It may not have been a vintage season for Israel Dagg or the Crusaders, but both will trouble the Highlanders on Saturday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
The All Blacks fullback was forced to sit out the Crusaders' defeat to the Sharks due to a quad strain. His composure and ability to inject himself into the line at just the right time was sorely missed, as was his booming boot.
Just like the former Sharks last line of defence André Joubert, Dagg is the Rolls-Royce of fullbacks on his day, but injuries and his team's lack of form have halted his rhythm this season.
His battle with Ben Smith on Saturday is one for the enthusiast, and could be decisive in seeing who claims the coveted All Blacks No 15 jersey for the Tests against England.
The Highlanders last victory over the Saders came back in 2012 in controversial circumstances. An error on the stadium clock forced the Highlanders to play three more minutes than they'd expected, but they still managed a 27-24 victory. Recent meetings have been far more one-sided, with the Crusaders claiming convincing wins on each of the last three occasions.
The Crusaders have made a number of changes for this one, with Dagg the most notable. His return has seen Tom Taylor move to inside centre while Andy Ellis will once again start at scrumhalf. Coach Todd Blackadder has changed the whole front-row with Wyatt Crockett, Corey Flynn and Owen Franks making way for Tim Perry, Ben Funnell and Nepo Laulala respectively.
The Highlanders will welcome back their own playmaker, as Lima Sopoaga returns after two weeks on the sidelines. Patrick Osborne also makes a return on the left wing, while Ged Robinson takes over at hooker for Liam Coltman, who misses out through injury.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Highlanders 8, Crusaders 16
In Dunedin: Highlanders 5, Crusaders 6
DAGG'S STATS THAT MATTER
41 – The number of kicks he's caught (Rank 7)
115 – The number of carries he's made (Rank 7)
525 – The number of metres he's run (Rank 12)
Source: Vodacom Stats App
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.
Subs: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Owen Franks, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 George Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Adam Whitelock, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Richard Buckman,13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 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.
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images