Crusaders hot for Southern derby

Twelve weeks ago Crusaders Wing Seta Tamanivalu sparked one of the greatest winning sequences in Super Rugby history by bursting the Highlanders hearts with a late try.

Official records note the Crusaders beat the Brumbies in the competition's opening weekend, but the reality is the magnificent charge that has led to them equalling the 2002 champion side's effort of 13 straight victories began in that second round fixture in Dunedin on March 4.

Time might heal some wounds but for those south of the Waitaki River, the memory of the Crusaders screaming back from a 21-point deficit to stun the Highlanders 30-27 at Forsyth Barr Stadium must sting.

Now for the re-match, and potential backlash, when the Crusaders host the Highlanders in Christchurch next Saturday afternoon.

"To be back home at AMI Stadium, in front of what looks like it could be a sell-out crowd, it couldn't be better really," Crusaders assistant coach Brad Mooar said. "We can't wait to get into our week to prepare."

That's not a great surprise. Because the Crusaders, having eased past the Rebels 41-19 in Melbourne last Saturday night, are getting ready to lift the dust covers off the heavy artillery for the Highlanders fixture.

All Blacks Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, and possibly Scott Barrett if he has recovered from knee and ankle wounds, can add their might to the tight five.

It is also hoped Matt Todd will have recovered from concussion to play at openside flanker in place of Pete Samu, who injured his ankle against the Rebels.

All Black Ryan Crotty, if he has overcome concussion issues, should pair-up with Jack Goodhue in the midfield.

Which then leaves the question of what to do with Israel Dagg, who, in his first game back from knee surgery, had a quiet outing at AAMI Stadium.

All Black Dagg, who started on the right wing against the Rebels, was unable to contribute to the razzle-dazzle provided by some of his team-mates, and it now remains to be seen whether he starts against the Highlanders.

Yet Mooar said the Crusaders coaching staff were satisfied with what Dagg provided.

"It went absolutely to plan," Mooar said. "He was going to get no more than 60 minutes, so he got through that. Like a horse getting back to group one racing, it will certainly help top him off. Mentally and physically he will be a lot better for it next time."

It seems unlikely 61-test veteran Dagg, who is hoping to qualify for the 33-strong All Blacks squad to play the British and Irish Lions, will start at fullback against the Highlanders because given David Havili's form, it wouldn't make sense to drop a player in such terrific touch.

Highlanders coach Tony Brown, who may call in All Black Lima Sopoaga to start at No 10, is unlikely to have to remind his men of the earlier loss to the Crusaders, which was shrouded in controversy.

Tamanivalu scored with three minutes left as the Highlanders, reduced to 14 men because Malakai Fekitoa had been harshly yellow carded, were exposed in defence.

Following that win the Crusaders unearthed their self-belief, and they are now on the cusp of winning the New Zealand conference.

As the season has progressed the Crusaders have varied their attack, and the tactic of using lock and captain Sam Whitelock down the right-hand edge against the Rebels, he was especially prominent in the first half, was of immense value.

"He looked great out there, like a three-quarter," Mooar confirmed.  "He is enjoying getting the legs rolling, and getting into some space."


Photo: Getty Images (Seta Tamanivalu bursts through the tackle of Lima Sopoaga to score a late try against the Highlanders in Dunedin on March 4, giving the Crusaders a 30-27 victory. With 33 minutes remaining the Crusaders had trailed by 21 points).