Super Rugby 2019: Crusaders vs Highlanders
Venue: Rugby League Park, Christchurch (NZ)
Date: Friday, 21 June 2019
The Highlanders have drawn the short straw in the Super Rugby playoffs as they travel to play the two-time defending champion Crusaders in Christchurch. This has not been a game that has gone well for the Highlanders as of late, with the Crusaders besting their countrymen five of the last six times the two sides have played.
This is the only New Zealand derby in the quarter-final stage this year, with the Chiefs and Hurricanes playing teams from other nations and the Blues (again) not qualifying for the playoffs.
The Crusaders may have won the points competition and finished on top of the ladder again this year, but their form has been a little spotty heading into the playoffs. They have only lost one of their last six games, but they have also only won three, picking up a couple of draws to throw into the mix. The defeat was a 40-22 shocker on the road against the resurgent Chiefs, but their 66-0 thrashing of the Rebels in their last game before the playoffs is an ominous sign for the rest of the Super Rugby teams.
The Highlanders have not been anywhere near the level of the Crusaders this season, but their form coming into this isn’t markedly worse than the Christchurch team. The Highlanders have won two, lost two, and drawn two of their last six games, creating a symmetrical record over that stretch. Their two losses were on a tour of South African and there is a very impressive 32-27 win over Los Jaguares in May to point at as to why they have a shot here.
The last thing that the Highlanders need is to see the Crusaders improving before this game, but given the players they have returning to the fold it is easy to see why they are the favourites for this entire competition at 0.65 to win the whole thing.
The return from injury of both Codie Taylor and Owen Franks means that the Crusaders will be rolling out an All Black tight five to face the Dunedin pack. With Joe Moody also in the front row, this will be the first time all season that the full strength of the Crusaders props and hooker combination will have played together.
The fact that the Crusaders had a bye right before the playoffs almost seems unfair given their talent. They are so healthy, in fact, that the uber-impressive Braydon Ennor can’t even get into the starting XV for this game.
The best news the Highlanders could possibly have got before this game was that Ben Smith is ready to return from a hamstring injury that has kept him on the sidelines since the beginning of May. The All Black fullback is going to need to step onto the pitch 100% ready to go if he is going to lift the Highlanders and give them any chance here.
The best thing for the Highlanders in this battle could really be that as a team they have nothing to lose. They weren’t expecting to be here as they had to watch results fall their way all last weekend, and with Smith coming back into the fold to close out his career with the franchise they can just throw everything at the Crusaders and see what works.
Smith will give the Highlanders an emotional lift, but it won’t be enough to keep him out of France for another week. The Highlanders have lost six of their last seven Super Rugby matches away from home, giving up an average of 33 points per game in those defeats. While Aaron Smith will do what he can to deliver clean ball to the backs, the Crusaders power up front will just be too much for the Highlanders pack to hold out against. The tip here is the Crusaders straight up at 0.15 and for the winning margin to be in the 11-15 (4.75) or 16-20 (5.00) range.