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Preview: Crusaders v Highlanders

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday 11 April at 7.35pm
AMI Stadium (Addington), Christchurch

Played: 27, 1996-2015
Crusaders wins: 19
Highlanders wins: 8

Crusaders points: 795
Highlanders points: 547

Last match: Crusaders 26 Highlanders 20, 21.02.15 in Dunedin


All teams for round 9: http://bit.ly/1a4RR67 

Form: While three losses in seven matches suggest a team struggling to hit full steam, this is the Crusaders we are talking about and the ‘slow start’ was put aside in a surreal manner last weekend.

Posting a half century against a strong Sharks side in Durban with missing men is the sort of victory that we have often seen from the seven-time champions as they begin to move up the gears.

Far from perfect, a full strength Crusaders side is the match of most, but this Highlanders unit is a vastly different proposition to the team the Canterbury based franchise has won six straight against.

The Highlanders last victory against their classic rivals was on March 3, 2012, but one suspects that this current crop of players under Jamie Joseph might be equipped to go most of, if not all of, the way to the final.

One competition point ahead of their foes, the Southerners have won four from six, facing a heady collection of opponents so far, already crossing paths with the Crusaders in round one, as well as the Chiefs, Waratahs, Hurricanes and Stormers.

If the Highlanders can win just their fourth Super Rugby game in Christchurch, successful in 1996, 2008 and 2011 – they will secure fourth spot on the table.

Squad update: There are three changes in the forwards for the Crusaders, with Joe Moody and Owen Franks the starting props this week, and Alex Hodgman and Nepo Laulala providing cover from the bench.

Jimmy Tupou starts at lock this week alongside Sam Whitelock, and Scott Barrett is in the reserves.

Also taking a spot on the bench is Dan Carter, who has returned from paternity leave, while the starting backline remains unchanged.

Highlanders’ Head Coach Jamie Joseph has kept faith with the team that beat the Stormers by naming an unchanged line up for the local derby match against the Crusaders.

Key players: Beneficial for the All Blacks and indicative of the depth and form of the Crusaders currently, the likes of Colin Slade and new centurion Owen Franks have been immense in recent weeks, resulting in over 200 games in the form of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter sitting on the pine.

Prop Franks plays in his 100th Investec Super Rugby match and will want a big game against a Highlanders forward unit that, as usual, boasts some gnarly types who like nothing more than to scrum.

Captain Kieran Reads Harlem Globetrotter style of play, so obvious and glorious to watch but equally nearly impossible to prevent, was on display against the Sharks while Nemani Nadolo and Israel Dagg are beginning to find more holes in their offensive runs than they would in a colander.

One would have to say in the backline at least the Highlanders are the equal, if not slightly ahead, of their rivals in term of the sheer firepower that the visitors possess.

Waisake Naholo has become one of the most dangerous backs in the competition, Malakai Fekitoa, while still honing his game brings impressive physicality to his play while Patrick Osborne has been getting in on the action on the left wing.

While Ben Smith will look to elegantly carve metres off, it will be the Highlanders forwards who will need to withstand an unknown attack from the Crusaders pack.

So far this season their tactics have varied slightly, playing some tight rugby earlier in the season, but now their big men are getting amongst the play out wide, and as the Sharks found out it can have a devastating effect.