Can Crusader Nail Down Aotearoa Championship Against Highlanders?

The Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa competition could be all wrapped up on Sunday if the Crusaders beats the Highlanders. During the previous game between the two foes the scoreline blew out at the end, however, the Highlanders stuck with the Crusaders for the majority of the game in Dunedin and with the likes of Josh Ioane and Josh McKay back in the mix, it should be another tight battle. 

Orangetheory Stadium is a sell-out and recent history is in favour of the Crusaders who have won their last five completed Super Rugby games on the bounce against the Highlanders, each time by a margin of 20 points or more. But if the Highlanders can spoil the party, the competition will remain well and truly alive.

The scenario is simple for the Crusaders. Win and they claim the Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa title. Lose and there will be everything to play for at Eden Park next weekend. They will be incredibly determined not to lose two in a row at home, but the Highlanders will be equally determined to rain on the Crusaders' parade. They are coming off a pretty disappointing loss to the Blues at home last weekend, so will want to make sure they rebound strongly.

The Highlanders made only one change to their starting lineup who lost 21-32 to the Blues last weekend. Only Jona Nareki come in for Scott Gregory in the starting team. Nareki, a regular starter in the early part of the season, has made a real impact off the bench in the last two outings and been rewarded with the number 11 jersey. The rest of the starting team will get another opportunity to test themselves in what has been the toughest Super Rugby competition in recent years.

On the bench, there is a six/two split with Daniel Lienert-Brown returning along with Teariki Ben-Nicholas and Ngatungane Punivai. 

Head Coach, Aaron Mauger, is looking for an improved performance from his team, “I didn’t feel we did ourselves justice last week as we allowed the Blues to dominate us early and rack up some points. We were better in the back half, but it was too late. Playing the Crusaders, we know we will have to be tuned in from the very start but it’s another great opportunity for our guys to prove themselves against the competition leaders.” 

Highlanders: 1. Ayden Johnstone, 2. Ash Dixon (cc), 3. Jeff Thwaites, 4. Pari Pari Parkinson, 5. Jack Whetton, 6. Shannon Frizell, 7. Dillon Hunt, 8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 9. Aaron Smith (cc), 10. Josh Ioane, 11. Jona Nareki, 12. Patelesio Tomkinson, 13. Michael Collins, 14. Josh McKay, 15. Mitch Hunt. Replacements: 16. Liam Coltman, 17. Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18. Siate Tokolahi, 19. Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20. Jesse Parete, 21. Folau Fakatava, 22. Ngatungane Punivai, 23. Teariki Ben-Nicholas.

The Crusaders has welcomed back several players for their last home game of 2020. Joe Moody returns to the starting side this week, having missed the match in Hamilton due to a family bereavement, while Vice-Captain Whetukamokamo Douglas and Centre Braydon Ennor have come through training this week to make their respective returns from injury. 

Douglas' return at 8 sees Tom Sanders move back to the blindside, and Sione Havili takes a spot in the reserves. The promotion of Quinten Strange to the starting side is the only other change in the forward pack, with Luke Romano providing cover on the bench and Mitch Dunshea rested for this game. 

Ennor's inclusion in the midfield is one of only two changes in the backline, with Bryn Hall and Mitch Drummond rotating so that Hall starts at halfback and Drummond will provide important impact off the bench.

A win against the Highlanders on Sunday means the Crusaders can't be overtaken at the top of the Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa standings table, but Robertson said the team's approach to their final two games will be the same as it has been for every game so far this season.

"We know what a win on Sunday means for us, but we still have two games to prepare for, and they’re going to be incredibly tough," Robertson said. "Our focus over these next two games will be the same as it has been for the last six – all about consistency and putting together performances we can be proud of against the Highlanders and the Blues. 

"We must acknowledge our home fans, so we’ll take some time to connect with them after the game on Sunday and thank them for their immense support this season. It's awesome to have another full house for this game against the Highlanders, and we're determined to make them proud," Robertson said. 

Crusaders: 1. Joe Moody, 2. Codie Taylor (C), 3. Michael Alaalatoa, 4. Samuel Whitelock, 5. Quinten Strange, 6. Tom Sanders, 7. Tom Christie, 8. Whetukamokamo Douglas (VC), 9. Bryn Hall, 10. Richie Mo'unga, 11. George Bridge, 12. Jack Goodhue (VC), 13. Braydon Ennor, 14. Sevu Reece, 15. Will Jordan. Replacements: 16. Andrew Makalio, 17. George Bower, 18. Oliver Jager, 19. Luke Romano, 20. Sione Havili, 21. Mitchell Drummond, 22. Brett Cameron, 23. Leicester Fainga'anuku.

Opta Facts

The Crusaders have won their last five completed Super Rugby games on the bounce against the Highlanders, each time by a margin of 20 points or more.

The Crusaders’ succumbed to a 34-32 defeat to the Hurricanes in their last home game (Rd 7 – Super Rugby Aotearoa) and will be out to avoid back-to-back home losses for the first time since April 2015.

The Highlanders are on the hunt for back-to-back away wins for the first time since April 2018 after snatching a come-from-behind 33-31 win over the Chiefs in their last away game (Rd 6).

The Highlanders (89%) boast the highest lineout success rate on their own throw of any team in Super Rugby Aotearoa, while their 12 lineout wins per game are the second-most of any team (Chiefs – 15 per game).

Will Jordan (Crusaders) has gained 8.2 metres per carry in Super Rugby Aotearoa (74 carries, 606m), the most of any player to have made at least 20 carries this campaign.