QUARTERFINAL PREVIEW: Crusaders v Highlanders

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Thursday, July 20, 2017    Lynn McConnell    Getty Images

Crusaders v Highlanders (Quarter final), AMI Stadium, Christchurch, 22 July 2017, 7.35pm

Players, and coaches, like to discount history whenever they contemplate key games but there's no escaping the fact that in 31 games played between the South Island neighbours, the Crusaders have 21 wins and the Highlanders 10. The Crusaders come into the game on the back of their only loss of the Super Rugby season, to the Hurricanes (22-31) last weekend while the Highlanders before their round 15 loss to the Crusaders (22-25) had been only their own winning streak of nine games. They added to that at the weekend with a 40-17 win over the Reds in Dunedin.

Highlanders coach Tony Brown is leaving nothing to chance. He believes the contest among the two packs will be decisive and with that in mind he has six forwards on the bench for the game. "We just felt we needed some extra firepower up front, especially coming into the back end of the game," he said. "Just having that extra loose forward on the bench could give us an edge." That loose forward is Elliot Dixon who faced a battle to be ready for the game after frustrating Achilles' tendon issues. "We have given him the chance to get fit enough and be ready to go and he has done that. Now he can sit on the bench and hopefully come on at the end," he said. The end will be very much in the Highlanders' minds as that is where they have fallen to the Crusaders in earlier games, as much as Brown would like to think earlier games were irrelevant.

Does a team stacked with All Blacks make a difference in play-offs rugby? That's the question that will be answered in Christchurch. The record book suggests it's not an issue at all, after all, the Crusaders have had All Blacks to burn in their sides since they last won the tournament in 2008 and that hasn't helped. They could also claim that they only missed out in the 2014 final courtesy of a refereeing mistake which gave the Waratahs a late penalty goal. But in Saturday's game blindside flanker Jordan Taufua is the odd man out without an All Blacks jersey to his name in the Crusaders pack, yet he may be the most essential player in the side with his ability to compete in the loose and to make vital metres with the ball in hand. The Highlanders, by comparison, took on the talent-laden Waratahs and Hurricanes en route to the 2015 finals where they tasted success with a team well down on international players. It all comes down to attitude and with their record away from home, the Highlanders may be down on All Blacks, but they are not without chances.


Crusaders: 1.Joe Moody, 2.Codie Taylor, 3.Owen Franks, 4.Scott Barrett, 5.Sam Whitelock (captain), 6.Jordan Taufua, 7.Matt Todd, 8.Kieran Read, 9.Bryn Hall, 10.Richie Mo'unga, 11.Seta Tamanivalu, 12.Ryan Crotty, 13.Jack Goodhue, 14.Israel Dagg, 15.David Havili.

Substitutes: 16.Ben Funnell, 17.Wyatt Crockett, 18.Michael Alaalatoa, 19.Luke Romano, 20.Pete Samu, 21.Mitchell Drummond, 22.Mitchell Hunt, 23.George Bridge.

Highlanders: 1.Daniel Lienert-Brown, 2.Liam Coltman, 3.Siate Tokolahi, 4.Jackson Hemopo, 5.Tom Franklin, 6.Liam Squire, 7.James Lentjes, 8.Luke Whitelock, 9.Aaron Smith, 10.Lima Sopoaga, 11.Richard Buckman, 12.Rob Thompson, 13.Malakai Fekitoa, 14.Waisake Naholo, 15.Ben Smith (captain).

Substitutes: 16.Ash Dixon, 17.Aki Seiuli, 18.Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19.Alex Ainley, 20.Gareth Evans, 21.Elliot Dixon, 22.Kayne Hammington, 23.Marty Banks.