane Christie and the ‘Barracuda’ Richard Buckman out, but both Highlanders co-captains in Ben Smith and Nasi Manu are fully fit and will start on Saturday evening.

The Crusaders have made five changes from the team that was defeated by the Rebels in round one, with All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg one of two selection switches in the backline.

Ryan Crotty comes in for Tom Taylor in the midfield while Dan Carter’s leg injury will see Colin Slade moving from custodian to first five-eighth.

Wyatt Crockett and Scott Barrett receive starts in the tight five, with Codie Taylor, Joe Moody and Nepo Laulala providing plenty of front row cover from the bench.

Form: The Highlanders begin their 2015 campaign after sitting out the first round with a bye, ensuring that preseason injuries to the likes of Christie, Buckman and Pingi Tala’apitagi have been given a little more time to clear.

Coming off a historic year where they reached the Investec Super Rugby Finals Series for the first time since 2002, avoiding the dreaded ‘second season’ malaise will be a high priority.

Meanwhile the Crusaders aren’t in crisis but failure to get on the board will be telling after the Rebels caused the shock of the season so far with their first ever success in Christchurch.

The Melbourne based outfit’s triumph, an injury concern to Carter and lack of impact from All Blacks were a factor in round one, but expect Richie McCaw in co to put in vastly different performances this weekend.

Key Players: Malakai Fekitoa gave the Highlanders and New Zealand Rugby a boost when announcing his resigning this past week, but now with the off field business done, the powerful centre needs to hit the ground running.

Arguably the discovery of the season in 2014, Fekitoa is no longer a hidden diamond – sides will be well rehearsed to his threat with the ball and the inclusion of Crotty is likely to directly combat the Highlanders midfield.

However it will be up to a relatively inexperienced front row of Josh Hohneck, Liam Coltman and Geldenhuys who will need to stand firm if the hosts are to be successful.

Late last season the Highlanders scrum was given a series of torrid examinations by some heavyweight units. Former Test forward Joseph will have been focusing on this area no doubt during the off season.

McCaw may be the totem for the Crusaders, but the inclusion of Crockett alongside international prop Owen Franks will see the red and blacks back their scrum to be an offensive weapon.

Barrett, the younger and bigger brother of Beauden, receives his first Crusaders start in the second row and how the 1.97m, 114kg forward throws his weight around will fascinate with Dominic Bird lurking on the bench.