Matt Todd is a fine replacement for Richie McCaw and should help the Crusaders clinch the New Zealand conference title this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Highlanders have everything to play for, as a win will hand them the Kiwi conference trophy and the right to host a qualifying play-off. This result would serve the Sharks, as the Durban side would then require a straight win against the Stormers in order to surpass the Crusaders on the Vodacom Super Rugby log. The upshot of this is that the Sharks would enjoy a bye next week, and would only host a semi-final in Durban the week thereafter.
The optimists in South Africa will point to the injury-enforced absence of the Crusaders captain and mark it as significant. McCaw brings much to that Crusaders side in terms of leadership and breakdown presence. He is exactly the kind of player and leader that the Crusaders would have wanted available for such an important fixture.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, the absence of McCaw won't be terminal to the Crusaders' cause. They are playing this match in Christchurch, and while McCaw won't feature, veteran All Blacks Kieran Read and Dan Carter will lead by example.
And the man selected to replace McCaw will have a key role to play. The result of a Kiwi derby is so often shaped by the breakdown battle, and I expect the man wearing the Crusaders No 7 jersey will receive the majority of the plaudits in the aftermath.
Todd will have the benefit of playing behind a dominant tight five. The Crusaders should boss the collisions, and from there, it will be down to Todd to win possession on the ground.
The Crusaders have the decision-makers in the backline to make turnovers count. There are a few dangerous players among the Highlanders backs, but they may struggle to make an impact if their forwards are losing the set piece and breakdown contests.
The Highlanders will miss Ben Smith, who has been ruled out of this encounter with injury. Smith has been in sublime form this season, for the Highlanders as well as the All Blacks, and the Dunedin side will be a less potent unit without him.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: 25, Crusaders 17, Highlanders 8.
In Christchurch: Crusaders 10, Highlanders 3.
TODD'S STATS THAT MATTER
12 – The number of turnovers he has won in 2014 (Rank 16)
696 – The number of minutes he has played in 2014 (Rank 178)
Source: Vodacom Rugby Stats App
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl.
Highlanders – 15 Trent Renata, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 JP Koen, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images