The All Blacks-laden Crusaders should be too strong up front for the Highlanders in the quarter-final clash in Christchurch on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Highlanders have averaged 32 points and four tries per game in 2017 (rank five in both departments). They've averaged the most kicks from hand and the best tackle-completion (87%). No other side in the tournament has boasted such a complete and largely effective strategy.
The Highlanders continue to employ a game plan that's similar to that of the All Blacks. They continue to focus on winning the set-piece battles and the collisions, and they continue to kick on opposition teams and play from opposition mistakes.
When opposition teams have managed to meet the Highlanders' challenge up front, the Highlanders have faltered. Indeed, a lot can be read into the fact that the Highlanders' four losses in 2017 have come against the better New Zealand teams (the Crusaders twice, the Chiefs, and the Hurricanes).
The Crusaders have every reason to feel confident ahead of the quarter-final clash in Christchurch. They have won eight of their last 10 games against the Highlanders. They have never lost a playoff match against their south-island rivals.
Scott Robertson has bolstered his side with as many as 10 All Blacks in the wake of the defeat to the Hurricanes. Not much should be read into that loss. The Crusaders went into that clash with a weakened side.
Their performance over the course of the regular season, however, has been anything but weak. They picked up 14 wins and topped the toughest division in the tournament (the New Zealand conference). A 15th win this Saturday would equal the record for the most victories by any team in a single Super Rugby season.
The two sides have differed in approach in the sense that the Highlanders have used the boot liberally. Expect to see Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga and Ben Smith featuring prominently in this facet of the game in the quarter-final. The Highlanders will hope to pressure the Crusaders and punish all mistakes.
But will the Highlanders have the platform to implement their world-class kicking game? It's an important question.
The Crusaders have the scrum to best that of the Highlanders. They also boast the best lineout success rate (92%) and are the only team in the campaign to lose fewer than one lineout per game on average. If they win a lineout deep in Highlanders territory, they may back the forwards to maul. It's a tactic that's yielded many a try this season.
All Blacks skipper Kieran Read should be looking to make a statement. Read didn't feature in the last clash between these teams. He should lend the Crusaders something extra as a ball-carrier and as a great option at the back of the lineout.
Stats and facts
- The Crusaders have won eight of their last 10 games against the Highlanders, including each of their last two on the bounce.
- This will be the first time these teams have met in the playoffs since a 34-23 win for the Crusaders in the 2002 semi-finals; in fact, the Crusaders boast a 100% win rate from three playoff fixtures against the Highlanders overall.
- The Crusaders will again hunt for a 15th win for the season after falling short in the final regular-season round; a win would equal the record for the most wins by any team in a single Super Rugby season (Reds, 2011 & Hurricanes, 2015), a record the Lions could also equal with a win against the Sharks.
- The Crusaders (92%) boast the best lineout success rate of any team so far this season, and are the only team in the campaign to lose fewer than one lineout per game on average.
- Waisake Naholo has scored eight tries in his last four games against the Crusaders, bagging a brace in each of those fixtures.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Richard Buckman, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whiteock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Elliot Dixon, 22 Kayne Hammington, 23 Marty Banks.
Photo: Dianne Manson/Getty Images