Beware the Highlanders

Having had the Hurricanes burst their unbeaten bubble in a 31-22 Cake Tin thriller, the Crusaders will be wary hosting the dangerous Highlanders in Saturday night’s Super Rugby quarter-final.

While they will rejoice in having their All Blacks front row of Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks return, they will be mindful of a Highlanders backline attack that has been sharpened by the return of Ben Smith following his inner ear problem.

Winning a championship that always escaped popular predecessor Todd Blackadder would cap a great season for new Crusaders head coach Scott “Razor” Robertson who has given the team a superior 15-man game plan.

They will also welcome back from injury Ryan Crotty, probably at second-five, to allow David Hafili to return to fullback and shunt Israel Dagg to right wing where he had performed for the All Blacks over the past two seasons.

While Dagg remains a class act, Hafili has been a more dangerous attacker from fullback than he has as a midfield back where Crotty and young Jack Goodhew have quickly formed a smart combination.

With Beauden Barrett returning to the Hurricanes the defending champions should have too much pace and class for the Brumbies in their Canberra clash.

A big mover in recent weeks has been Hurricane Sam Lousi who has formed a more than useful locking combination with hard working Mark Abbott.

With No 8 Brad Shield anchoring a scrum that has lively Ardie Savea and Callum Gibbons as tearaway flankers, the Hurricanes’ forwards deserve more kudos than they have received.

However with Beauden and Jordie Barrett the stars in what is virtually an All Blacks backline, praise for their backs is understandable, especially with Jordie and Ngani Laumape making their debuts as All Blacks this season.

Like Beauden, fullback Jordie is a versatile player who has shown he can play both midfield positions and even slotted into first five late in the Hurricanes thrilling draw result against the British and Irish Lions.

But no one in the championship makes more stunning breaks and covers more metres that mercurial Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie who, alongside Beauden Barrett, is the most exhilarating attacker in the game.

Admittedly McKenzie’s daring deeds do result in him losing possession at times when he isolates himself from support, but the rewards in try assists heavily outweigh the risks.

Long term, however, his best position looks to be first-five to which he will probably return when Aaron Cruden joins Chiefs team-mates Tawera Kerr-Barlow, James Lowe and coach Dave Rennie in leaving the NZ scene for abroad at season’s end.

Meanwhile the Chiefs will be hoping to recover quickly from their trip to Cape Town where they should account for a Stormers side guaranteed of strong home support.

If they accomplish that, it will be a long journey back to NZ to face the winner of the Crusaders versus Highlanders clash, just as it will be for the Hurricanes on their way to Johannesburg to face a rampant Lions side that should feast on Sharks this Sunday.

Meanwhile, having beaten the British and Irish Lions, the Blues hit rock bottom with a thud upon losing 48-21 to a Sunwolves outfit that the Johannesburg-based Lions had thrashed 94-7.

Talk about a case of pride coming before a fall.

  •  Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author