Waisake Naholo will be looking for another match-winning performance against the Crusaders in Dunedin on Friday. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
The winger, who fractured his leg in the opening round of Super Rugby, made a triumphant return against the Chiefs last weekend. Naholo scored two tries, and came close to getting his hat-trick in the last play of the game. According to SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats, he made 79 running metres from nine carries, three clean breaks, and forced three turnovers at the breakdown.
'I quite enjoyed getting into those breakdowns,' Naholo said afterwards. 'When I was injured I did a lot of work with the boys who weren't playing on getting it right there.'
Unfortunately for neutrals, Naholo will not face fellow Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo, the Crusaders' most dangerous attacking weapon, who is still serving a suspension for a dangerous tackle. But that shouldn't detract too much from another mouth-watering heavyweight Kiwi clash between two serious title contenders.
The Highlanders made a big statement last weekend when they beat the Chiefs 26-13 in Hamilton. The Chiefs came into the clash as favourites, having won eight of their nine matches to top the Australasian group, while the Highlanders had already lost three matches. Yet the visitors showed why they are champions with a win that was more emphatic that the scoreline suggests.
The Highlanders' kicking game was once again superb, with Aaron Smith's box kicks and Ben Smith's up and unders putting the Chiefs under pressure. Expect more of the same from the Smiths on Saturday.
Since losing their opening match to the Chiefs, the Crusaders have built up a head of steam by winning eight in a row. Their last three victories, against the Jaguares (32-15), Brumbies (40-14) and Reds (38-5) have all been by convincing margins. A win in Dunedin would see Todd Blackadder's side move to the top of the Australasian group log (they are currently level on points with the Chiefs, who have a bye this weekend and have played one game more than the Saders).
Blackadder has made three changes to his starting XV, with tighthead prop Owen Franks, No 4 lock Luke Romano and scrumhalf Andy Ellis coming in. Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph has made just one, giving Joe Wheeler the chance to start his 50th match for the franchise in the second row.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Crusaders 19, Highlanders 9
In Dunedin: Crusaders 8, Highlanders 5
STATS AND FACTS
– The Crusaders have won six of the last seven meetings between the sides, however the Highlanders won the most recent meeting between the two in round nine last season.
– The Crusaders have won seven of their last nine away to the Highlanders, including each of the last three.
– Only the Kings have had less possession than the Highlanders this season (13 minutes, 40 seconds) with the Dunedin-based side putting boot to ball more often than anyone else (27.8 times per game).
– The Crusaders have a first-half points differential of +96 so far this season, the best of any side and more than twice as good as the Highlanders (+45).
– Jone Macilai-Tori was the leading metre maker in round 11, notching up 121m over the gainline for the Crusaders.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (105)||Matt Faddes, Ben Smith (4)||Ben Smith (629)||Shane Christie (96)|
|Crusaders||Richie Mo'unga (96)||Jone Macilai-Tori (5)||Nemani Nadolo (549)||Kieran Read (68)|
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Teihorangi Walden.
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 David Havili, 11 Jone Macilai, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Tim Boys, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Ryan Crotty, 23 Marty McKenzie.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images