Preview: Highlanders v Crusaders

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The Crusaders will be hoping to retain their eight-match winning streak when they face an inspired Highlanders side in Dunedin on Saturday.

Jamie Joseph's men are sitting four points adrift of joint leaders, the Crusaders and the Chiefs, on the New Zealand Conference table with their opponents this week having played one game less.

The seven-time champions, who have won six from the last seven matches between these two New Zealand powerhouse franchises, are unbeaten since their opening round 27-21 loss to the outfit from Hamilton.

A win for the home side will not only boost team morale but will definitely improve their chances of making the play-offs.

Both sides are known for spreading the ball wide, with the likes of Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith and Patrick Osborne for the Highlanders fully capable of rounding off brilliant moves.

Evasive runners like Israel Dagg, Johnny McNicholl and Jone Macilai for the visitors, can be counted on to keep the Highlanders defence busy.

World Cup winning All Black Naholo returned to the fray for the home side last week after being sidelined due to injury for an extended period of time. And he was instrumental in his side's well deserved 26-13 win over the 2013 champions in Hamilton. 

Apart from the two tries that were added next to his name, the powerful winger got his hands dirty on defence by winning three vital turnovers and putting in some of his trademark big hits.

It seems like both sides will have to contain their opponents' Fijian-born speedsters, Macilai and Naholo not only break tackles on a regular basis but are both equally safe on defence.

Macilai beat defenders with ease against a tough Chiefs side, the winger ensured that his side got the most out of his high work-rate and disciplined defending.

The Highlanders will have to keep ball in hand if they want to stand any chance of coming out on top against their ball hunting opponents. 

There's only side, the Kings, that has seen less of the ball than the Dunedin outfit and the home side will have to minimise their average of 28 kicks per game in a bid to starve the Crusaders from any possession.

Todd Blackadder's men have on average scored two more (five) tries than their hosts, this compounded by the Highlanders poor defensive record of missing an average of 21 tackles – seven more than the Crusaders (14) – per game so far this season could spell serious trouble for the defending champions if this number isn't kept to a minimum.

Both sides score and concede the majority of their tries in the first three phases of attack and defence respectively.

The Crusaders will once again rely on their fine form at the lineout and scrum to shift the momentum in their favour, this might just give them the edge to outsmart their opponents.

The last time the teams met: The Crusaders won the opening fixture last year in Christchurch but it was the Highlanders who got the better of Blackadder's men after trailing 14-3 at one point. Three unanswered tries which included a brace from powerhouse winger Waisake Naholo allowed the Dunedin side to avenge their 26-20 defeat in the opening weeks of last year's competition, which they would go on to eventually win.

Players to watch: Returning after a lengthy injury lay-off, the elusive speedster Waisake Naholo has certainly made a huge impact for the Highlanders. The World Cup winner was not only in his impressive tackling breaking form but the Fijian-born also got over the whitewash on two occassions last week so enters in top gear.

Naholo's opposite number, fellow Fijian-born Jone Macilai will want to continue his try-scoring form. The 25-year-old flyer got on the score-sheet three times, as the seven-time champions thumped the Reds 38-5 by outscoring the Australians by six tries to one. Every time the Northland player got ball in hand he rounded defenders with his elusive side-step. The winger gained a mammoth 121 metres, the most by any player in Round 11, from his 12 carries in which he also beat five defenders and made six clean breaks for his hat-trick. 

Team news: Highlanders head coach Jamie Joseph has made just one change to his starting XV for Friday's clash with the Crusaders in Dunedin. Joe Wheeler returns at lock in his 50th match for the club after debuting in 2013 against the Chiefs. 

Tom Franklin moves to the bench and the hard running Liam Squire comes into the reserves after recovering from his hip injury received against the Brumbies. Loosehead prop, Craig Millar, comes back into the matchday 23 for his Otago team-mate, Aki Seiuli.

Continuity in the backs sees the midfield pairing of Malakai Fekitoa and Matt Faddes starting for the second week running and the exciting back three of Ben Smith, Pat Osborne and Waisake Naholo also getting the nod.

Meanwhile, Crusaders boss Todd Blackadder has made three changes to his starting line-up for Friday’s derby. Owen Franks starts at tighthead prop while Luke Romano will partner Sam Whitelock in the second-row.

At scrum-half, Andy Ellis returns to the starting line-up in place of Mitchell Drummond who, along with Mike Alaalatoa and Scott Barrett, joins a replacements bench that will offer plenty of impact when the chance arises for them.

Form: The defending champions got off to a rather disappointing start after an opening round defeat to Tana Umaga's Blues in Auckland. They are currently in third position in the New Zealand Conference table, five points adrift of joint leaders, the Crusaders and Chiefs. The Highlanders' three losses came against the Sharks, Chiefs and a shocking 28-27 defeat against the struggling Reds in Round Six.

Table topping Crusaders have been enjoying some brilliant early-season form. The seven-time champions are currently on a eight-match winning streak with three – the Chiefs, the Sharks in Durban and an away 20-19 win over the Force – of these all being by seven points or less.

Prediction: The Highlanders might have been impressive against two-time champions last week, but the Crusaders will keep their winning streak intact and beat their hosts by less than 10 points.

Previous results:

2015: Highlanders won 20-25 in Christchurch
2015: Crusaders won 26-20 in Dunedin
2014: Crusaders won 34-8 in Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 32-30 in Dunedin
2013: Crusaders won 40-12 in Dunedin
2013: Crusaders won 24-8 in Christchurch
2012: Crusaders won 51-18 in Christchurch
2012: Highlanders won 24-27 in Dunedin
2011: Highlanders won 18-26 in Nelson
2011: Crusaders won 44-13 in Dunedin

The teams:

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 
Replacements: 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
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Tim Boys, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Ryan Crotty, 23 Marty McKenzie

Date: Friday, May 13
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant Referees: Jamie Nutbrown, Kane McBride
TMO: Aaron Paterson