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Highlanders ready for Crusaders derby

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The South Island derby: The stage is set for next edition of one of Super Rugby's premier rivalries

The scene will be set for one of Super Rugby’s most eagerly anticipated fixtures in Christchurch on Friday night.

The South Island derby between the Crusaders and Highlanders will enter its 36th chapter at Christchurch Stadium as one of the competition’s fiercest and most genuine rivalries adds to its storied history.

It will be the first clash of 2019 between these two sides, with the atrocities of the Christchurch terrorist attacks preventing the March 16 fixture from taking place in Dunedin, the official result being registered as a 0-0 draw.

Even though it was absolutely the right decision to abandon the clash, it was disappointing to have not gone ahead given the quality of rugby on display whenever the two teams meet at Forsyth Barr Stadium, and the result has gone down as the first-ever draw between the two franchises in 35 outings.

It’s a result neither team would have wanted, and as we approach what’s set to be a feisty encounter in the Garden City, both teams will want to walk away from Friday with bragging rights until next year.

That is, unless, the Highlanders and Crusaders meet again in this year’s play-offs.

For the Crusaders, to reach that stage is the minimum that is expected of them as reining back-to-back champions and current competition leaders.

They’ve dominated proceedings so far in 2019, with that ‘draw’ and an uncharacteristically dull showing in a 20-12 loss to the Waratahs a week after the attacks denting their otherwise unblemished record as they hunt for a third successive title.

The Highlanders, on the other hand, have struggled after their opening two wins against the Chiefs and Reds, and, at this stage of the season, a quest for a play-offs spot would require a big turn in fortunes.

Selection inconsistencies, lapses of concentration defensively and moments of poor on-field execution has hurt them results-wise, with the Dunedin-based club suffering four tight defeats in a row to find themselves in 10th spot with a 2-1-4 record.

The Highlanders have struggled so far this season. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

For a team that has built themselves a reputation in recent years as a side that prides themselves on defence and scintillating, free-flowing rugby, 2019 has proven to be underwhelming.

Last year, they had three of Super Rugby’s four busiest defenders in Dillon Hunt, Luke Whitelock and Tom Franklin, and had made more than 300 extra tackles more than the second-top tackling side in the competition.

Now, their tackle success rate of 82 percent makes the Highlanders the second-worst defensive team in the league, while key players who usually thrive off their innovative, intuitive offensive style of play – such as Waisake Naholo – have struggled to make an impact with ball in hand.

Although their inability to strike as lethally as they have done in the past has cost them games, they are yet to lose by more than seven points this year, illustrating how close they are to resurrecting a much-needed winning streak.

Their run of tight affairs with opposition sides isn’t likely to end this week, as both sides gear up for what is regarded as the most traditional fixture of the year by both camps.

While their last meeting ended in a 45-22 romp in favour of the Crusaders in July last year, recent clashes between Super Rugby’s two southernmost sides have been tense.

A cracking encounter at Forsyth Barr Stadium last March was won 25-17 by the Highlanders as they used the fast, dry track to full advantage, while 2017 brought a hat-trick of victories for the Crusaders.

The first two matches were claimed right at the death thanks to a Seta Tamanivalu try in Dunedin and a Mitch Hunt drop goal in Christchurch, while the third was a gritty 17-0 quarter-final victory played in awful conditions at AMI Stadium.

Mitch Hunt slots the match-winning drop goal in injury time to steal a win for the Crusaders against the Highlanders in 2017. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

The 25-22 loss that Hunt consigned the Highlanders to via his 83rd-minute long range drop goal in June 2017 particularly stung for St Bede’s College product James Lentjes, who is one of many within the Highlanders’ playing squad and coaching staff with strong links to Christchurch.

Despite being born and raised in Canterbury, Lentjes has firmly pledged his allegiance with the Highlanders and Otago since moving south in 2014, which adds a personal touch to these fixtures every year.

“I’ve still got plenty of friends and all my family’s still pretty much up in Christchurch,” Lentjes said to RugbyPass on Wednesday.

“I’ve persuaded most of them to wear blue and gold these days, but it’s just good to get along and play in front of them, and obviously get stuck into a few old mates up the road.”

The same could be said for head coach Aaron Mauger.

A former Christchurch Boys’ High School student, Mauger was also born and grew up in Christchurch before breaking into the Canterbury and Crusaders systems, making 131 combined appearances and winning several NPC and Super Rugby crowns for both teams over a span of eight years.

Despite having close ties with both franchises, Mauger maintained that it is imperative to channel the emotions surrounding the match into a performance worthy of victory.

“It’s massive for us as a club, it is the biggest derby for us because they’re just up the road and there’s a lot of history between the two sides,” he said.

“We’re really controlling the things we can control this week and focusing on performance, first and foremost.

“We know the emotion will come out, certainly in terms of on the field with the players, but also with our fans and everybody involved, [everyone] looks forward to this fixture.”

If the Highlanders need any more inspiration to get their season back on track against their rivals this weekend, then departing captain Ben Smith’s 150th appearance for the franchise should provide it.

The 32-year-old fullback has played in plenty of these South Island derbies since his 2009 debut, and, as the born-and-bred Dunedinite heads into what could be his final clash against the Crusaders, he was in a reflective mood when assessing the importance of the fixture.

Ben Smith has enjoyed plenty of fixtures against the Crusaders over the years. (Photo: Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

“I think the Crusaders games, they’re always highlights,” he told RugbyPass.

“Over the years, we’ve had some really tight games, and I heard Jimmy [James Lentjes] say before the one we just lost against them a couple of years ago where Mitchell Hunt managed to tin us a drop goal from I think it was 50 metres out.

“Well played to him, but that’s just these games.

“Over the years, I just remember some really hard fought games, so I’m sure this Friday will be no different.”

Crusaders v Highlanders all-time record:

Crusaders wins – 23

Highlanders wins – 11

Draws – 1

Head-to-head record in Christchurch – Crusaders 13-3 Highlanders

Biggest Crusaders win – 38-3 in 2007

Biggest Highlanders win – 23-7 in 1999

Play-offs record – Crusaders 4-0 Highlanders

Crusaders: 1. Joe Moody, 2. Andrew Makalio, 3. Michael Alaalatoa, 4. Scott Barrett, 5. Sam Whitelock (c), 6. Whetu Douglas, 7. Matt Todd, 8. Kieran Read, 9. Bryn Hall, 10. Richie Mo’unga, 11. Sevu Reece, 12. Ryan Crotty, 13. Jack Goodhue, 14. Braydon Ennor, 15. David Havili

Reserves: 16. Ben Funnell, 17. Harry Allen, 18. Oliver Jager, 19. Quinten Strange, 20. Jordan Taufua, 21. Mitchell Drummond, 22. Mitch Hunt, 23. Will Jordan

Highlanders: 1. Daniel Lienert-Brown, 2. Liam Coltman, 3. Tyrel Lomax, 4. Pari Pari Parkinson, 5. Tom Franklin, 6. Shannon Frizell, 7. James Lentjes, 8. Luke Whitelock, 9. Kayne Hammington, 10. Josh Ioane, 11. Tevita Li, 12. Tei Walden, 13. Rob Thompson, 14. Matt Faddes, 15. Ben Smith

Reserves: 16. Ash Dixon, 17. Ayden Johnstone, 18. Siate Tokolahi, 19. Josh Dickson, 20. Jackson Hemopo, 21. Folau Fakatava, 22. Bryn Gatland, 23. Sio Tomkinson

Richie Mo’unga on Highlanders clash:

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The South Island derby: The stage is set for next edition of one of Super Rugby's premier rivalries